Long Beach State’s hire of Eric Valenzuela as the new coach of the Dirtbags brought a lot of reactions across our phones.
The university was as confident as could be that they’d gotten their guy. Recruits were clearly thrilled — kids have been committing to the program while those who’d been committed to Valenzuela’s old program, St. Mary’s, were decommitting. The larger California baseball community was impressed with the hire, and we heard from a lot of JC and NCAA coaches that Long Beach had gotten themselves a grinder.
Not everyone was thrilled, however. We heard from a number of Dirtbags alums who had wanted to see the position go to an alum, someone who was part of the Dirtbags legacy. It was a strong enough feeling in the zeitgeist that LBSU athletic director Andy Fee and Valenzuela himself addressed it multiple times in the early days of the hire.
After watching Valenzuela’s introductory press conference and his first big introduction to the city’s larger sports community at last week’s Century Club meeting, we’ve gotta say: it looks like the school hired a Dirtbag, in the best possible way.
Valenzuela is the son of a lifelong boxing coach, and grew up scrapping for everything he got in baseball. He was convinced to give up an independent baseball gig out of college to become a Division 1 volunteer assistant, and made the leap of faith. He grinded enough to get noticed by Tony Gwynn, who brought him on board at San Diego State. While at St. Mary’s, he had a similar situation to Dave Snow and the original Dirtbags — his facility was so bad that he often “forgot” to show it to recruits.
“It was just, ‘We’re going to develop you, we’re going to develop you,’ then the kid and his parents get to the airport and text me, ‘Coach we never actually saw the field,’” Valenzuela told the Century Club with a laugh. “Oops.”
What he did with a shoestring budget and piss-poor facilities is reminiscent of the origins of the Dirtbags program. That’s good news for Dirtbags fans. The fact is that the program has grown away from those origins. As Blair Field has been recognized as one of the most scenic stadiums in college baseball, as the program has turned out elite MLB talent, as the recruiting gaze has drifted towards national recruits instead of hard-working local kids, the program has evolved.
We’ve heard frequently over the last several years from Long Beach kids who felt spurned by the program, who’ve ended up signing at Pac-12 schools or other Big West programs after their scholarship offer was changed or when they stopped hearing back from their local program.
Valenzuela, encouragingly, wants to rebuild the fence around the city, and spoke extensively about wanting to recruit attitude over highly-ranked players.
“Everyone can play, we can go sign a ton of guys who can play,” Valenzuela said. “What separates kids for me is that mentality, that fight.”
Any baseball fan in Long Beach should love to hear that. Valenzuela’s attitude extends beyond the field, though. He spoke movingly of helping his wife overcome leukemia, spending every day in the hospital with her while she recovered, and then her turning around to support his dreams of coaching a major college baseball program.
After he’d shared his life story with the Century Club, he remarked, “I’m not an alum, I get it. I do. But if you’re talking about any one person that didn’t go to Long Beach State that you could call a Dirtbag, you’re talking about me.”
Consider us sold on that front. In our opinion, it’s more important that the program bring in someone with that Dirtbag mentality than someone who graduated from the school. Now, if Valenzuela can’t turn the program around in the next few years, that’s a different story. Ultimately, coaches will be judged by wins and losses, especially coaches at high-profile programs. But Valenzuela’s credentials are good and right now he’s talking the talk, alum or not.