Garces and Bakersfield Christian are small, private schools that pride themselves on athletics but don't play the same level of schedule as Bakersfield's big public high schools.
That sometimes causes statistics that the big schools scoff at -- but you don't hear many of those comments when it comes to BCHS senior A.J. Ramirez and Garces junior Jake Sweaney.
They are the 2012 Californian Baseball Co-Players of the Year, and statistics, value to their teams and the eyeball test all confirm that.
Ramirez batted .505 with 30 extra-base hits for the Eagles, all while playing the demanding position of shortstop. What's more, he hit 23-for-41 with five doubles, two triples and four home runs in games against teams from higher playoff divisions.
He also excelled in a wooden-bat league on a team sponsored by the St. Louis Cardinals last summer, a performance that helped earn him a scholarship offer from USC.
"I've seen a lot of players go through," said Tom McCormack, a former area scout and the recently retired BCHS coach. "He's the real deal. That's what got USC interested. The improvement from summer ball to fall ball to the high school season, and then to be named Co-Player of the Year, that's really an accomplishment."
Sweaney just completed his junior season, but he also has committed to a Pac-12 Conference team, Oregon. A catcher, Sweaney is like Ramirez in that he can do a bit of anything: He hit .496 with a 32-game hitting streak to end the year. He stole 24 bases and threw out plenty of opposing runners. He hit 11 home runs, second in the Central Section — 10 of his homers came during an incredible first month in which he led MaxPreps’ national lists in homers.
“I couldn’t believe it, either,” Sweaney said. “I just got on a roll, and it just didn’t stop. It was a lot of fun. I just swung as hard as I can, and didn’t expect them all to go out, but they did.”
Sweaney even pitched the final five innings in the Rams’ Division III championship victory over Fresno.
“In all honesty, as a varsity player, I don’t think I could ask for more,” Garces coach Guy Dees said. “Once he gets to a college level, there are things coaches can improve with him, but for a varsity high school player? He’s wonderful.”
Sweaney has played every position on the field for Dees in three years, but he said he’s been a catcher since age 8.
“I just feel like you’re always in the game,” Sweaney said. “I like that if there’s a runner on base, I want him to be afraid I’m going to throw him out.”
That makes his speed and power even more valuable to teams at the next level. So does his mental approach to the game. After Sweaney’s power binge to start the season, teams started feeding him a steady diet of breaking balls and generally forcing an aggressive hitter to be patient.
Sweaney said that’s still an area he can improve, but it says something that he kept up that hitting streak through the season anyway.
“It all worked out,” Sweaney said. “I feel like I slowed down a little, but I still did pretty dang good.”
Same for Ramirez, the son of Roberto Ramirez, who played parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues with the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles organizations and reaching as high as Class AAA. That made A.J. a baseball kid, traveling with his dad during the summer from clubhouse to clubhouse — and in the offseason in the Dominican Republic, his dad’s homeland.
“Some of my favorite memories are from the Dominican Winter League,” A.J. Ramirez said. “David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, Pedro Martinez — all those guys would go, and I’d be able to meet them.”
Strangely enough for a son born to a Dominican baseball player, though, Ramirez’s other love was hockey. He nearly entered a semi-pro hockey league in Canada during his sophomore year at BCHS, but he decided to stay and pursue a college scholarship in baseball instead.
“I don’t regret (giving up hockey) as much as I thought I would,” he said. “Now I know I have a passion for baseball.”
And that showed — for Ramirez and Sweaney — during a stellar 2012.
“People are always like, ‘Oh, Bakersfield Christian, you guys are small,’” Ramirez said. “But those are the games I look forward to the most. It’s a chance to prove we’re a good baseball club, and it makes me better.”