Drive around Covina, Calif., and you might be anywhere else. There are strip malls and fast food joints and homes and schools. But every town, no matter how much it looks like everywhere else, is known for something.
Covina is known for baseball.
You might not know it unless you get off the main drag. Head north on Hollenbeck Avenue and look to your right and you will see it, Hollenbeck Park. The field looks like something out of the movie “The Sandlot.” Echoing in the memories of this single-field park are the voices of so many kids who played here with big league dreams. Listen closely and you will hear the voice of Rangers manager Chris Woodward.
Woody actually lived across the street from Hollenbeck for a time during his childhood. And he has been back recently.
“Before I got the job with the Dodgers,” Woodward says, “I only went back to Southern California as a visiting player.”
That did not leave much time for visiting his old hometown. But he spent three years in the Dodgers organization, during which time he went back to Covina a lot. He remembers driving through downtown just a couple of years ago. It looked different – after all, he hadn’t lived there for 30 years. But then he saw it: Covina Hobby.
Next to baseball, his favorite diversion was building model airplanes. The hobby shop looked exactly the same as it had in the early ‘80s. Woody says he wanted to go in and see if they still remembered him.
I promise you they would have. Covina is proud of the fact that it has produced multiple major league players, none better than former Ranger Michael Young. But Woody is the first from Covina to become a manager, and in this baseball town that means something.
Over at Hollenbeck last month there was a retiree dragging the field at midday who wondered why a reporter and camera operator from Texas were taking shots at a little league field. We told him we are doing a story on Chris Woodward and he said, “I coached him on an All Star team when he was 13 years old.”
Woody was an All Star as far back as 1989. But it was in his high school years that he began to blossom. Under the watchful eye of Tom Quinley the development occurred. But it did not happen overnight, and, in fact, it did not just happen. It was a result of continued hard work.
“I remember coming home from college to see coach Quinley,” says Darren Murphy, the head coach at South Hills High School in Covina. “If he wasn’t at his home, I knew I could find him at the field hitting grounders to Woody.”
Darren is four years older than Chris, so they were never teammates, but they have remained friends, and when Darren was the baseball coach at their Alma Mater he held a ceremony to retire Woody’s number 8.
There are two 8’s hanging on the fence at the field at Northview High School in Covina. One is Woody’s; the other remembers Coach Quinley.
“He asked me what number I wanted to wear,” Woodward recalls. “I told him I wanted to wear number 8 because I loved Cal Ripken, and I wanted play like him.”
It was not until game day, when Quinley was in uniform, that Chris realized they were both wearing number 8. Coach wore it because he loved Yogi Berra. Woody believes he was allowed to wear it because when asked why he loved number 8, he gave the right answer.
At his introductory press conference last November he gave the right answer, too. On the subject of wearing the number 8 on his Rangers uniform, he spoke emotionally about the impact that Quinley had on his life.
Tom Quinley died last August, and in a video tribute Woody expressed his love for his former coach: “You were there when I needed you most. It goes beyond baseball. You will never be forgotten. Your legacy will live on beyond the San Gabriel Valley. I will make sure of that. I will make sure that people never forget what you did.”
On a recent trip to California for a series against the Angels there were lots of Rangers fans on hand. Some came in from Texas; others were transplants, but most of them were from Covina. They were there because they remember when Chris Woodward played on their fields in their baseball town.
And they are so proud that he has not forgotten them.
Sports columnist John Rhadigan is an anchor for the Fox Sports Southwest television network.