James Burns: Stan the Man at field of dreams

04/14/2009 12:19 AM

10/19/2009 10:51 AM

There might not be a better view in the area than when the sun sets behind the right-field wall at Memorial Ballpark.

The romantic blend of reds and blues along the horizon overwhelm the eye.

The sight of the water tower shooting out of the ground in center field -- that steel monster, teasing teen-aged power hitters and free swingers.

And of course, the ivy and stadium-lights twinkle.

"Make sure you call this place 'The Field of Dreams,' " a lady sitting behind home plate called out last Friday night, smiling but serious.

You laugh, because it's a cute but completely unoriginal cliche -- the kind J-School grads are taught to stay away from.

But then you receive an e-mail from an old-timer, an Atwater-Winton Lions Easter Tournament legend, whose blood pressure spikes in anticipation of one of the state's longest running Easter tournaments.

Every year. Without fail.

His name is Stan Roberts, and for the most part, he's as ordinary as his name suggests.

Stan is 55 now, nearly 40 years removed from his days as Le Grand High's strikeout artist.

Stan works as a shipping supervisor for Label Technology, which manufactures and distributes labels for Foster Farms and other products one might find at the grocery store.

His playing days ended shortly after high school, but he remains close to the game as a coach.

Stan still pitches, propping balls on a tee for his grandson Nathan to hit, making one of the area's most feared stoppers awfully easy to hit.

Awfully ordinary.

"That's the extent of my career these days," Stan said with not a shred of poor-me.

But for one week in 1971, with mini-majesty of Memorial Ballpark all around him, Stan Roberts was extraordinary.

For one week, the yard cutting through Atwater, where the ivy rolls over the fence and spills onto streets lined with trees as old as this town itself, was a "Field of Dreams."

For pitchers.

Not batters.

The 1971 tournament will long be remembered for its Gas Men -- the kids toeing the rubber, throwing strikes like they were shot out of a cannon.

Four of the top pitching performances in tournament history took place within days of each other. Sometimes, hours.

Atwater's Larry Sterling struck out 18 batters in a scoreless nine-inning game that had to be determined by hits allowed, and Merced's Jerry Garvin and Atwater's Steve Miller tossed dueling no-hitters.

Garvin, who would go onto play for the Toronto Blue Jays, fanned 17 and walked one in a 1-0 victory over Madera.

Miller did him one better, striking out 17 in a perfect game.

After that game, Le Grand coach Jim Smith set the stage for one of the all-time great performances in Lions history.

"How many you going to strikeout, Stan?" Smith asked his staff ace.

Stan tossed out an arbitrary number -- never knowing it would stick.

"Off the cuff, I told him I might as well strikeout all 21," Stan said. "I was joking, obviously, but that I came that close was really amazing."

Indeed.

Stan struck out a tournament-record 20 batters in a seven-inning game, retiring the final 20 to close out a 2-0 victory over Hilmar.

The number may never be touched again. Four players have struck out 18 or more, including Lions mainstay Don Ballenger (18) in 1973, but no one has come close since.

What's more, Stan didn't own a full repertoire of pitches. He wasn't Greg Madduxing batters, setting up a changeup or curve with a pin-point fastball.

He threw one pitch -- the Stinky Cheese, the Catch-Me-If-You-Can, the Terminator -- and he threw it hard.

Like the Wild Thing, Rick Vaughn.

With his thick, black-rimmed glasses and three-quarter sleeve undershirt, he even looked like the iconic Rick Vaughn.

"When you talk about dreams, I used to practice by throwing a ball at the garage door. I was pitching to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and thinking I'm going to strike them all out and throw a no-hitter," Stan said.

"To get into a game and do something very similar to that, it was like being in a dream.

"You think of the names that have pitched in that tournament and on that stage, guys like Randy Johnson and a few other pros. I can look at that one weekend and consider myself their equal."

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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