The Real Kings of Dodger Stadium
After reading Rich's piece about his alma mater, Lakewood High winning its fifth CIF Southern Section baseball title, I asked him if I could get equal time for my alma mater, John F. Kennedy High of Granada Hills. The Cougars won their seventh Los Angeles City section title on May 27 with a surprising 4-2 win over Chatsworth High at Dodger Stadium. Kennedy tied John C. Fremont High for the most Los Angeles City titles overall.
For those of you from outside of California, the organization that runs high school athletics in the state, the California Interscholastic Federation, is divided into ten sections. They are nowhere close to being equal in size. The Southern Section is the largest in terms of population and area and covers schools in places like Anza, Lee Vining, Edwards Air Force Base, San Luis Obispo, and even Lakewood. It contains both public and private schools. The Los Angeles City Section consists of all the schools that are members of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Depending upon the sport, there are around 50-60 schools competing for the title.
Kennedy High opened in 1971 in order to take care of the booming population in the north end of the San Fernando Valley. The LAUSD drew up a district for it that included upper middle class neighborhoods at the very northern edge of the city of Los Angeles as well as more working class neighborhoods in Lake View Terrace and Pacoima. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the school drew most of its students who lived in areas that were right at the median income level, like my family. I grew up just four blocks away from the school. The 118 Freeway (it's changed its name a lot since I was a kid, right now it's the Ronald Reagan Freeway) overpass was about halfway between my home and school.
Although it was a new school, Kennedy quickly developed a good reputation in sports, especially in baseball. The area was loaded with youth baseball leagues and the school had a wealth of talent to draw from. A team from Granada Hills won the Little League World Series back in 1964.
By the 1970s, the balance of power in high school baseball had shifted from schools like Fremont, Dorsey, and Venice, and moved to the San Fernando Valley, where it has remained mostly unchallenged for over 35 years. From 1973 through 2006, only one team from outside the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro High in 1992, has won the Los Angeles City high school championship.
1973 was a big year for baseball in the Los Angeles City section. You could see three future Hall of Famers playing in Robin Yount (Taft), Eddie Murray (Locke), and Ozzie Smith (also of Locke), but it was upstart Kennedy (in just its second season) that made it to the final at Dodger Stadium to take on Sylmar. Both teams had already faced off three times in regular season play.
The teams went to extra innings tied 1-1. Kennedy took a 2-1 lead in the top of the eighth on a single from future major leaguer Jim Anderson. Kennedy starter Jeff Jens retired the first two batters in the bottom of the eighth, but a walk and a hit led to Sylmar tying the game. Sylmar would win the game in the bottom of the ninth.
Jim Anderson would be the first Kennedy player to reach the majors when the Angels called him up in 1978 at the age of 21. His career highlight was more of a footnote. In Game 4 of the 1979 ALCS, the Angels trailed Baltimore 3-0 in the fifth inning. The Angels had loaded the bases with one out and Anderson came to bat. He scorched a hard grounder down the third base line that Doug DeCinces of the Orioles managed to smother. DeCinces stepped on third and then gunned out Anderson for a double play. Baltimore went on to win to 8-0 and went to the World Series. DeCinces had attended James Monroe High, a rival of Kennedy in nearby Sepulveda (now called North Hills.)
Kennedy won its first City championship in 1981 with a 4-2 win over Banning High of Wilmington. The team featured a battery of two future major leaguers in Jeff Wetherby (he didn't pitch as a pro) and catcher Phil Lombardi. Wetherby was once featured in Sports Illustrated because he was the only hitter at the time who had a career batting average of 1.000 against Greg Maddux and that hit was a home run to boot.
1985 would be Kennedy's next appearance in the City championship game and they faced Banning again. And they won again, 10-9, on a walkoff homer by Kevin Farlow, who hit a fly ball down the left field line that traveled about 331 feet.
When Kennedy next played in the championship, the coach was Manny Alvarado. In his first year on the job, he led Kennedy to its third City championship, defeating Palisades 4-3. One of Kennedy's players that year was outfielder Garret Anderson, whom most people viewed as a basketball star who was bound for Fresno State. But the Angels drafted him soon after the season ended and Anderson made it up to Anaheim in 1994.
Alvarado led Kennedy to the City championship game in 1995 and 1996 with his most talented teams. He had two players who would make it to the majors in outfielder Terrmel Sledge and pitcher Jon Garland. Kennedy beat Carson 3-1 in 1995 and Poly High of Sun Valley, 5-4 in 1996. Despite Garland's status as a top prospect, he didn't pitch in either championship game as he was an underclassman and Alvarado opted to start an older pitcher, Derek Morse in each game.
Garland almost pitched Kennedy to a third consecutive title in 1997. Kennedy reached the semifinals that season and faced Banning. The semifinal was the day before the final and section rules stipulated that a pitcher could not throw more than 10 innings in a week. So Alvarado opted to hold out Garland for the final. But it backfired as Banning upset Kennedy in the semis. Garland would get his chance to pitch in a big game when White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had him start games in last year's ALCS and World Series.
Alvarado got Kennedy to the final again in 2000 though. But the Cougars were underdogs to El Camino Real High of Woodland Hills, which featured Conor Jackson. Kennedy trailed 2-1 going into the seventh. Kennedy tied the game on a sacrifice fly and then went ahead on a 2-run triple by Eric Moore. The 4-2 win was Kennedy's sixth title.
Despite the 2000 championship, Chatsworth High was starting to develop a powerhouse squad. The school's program seemed to crank out college players and draft picks every year. They won the City title in 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2004 (going 35-0 that season). El Camino Real upset Chatsworth in the 2005 championship game.
The 2006 season was supposed to be just a prelude to a Chatsworth-El Camino Real title game. Kennedy had a solid season, winning its league, but had still lost 10 games. Like all of Alvarado's teams, it had solid pitching (an ERA under 1.50) and an offense that was good at executing with runners on base. At the high school level, small ball is much more prevalent and more effective as runs tend to be scarcer.
Kennedy was the #3 seed behind Chatsworth and El Camino Real. Kennedy faced El Camino Real in the semis and shocked them 3-2 to set up a faceoff with Chatsworth at Dodger Stadium. Both teams had won six titles.
Chatsworth led 1-0 after five, but Kennedy rallied for four runs in the sixth, its entire offense for the day, and held on for a shocking 4-2 win. Alvarado was now 5-0 in City championship games and Kennedy was 7-1 overall. Including consolation games, Kennedy has won 9 of 10 at Dodger Stadium.
A few days after the championship, Alvarado and some of his players appeared on a local Fox Sports show on prep sports. Co-host Lindsay Soto asked if the win over Chatsworth would make Kennedy "one of the powerhouses in City baseball." Alvarado politely responded, "I think we've done pretty well already."
Bob Timmermann, Kennedy High Class of 1983, has seen his alma mater win the City Championship four times and saw Phil Lombardi and Jeff Wetherby both play in a game at Shea Stadium on July 20, 1989. He writes at The Griddle.