How Long Beach State became Dirtbags

Long Beach's ragtag 1989 team called itself the Dirtbags, turning the name into a badge of honor. Courtesy of Long Beach State Media Relations

There are times when Long Beach State baseball coach Troy Buckley is in a recruit's home, making his best pitch, when the player's mom breaks in with some questions:

"Why is your team called the Dirtbags?" she'll ask. "And what exactly does the name mean?"

The answer to "why?" goes back to 1989, when a ragtag team under first-year coach Dave Snow found itself without a home park, had to take regular infield practice on an all-dirt Pony League field that left it filthy and bloodied -- yet advanced against all odds to the College World Series.

It was a storyline that blended elements of "The Bad News Bears" and Peanuts' Pig-Pen. In an us-against-the-world esprit de corps, players proudly embraced the label hung on them by assistant coach Dave Malpass based on their post-practice appearance: Dirtbags.

As for what the name means, the answer is a bit more complicated.

Twenty-four years later, Long Beach State has a fine home field, has produced a parade of major leaguers (such as Evan Longoria, Jered Weaver, Troy Tulowitzki and Jason Giambi) and gone to the College World Series three more times. Since '89, Long Beach State has been a top program on the West Coast.

Yet the Dirtbags live on.

Today, a banner at the entrance to Blair Field hails the stadium as "Home of Dirtbags baseball" and the baseball team's nickname officially is Dirtbags (while every other school team is the 49ers).

To Buckley, it's a matter of pride in a gritty past.

"Oh, big-time," he says. "The history, because of what it is. It's a mentality. It's a quality statement of how you go about your work, how you go about your game. It's really a badge of honor, if you will, because there have been so many great players who have come through here that have created what that name means.

"It's an earned [thing]. It's not a right, it's a privilege, and everybody needs to earn it every single day. … You're not playing for yourself. You're playing for a great tradition."

• • •

Even now, the name draws quizzical looks.

As the team treks through airports, hotel lobbies and restaurants, players and staff have to explain themselves.

"On the road, all the time," says Roger Kirk, associate media relations director for baseball. "Everybody's wearing their Dirtbags stuff, and everybody kind of giggles, like, 'Dirtbags? You guys really are the Dirtbags?'"

In real life, the term has a negative connotation. Do a search for "dirt bag" or "dirtbag" and you'll turn up plenty of invectives, plus a 2009 movie called "Teenage Dirtbag" about -- of course -- a young guy from the wrong side of the tracks and a song with the same title (and theme) from 2000.

But Long Beach State has been on a mission to give the term a positive spin for almost a quarter century, slowly winning converts.

For every five to 10 times on a trip Kirk has to explain what the name means, he says he gets a verbal high-five.

"Somebody comes up and says, ‘Man, I saw you guys in 1993 in Omaha. I love it, I love the way you guys play. It's so cool. Go Dirtbags,'" Kirk says.

Today, the program plays up the name, selling Dirtbags items at Blair Field, and the most popular items in stores on campus are Dirtbags shirts. Even students who've never been to a game might be found strolling across campus in a "Once a Dirtbag, always a Dirtbag" model. Even opponents have gotten into the act. Buckley recalls Cal State Fullerton selling infant apparel with, "Don't let your babies grow up to be Dirtbags."

Snow, the former coach who in 13 seasons took the team to four College World Series, six conference titles and a 511-290-4 record, not only took the program to new heights but also brought marketing director John Costello on board in the early '90s to raise his team's profile.

"At the time, Long Beach State, their big vision athletically was to develop the Pyramid, where they play basketball games now," Snow says. "So I knew I wasn't going to get a real nice stadium built, so along with Costello we politicked through the city and got them to make an investment in the facility there at Blair Field. In terms of upgrades, they made it into one of the nicer college baseball facilities at the time."

In addition, Costello's marketing of the Dirtbags, their success and their style of play brought in more community support.

Although he left Long Beach State in 2001, Snow is proud the program carries the Dirtbags stamp. It's a tribute to the true grit of ‘89.

"I think it's kind of neat," he says. "It gives a bit of glue to the history of Dirtbag baseball. Hopefully it's somewhat of a tradition, just in terms of … a player trying to reach his potential, playing unselfishly and kind of that team-first attitude."

Dirtbag, in fact, has crept into baseballspeak.

When the Washington Nationals reported to spring training in February, Nats GM Mike Rizzo called former Long Beach State infielder Danny Espinosa one of his favorite players.

"To me, he's your prototypical grinder," Rizzo said in a radio interview. "And I say this with all due respect, he's really a baseball junkie. He's a Dirtbag."

• • •

The evolution from 49ers to Dirtbags certainly wasn't planned.

Snow had been hired from Loyola Marymount after the 1988 season when Long Beach State had gone 14-45, and he and Malpass found themselves faced with the long task of raising the talent level on the roster with very little time -- and after most top prospects had signed elsewhere.

The late scramble, he jokes, "probably took 10 years off my coaching life," but they put together a group of transfers, junior college players and high school players -- what Snow calls "a vagabond group" -- and then opened everything up for competition. Malpass says they specifically went looking for hard-nosed guys with something to prove.

"We kind of took a bunch of guys that nobody else wanted that were sitting out there and kind of found them and put them in a home, and it just kind of grew from there," Snow says.

Then, the on-campus baseball field had been made unplayable because of a maintenance project gone wrong that left pebbles and rocks coming up through the turf.

"They didn't put sand down, they put gravel down," says Jim Yogi, a member of that 1989 team. "It just became a complete mess."

Suddenly, the program had to scramble to get dates for games and practices all over the Long Beach area. One solution Malpass came up with was to take the infielders to a dirt-infield Pony League diamond at nearby Whaley Park.

"I just came up with this name, Dirtbag Field," says Malpass, now a senior major league scout for the Cleveland Indians. "'We're going to Dirtbag Field.'"

Quickly, the players at Whaley Park developed a culture all their own, diving around, kicking up dust, getting smashed in the face by bad hops and wicked liners and coming back for more. Soon, the guys at Dirtbag Field were Dirtbags.

"If I had to do it over again, I would have called them the Idiots, like the '04 Red Sox," he says now. "We were just a mishmash group."

But Dirtbags stuck.

Somebody had Dirtbags T-shirts made, says Malpass, and the players had to earn them. As the season progressed, more and more players won the shirts and the right to be called Dirtbags. Malpass said it fit in perfectly with Snow's mission to establish tough-mindedness.

"It started with the infielders and then it was, ‘OK, we'll let this guy have a shirt, we'll let that guy. OK, yeah, yeah, yeah,'" Malpass says. "The whole team embraced the mentality."

Yogi remembers the field being "really bad," and guys getting bloody noses, cut lips and black eyes during the sessions which, he says, were not much fun. But they set a tone.

"Basically we were just head-to-toe filthy, just dirty," he recalls. "And then we go on this winning streak, we go 18-0 to the start the season, and so we get the media coverage and they're following us around. Basically, Dave Malpass was the one who coined the phrase. He said, ‘Hey, we're just a bunch of dirtbags playing the game the right way.'"

What at first was a negative -- not having a home field -- actually turned into a positive, Yogi says, because players spent the afternoons driving around to fields, practicing together and forming tight bonds.

"We were almost inseparable right from the get-go," he says. "We're still really tight 24 years later."

By the end of the season, the team had made the greatest one-season turnaround in Division I baseball history -- going from 14-45 to 50-15 -- to beat a powerful Arizona team twice in the West Region to get to Omaha. Although they were quickly ousted, the Dirtbags had made their mark.

• • •

From that point on, Snow says, his Long Beach State teams had to earn the name. They were 49ers until they proved otherwise.

"You didn't just get called Dirtbags," he says. "You had to earn that, kind of fall in line with the standard set in 1989." The team and individuals could earn the title by playing what Snow calls "the Dirtbag way."

"Then teammates could call each other Dirtbags, coaches could refer to players as Dirtbags," he says. "It was a goal to earn that right."

By the time Long Beach State reached its third trip to Omaha in 1993, the team's nickname picked up steam.

National media were using Dirtbags, and so were the folks in Omaha.

"They embraced us like I've never seen in my days at Rosenblatt," says Yogi, who stayed on to coach and now is the field manager at Blair Field. "The merchandise was the first to go. They sold out, and they couldn't keep it in stock. They had local bars in the Omaha area that had marquee signs that said, 'Go Dirtbags.'"

A year later, while coaching in the Cape Cod League, Yogi discovered the Dirtbags had gone national. At a restaurant, he saw a family of five all wearing Dirtbags shirts and went over to talk, thinking they were from Long Beach. Actually, they were locals who had fallen in love with the name and the program and had had a friend in Omaha buy them shirts.

"That's when I knew the marketing stuff had worked, and the name, it was basically spreading across the country."

It's something Malpass still can't get used to.

Sometimes, he says, he'll go into a mall hundreds or thousands of miles from Long Beach and see people with Dirtbags hats or shirts.

"It's kind of funny," Malpass says. "I maybe could have capitalized on the profit-making. I never did. It's kind of cool [to see], but I don't think people really get the full meaning of what that group, the price that group paid for the success it had. It's a unique name that a lot of people think is cool, but I don't think they get the meaning behind it."

Meanwhile, Yogi -- a thread connecting 1989 to 2013 -- is now in charge of the infield quality at Blair Field, a twist that strikes him as funny. He's a Dirtbag with few fond memories of "Dirtbag Field."

"It is kind of ironic," he says. "My job is to make sure the field plays not like Whaley Park back in '89."