By Kirk Kern

This past week, my favorite baseball team hired Ruben Niebla as their pitching coach. That name may not mean a lot to those who may be reading this column, but for me it was a blast from the past.Kirk Kern

Before becoming one of the most highly regarded pitching coaches in baseball, Niebla was a star player at Calexico High school when I was sports editor of the Imperial Valley Press, a community on the U.S.-Mexico border in California.

After college in 1987, I moved back to the valley and worked at the same local newspaper that I had delivered as a kid. I was promoted to sports editor about a year later. It was a great job for someone with my level of experience and eventually helped me get a job at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

But back then, I covered sports on a daily basis and that experience left a lasting impression on my life. A case in point was the Calexico High baseball team and its coach, Jim Bartow.

Bartow had taken over the program from its long-time coach Elmer Belcher about the same time I became sports editor. I remember Bartow as a really nice guy and an excellent coach. I also remember him as the coach of the best baseball game I’ve ever personally seen.

One thing to know about that statement. I’ve personally seen a lot of baseball. I played the sport in high school and later participated in adult men’s leagues in San Diego. While in college, I worked at the Padres stadium (then know as Jack Murphy Stadium) for two years selling souvenirs and watched every game as the Padres went to the World Series in 1984.

As a reporter/editor, I’d covered two or three games a week during the season. When my son played youth travel ball, I watched him play more than 100 games in just his 13-year-old season. I went to every single game of his four-years of high school games, along with other teams.

I would estimate I’ve personally witnessed at least 1,000 games in my life. Probably more.

But the CIF-playoff game between Calexico and Tustin High in 1991 stands out as the best game I’ve ever seen. And thanks to social media, I was able to relive that game with coach Bartow,

I contacted Bartow through Facebook asking if he remembered that game. He got back to me the same day and we had a pretty good chat about the game.

A little background, Calexico started their league season at 3-3, but then ripped off eight straight wins to claim a co-championship. I had thought Niebla was on that team (which is why I had originally contacted the coach), but he had graduated the year before. Bartow reminded me that Niebla was the league player of the year in 1990.

There were two things that immediately came to mind about that game. First was the Tustin team was loaded. Sean Green was their star and that summer he was a first-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays. He later he became a two-time All-Star. That team had four or five other players who had signed Division 1 scholarships as well.

In other words, Calexico was about to get hammered.

The game was in Tustin, which was about a three-hour drive from Calexico, and the school sent up two rooter busses full of fans.

This Tustin team had a tradition of the players lining up on the third base line while the visitors took their infield-outfield drills. To me, this was a sign of arrogance, but what happened next was kind of funny.

“I remember well when they lined up on the third baseline,” Bartow said. “I also remember, and so do all the players, when I hit the first ground ball to third, the ball hit the cutout of the baseline and did a 45 degree right through them and they scattered.

“To this day my players think I did that on purpose, but it was just a karma moment, I think.”

So all that was interesting, but not even close to how the memorable the game turned out.

At first, it looked like it was going to play out the way everyone thought. In the first inning, a Tustin batter hit a deep fly ball that Calexico’s great defensive centerfield Jose Rosiles tracked to the fence … and then dropped.

It cost Calexico a couple of runs and they eventually fell behind 7-0.

But the Bulldogs came back behind pitcher David Jimenez. He also hit a home run to tie the game at 7 and send the game to extra innings. Rosiles who signed with the Anaheim Angels after high school, atoned for the earlier drop by making an outstanding diving catch that saved Tustin from scoring late in the game.

The game went nine innings (a regulation high school game is seven innings) before Green scored the winning run to send Tustin into the next round of the playoffs and end the Bulldogs season.

“It was a game for the ages,” Bartow said.

Bartow, who moved away from the valley many years ago, said he had recently returned to Calexico for one of his player’s 50th birthday. He said talked with team’s first baseman, Charles Garcia, about that team for about an hour.

It was a great conversation with the coach, who is still as nice a guy as I remembered. It was also great to see he had kept in contact with players on that team. Those types of memories last forever, and now i know it wasn’t just for me.