LBSU-CSF baseball rivalry lives on

Former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Gallo has pitched in both a World Series and a College World Series. He has taken the mound in some of the most iconic ballparks and faced off against some of the games’ most feared hitters.

Yet the ex-Long Beach State lefty still considers one particular outing against Cal State Fullerton among his most memorable.

“I probably compare it to making my Major League debut,” Gallo said. “That game is still on my mind, it was a big moment in my life and in my career.”

It’s memorable for Gallo in that the Dirtbags “kicked the crap” out of Cal State Fullerton. He pitched well enough to go deep into the game at Fullerton’s Goodwin Field and watched Long Beach’s archrivals walk off their own field with a loss.

Six nights a year – three in Long Beach and three in Fullerton – the crowds, the energy and the atmosphere reveal a rivalry as intense as those in college football and basketball. It’s a deep-rooted hatred yet a mutual respect between two programs that have accounted for a total of 20 Big West championships since 1989 and produced more major leaguers than any other school in the country.

“On the national level it’s small, but in Southern California it’s a big deal,” said Titans head coach Rick Vanderhook. “It’s like SC-UCLA football, it’s Washington-Washington State playing for the Apple Cup and so on.”

The unique identities of the teams and their respective ballparks are characterized by the cities they play in.

Long Beach is gritty and the fans are rowdy, climbing to the top of the Blair Field bleachers to bang on the metal backing with beers and hand. Blair Field is expansive and plays even longer engulfed by a thick marine layer. If someone does end up hitting one out of the park, the outfielders have a cinderblock wall to contend with. The team relies on small-ball and crafty but dominant pitching.

Fullerton’s Goodwin Field features shorter porches in a grandstand-like setting, playing perfectly to the Titans’ penchant for big hits. Fullerton is much more quaint and suburban than Long Beach, and the on-campus park counts Kevin Costner as one of its regulars.

“It’s two communities going head-to-head for supremacy in Southern California baseball,” Gallo said. “Anything can happen in those series.”

To pinpoint the origin of the rivalry, you have to go back as far as the 1970s to Cerritos College and Wally Kincaid. Former Fullerton head coaches Augie Garrido, George Horton and Dave Serrano and Long Beach head coaches Dave Snow and Mike Weathers all either played for or coached with the Hall of Fame coach.

“They all kind of run through at some point or another through Cerritos College,” said former Long Beach State marketing director John Costello. “It’s almost like a fraternity. They all knew each other, they all learned from the same guy and basically all believed in the same things.

“Yet, here are two schools who are 25 miles apart in the same league, often in the top 10, that’s just going to breed the rivalry.”

Teammates and colleagues, they were all brothers going up against one another. Fullerton, the big, established brother with two College World Series titles under Garrido, and Long Beach, the pesky, upstart little brother that was quickly catching up.

“It’s a unique situation; we are all the best of friends and talk all of the time,” Vanderhook said. Vanderhook is no stranger to the Kincaid coaching tree, having played for Kincaid and Garrido and assisted Garrido, Horton and Serrano. “But it’s not just the coaches and the players, it’s the fans.”

Cal State Fullerton was one of the first schools to sell fans on college baseball. UCLA and USC had successful eras yet didn’t quite draw the same crowds as Cal State Fullerton.

When Snow took over in 1989, he decided to sell Long Beach on the college game. Snow and Costello engineered the iconic Dirtbag brand.  The name Dirtbags originated from a dirt field the infielders were forced to use for workouts. When Long Beach went to the College World Series that year, the name stuck. It has now been turned into a badge of honor. You must work to become a Dirtbag – it doesn’t simply come with just a letter of intent.

However, Cal State Fullerton needs no such lore. Its credentials have always spoken for themselves.

The stark differences only provide fuel for the rivalry. The rivalry has grown so much that now the teams play each other in two three-game series each season, alternating ball parks. The final weekend of the Big West season features the two and often times the conference title is on the line.

In 1993, the rivalry boiled over.  On a day when the city’s marquee event, the Long Beach Grand Prix, was being contested downtown, over at Blair Field a huge brawl between the Dirtbags and the Titans was garnering the most attention.

The Dirtbags had rebounded after a slow start and were on torrid stretch that they would eventually ride all the way to Omaha and Fullerton was having a banner year and was one of the top teams in the country.

“The blood was there,” Costello said. “There was a massive bench-clearing brawl. Our season eventually took off because of that.”

“I missed the ’93 brawl but it’s still well-known here in Long Beach,” Gallo said.

Gallo would go on to a College World Series with the 1998 team also using Cal State Fullerton as motivation, pitching the Dirtbags to a Super Regional win at Stanford Sunken Diamond by envisioning opposing batters wearing Titans uniforms.

“I remember at the press conference someone asked me, ‘How did you pitch against these guys?’” Gallo said. “I said, ‘I pitched to them like I pitched to Cal State Fullerton.’”

Vanderhook has a different memory of a win that ultimately propelled the Titans to a College World Series championship in 2004. Fullerton needed just one win to secure a Big West Championship; Horton and Vanderhook tried to move Friday night starter Jason Windsor to Saturday, but he wouldn’t have it: Windsor wanted to go up against one of the best pitchers in college baseball history in Jered Weaver.

“Windsor looked at us said, ‘There’s no way I’m not pitching tomorrow night,’” Vanderhook said. “The game went 10 innings. Windsor pitched all 10 innings, Weaver came out in the ninth and Ronnie Prettyman hit a base hit to win it on a Friday night.”

While Long Beach State has experienced some down years as of late, it has done nothing to diminish the rivalry. It’s only fitting that this season two brothers will face off against one another with Fullerton senior outfielder Anthony Hutting going against his younger brother, Long Beach State freshman catcher Eric Hutting.

It’s an intense, yet familial rivalry.

“It’s a familiarity,” Costello said. “I know you so well, that’s the rivalry.”