It seems to have started with John Tortes “Chief” Meyers, a Riverside-born member of the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians who made his debut with the New York Giants on April 16, 1909. As far as sports historians can tell, he became the first person from the Inland Empire to play in the major leagues.
A year later Elmer Rieger of Perris and Redlands native Fred Blanding played their first games at baseball’s highest level. Meyers, though, was the most successful of the three. A catcher who was usually behind the plate when Christy Mathewson pitched, Meyers played for nine seasons with the Giants, Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves, appeared in four World Series and retired with a lifetime batting average of .291.
Rieger pitched in 13 games with an 0-2 record for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1910 and spent 16 seasons in the minor leagues before retiring in 1924.
Blanding, who grew up in Michigan, made his debut with the Cleveland Naps on September 15, 1910, by pitching a six-hit shutout against Walter Johnson and the Washington Nationals and had a 46-46 record when his career ended in 1914. There’s no record of him building a dream house, however.
Those three were the pioneers. Among their athletic descendants are an Inland Empire group of major leaguers that this season could number two dozen or more and include former Riverside Poly High teammates Austin Barnes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jake Marisnick of the Houston Astros, whose major league teams went head-to-head in the 2017 World Series. The Astros beat the Dodgers, four games to three, winning their first World Series in franchise history.
Also on major league rosters are Redlands natives Matt Andriese of the Tampa Bay Rays and Tyler Chatwood of the Chicago Cubs, former UC Riverside pitchers Joe Kelly of the Boston Red Sox and Marc Rzepczynski of the Seattle Mariners.
In between is an honor roll that includes San Bernardino-born Bob Lemon, an infielder-turned-pitcher who won 207 games and a place in the Hall of Fame with the Cleveland Indians; UC Riverside coach Troy Percival, a catcher-turned-pitcher who became one of the best relievers in history with 316 saves in 10 seasons with the California Angels; Ken Hubbs, a Colton High graduate who was the National League Rookie of the Year for the Chicago Cubs in 1962 but died in a private plane crash in January 1964; and Eric Show, a talented right-hander from Riverside’s Ramona High who has the most wins (100) in San Diego Padres history but couldn’t overcome his own demons and died of a drug overdose in 1994.
Riverside’s Bobby Bonds is on that honor roll as well, as one of the first in the major leagues to combine speed (461 stolen bases) and power (332 home runs). So is Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker, who was a two-time all-star in 19 seasons as a player and has been manager of the year three times in his 22 years as a manager; and Barry Bonds, Bobby’s son, who hit a record 762 home runs. Jay Dahl was a Bloomington High graduate whose only major league appearance came when at 17 he was the starting pitcher in an all-rookie lineup for the Houston Astros against the New York Mets on September 27, 1963. Dahl was playing in the Western Carolinas League when he was fatally injured in an automobile accident on June 20, 1965 in Salisbury, N.C. He was 19 years old.
The master list numbers 150, give or take a couple either way. That doesn’t sound like much, considering how many players have passed through the major leagues in the past 150 years or so. But former UC Riverside coach Jack Smitheran provides some perspective when he says, “You’ve got a better chance of being a brain surgeon than a major league player” because of the finite number of jobs, 750, available each season.
“It’s remarkable that the Inland area, and Riverside in particular, has produced so many major leaguers,” says Doug Smith, Smitheran’s successor at UCR.
Anyone looking for specific reasons for the IE’s impressive production has come to the wrong place, though, because not all players fit into the same mold. Some were born and raised in the IE, some were born in the IE and raised elsewhere, and some were born elsewhere and migrated here. Some are tall and strong, some are short and fast, and none are the same. That’s one reason there are no guideposts saying do this or do that and success is assured.
Riverside Poly’s Jake Marisnick says the Inland Empire’s strong youth baseball program helps expose kids to good baseball from such a young age. “I think it helped propel a lot of us to where we’re at,” he says.
“There’s confidence in winning and competing. I think that transferred over into high school. I really just believed in myself and my ability, that I could compete with whomever, and I think that’s the kind of mindset you have to have to be successful at any level of baseball,” says Riverside’s Austin Barnes. For those aspiring to follow in his footsteps, Barnes says players should be “fully committed to what they want to do.”
Chris Stewart is an example of that. Stewart, who played at Moreno Valley Canyon Springs High and Riverside Community College, is an 11-year veteran of Major League Baseball who spent the winter as a free agent after four seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“As a kid playing baseball I think you always dream about [the major leagues], but a dream is all it is at that point. You don’t really understand what it takes to reach the highest level,” says Stewart, who was a 12th round draft choice of the Chicago White Sox in 2001.
“I think as you’re going along you start getting a better glimpse. Playing in the minor leagues you take a step back in that thought process because you realize how many steps there are before you actually reach the major leagues.
“There are five different levels in the minors, and you usually have to go through them. Some guys skyrocket straight there, but the majority of us have to grind our way through each level, prove you’re good enough at one level to move on to the next level, and gradually work your way up that ladder and hopefully end up in the major leagues,” says Stewart, who lives in Riverside with wife Lindsey and their two children.
“It’s such a grind and things have to work out in certain ways for that opportunity to present itself. No matter what you do, that opportunity may not be there,” he adds.
When the door does open, however, magical moments are possible.
“As a kid, you grow up telling yourself you’re going to play in the World Series, and actually doing it is pretty special,” says Barnes.
NOTABLE FORMER MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS FROM THE INLAND EMPIRE:
Dusty Baker (Riverside), Outfielder, Braves/Dodgers/Giants/A’s, 1968-86
Fred Blanding (Redlands), Pitcher, Cleveland Naps, 1910-14
Barry Bonds (Riverside), Outfielder, Pirates/Giants, 1986-2007
Bobby Bonds (Riverside), Outfielder, Giants/Angels/5 others, 1968-81
Del Crandall (Ontario), Catcher/First Base, Braves/3 others, 1949-66
Ken Hubbs (Riverside/Colton HS), Infielder, Chicago Cubs, 1961-63
Adam Kennedy (Riverside), Infielder-outfielder, Angels/5 others, 1999-2012
Bob Lemon (San Bernardino), Infielder-pitcher, Cleveland Indians, 1941-58
John “Chief” Meyers(Riverside), Catcher, Giants/2 others, 1909- 17
Troy Percival (Moreno Valley HS, UCR), Pitcher, Angels/3 others, 1995-2009
Elmer Rieger (Perris), Pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals, 1910
Eric Show (Riverside), Pitcher, Padres/A’s, 1981-91
CURRENT MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS FROM THE INLAND EMPIRE:
Matt Andriese (Redlands), Pitcher, Tampa Bay Rays
Austin Barnes (Riverside), Catcher, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jake Barrett (Upland), Pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks
Tyler Chatwood (Redlands), Pitcher, Chicago Cubs
Matt Davidson (Yucaipa), Infielder, Chicago White Sox
Zach Jemiola (Temecula), Pitcher, Colorado Rockies
Joe Kelly (Corona High School, UC Riverside), Pitcher, Boston Red Sox
Jake Marisnick (Riverside), Outfielder, Houston Astros
Trevor Oaks (Riverside), Pitcher, Kansas City Royals
Steven Okert (Riverside), Pitcher, San Francisco Giants
Adam Plutko (Upland), Pitcher, Cleveland Indians
Addison Reed (Montclair/Los Osos High School), Pitcher, Minnesota Twins
Garrett Richards (Riverside), Pitcher, Los Angeles Angels
Daniel Robertson (Upland), Infielder, Tampa Bay Rays
Marc Rzepczynski (UC Riverside), Pitcher, Seattle Mariners
Chance Sisco (Corona), Catcher, Baltimore Orioles
Dan Straily (Redlands), Pitcher, Miami Marlins
Vince Velasquez (Montclair), Pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies
Tyler Wade (Murrieta), Infielder, New York Yankees
Taijuan Walker (Yucaipa High School), Pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks
Steven Wright (Valley View High School, Moreno Valley), Pitcher, Boston Red Sox