Spud O'Neil knew exactly what Travis d'Arnaud was doing as he crossed home plate after hitting a solo home run in Game 4 of last week's National League Championship Series to help send the New York Mets to the World Series.
Watching the game on television, O'Neil, who has been the head baseball coach at Lakewood High in southern Los Angeles County for 33 years, noticed d'Arnaud ever so slightly pointing to home plate with his left index finger as he touched it. O'Neil, who coached d'Arnaud in high school, had seen him do it before, but this time he was flooded with texts from his current players all basically saying the same thing -- "He shot the plate!"
"I teach the kids to 'shoot the plate' whenever they go across home plate," O'Neil said by phone Monday. "You point your finger at the plate and make sure you touch it. It's a long story, but we used to miss the plate in practice. But I noticed when Travis hit that home run, he shot the plate with his finger and I texted him and I said I saw him do that and so did all the kids, and he texted back and said, 'Coach, I've been doing that since high school.' It's pretty cool."
Maybe even cooler is Lakewood's recent tradition of sending an alum to the Fall Classic. For the third consecutive year, Lakewood will have a former player in the World Series. If history is any indication, the Mets should be considered the favorites against the Kansas City Royals. Last season, Matt Duffy was the youngest player on the San Francisco Giants team that beat the Royals in the World Series. In 2013, Mike Carp was with the Boston Red Sox when they beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. D'Arnaud's three home runs in nine games this postseason, including one off the Citi Field Home Run Apple in Game 1 of the NLCS, helped secure the Mets' first World Series berth since 2000.
"It's almost a miracle what has happened," O'Neil said. "We're really excited, and everyone is so proud in our area with what has happened the last three years."
D'Arnaud started his pro career straight out of high school in 2007 with the Philadelphia Phillies organization. In December 2009, he was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays as part of a blockbuster trade that brought Roy Halladay to the Phillies. He was traded to the Mets three years later in a package that included pitcher Noah Syndergaard as part of a seven-player deal for R.A. Dickey. D'Arnaud made his major league debut on Aug. 17, 2013, but injuries have prevented him from consistently staying in the majors. In 67 games this season, he hit .268 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs.
"He was a power hitter for us," O'Neil said. "All of the fields in our area are pretty large so you're not going to have big home run stats, but he was a very good hitter and very, very good defensively. If you watch him now on TV, he's so good defensively, and we saw glimpses of that when he was here. He was a leader and just a great defensive and offensive guy."
O'Neil is still amazed by Duffy's transformation as a baseball player from the first time he saw him at Lakewood in 2006 to what he has turned into with the Giants.
"Matt was one of our favorites, but we didn't think he would go as far as he did," O'Neil said. "He proved everybody wrong. He was a hard worker for us and never quit."
Duffy, a third baseman for the Giants, went to Long Beach State after graduating from Lakewood in 2009 and was drafted by San Francisco in the 18th round of the 2012 draft. He was called up to make his major league debut Aug. 1, 2014. Duffy scored the tying run from second base on a wild pitch in the top of the ninth inning in Game 2 of last season's NLCS and recorded a hit in the World Series. This season, Duffy hit .295 with 12 home runs and had 77 RBIs, the most by a Giants rookie since 1972.
The Mets drafted Carp in the ninth round in 2004, and he was the team's minor league player of the year in 2006. He was traded to the Seattle Mariners, with whom he made his major league debut in 2009, before being dealt to the Red Sox in 2013. Carp played in 86 games for the Red Sox during their last World Series season, batting .296 with nine home runs and 43 RBIs.
O'Neil believes his practices, which are patterned after college practices he has observed at Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton and countless baseball clinics over the past three decades, have helped his players succeed long after they have left the program.
"Once our kids leave Lakewood and go to college to play baseball, they always come back and say, 'Coach, these practices are easy compared to Lakewood,'" O'Neil said. "Our kids are already ahead of everyone else because we practice like colleges do. I run drills that I got from professional coaches and college coaches and from all around."
O'Neil and his team will not be watching Game 1 of the World Series live, as they have a game of their own Tuesday night, but they know in one way they'll be in Kansas City with d'Arnaud.
"I was telling the kids about Travis the other day, and I decided to take a picture with my phone of the varsity team and a few JV guys and I sent it to Travis," O'Neil said. "I said, 'Your picture is going to be on his phone during the World Series. That's the phone he's going to have in the clubhouse during the World Series.' They were all so pumped and excited about that."