Dawgin' it
Former major leaguers and teammates Tim Blackwell and Steve Ontiveros will add their expertise to Terry Kennedy's Surf Dawgs coaching staff this season

By Glae Thien
May 28, 2006
San Diego Surf Dawgs pitching coach Tim Blackwell watches Joe Safkin throwing batting practice. Laura Embry/Union-Tribune

When last in the same uniform, Blackwell and Ontiveros played together on the Chicago Cubs from 1978-80. Now they are reunited in a city where they make their homes, on a team in the Single-A Golden Baseball League.

The Surf Dawgs, who open their second season on Thursday at Yuma, may rank second to none in the minor leagues for the name recognition of their coaching staff. The newcomers join manager Terry Kennedy, the former Padres All-Star who guided the club to the inaugural title of the independent league last year.

Also, Blackwell and Ontiveros each own a place in baseball lore.

For Blackwell, it's a local link that figures to be unmatched. He was among five catchers in just more than a decade from Crawford High to reach the major leagues.

The list begins with Dave Duncan and continues with Ed Herrmann, Bob Boone, Blackwell and Dave Engle.

“I wish I knew the formula for that,” said Blackwell, who played 11 seasons in the big leagues with the Red Sox, Phillies, Expos and Cubs. “It was pretty strange to happen in that time frame.”

Today, Asian players are coming to the U.S. to compete in the big leagues, but when Ontiveros played, the U.S. was known more for exporting players to Japan for relative riches, in some cases.

So who was the first American to sign a million-dollar contract in Japan? Ontiveros, who joined the Seibu Lions and spent six seasons abroad, ending his career.

“All in all, I had a good time,” said Ontiveros, a third baseman with the Giants and Cubs who batted .274 over eight major league seasons before leaving for Japan at age 28. “I met a lot of good people. The baseball was pretty good. There were really no negatives other than I was too young to give up what I had here.”

The two new coaches fill the vacancies created when predecessors Larry Owens and Dan Cholowsky left in the offseason to work as area scouts for major league organizations.

“I'm extremely lucky to have both (new coaches),” Kennedy said. “When I heard that they were interested, I was ecstatic. We're the same generation. We played against each other. I trust them because I know what kind of people they are.”

While Blackwell was born in San Diego, Ontiveros adopted the city as his own in 1978, having become acquainted with it during his visits here with clubs opposing the Padres. He later became a familiar face at Patrick Henry High, helping coach baseball and softball when his three children attended the school.

A year ago, when he was out of coaching, Ontiveros learned of the GBL through his daughter, who took a front-office job with the Long Beach Armada following graduation from Long Beach State. So he began attending league games.

“I enjoyed it so much that I got that itch again to be around it,” said Ontiveros, 54, a native of Bakersfield. “I'm sure it's going to be a fun summer. It's the type of place that I can help out. These kids want to learn. They're open for anything, trying to get another good look (from affiliated teams).”

Ontiveros took a leave of absence from his job as operations manager for a local delivery service to join the Surf Dawgs.

“I'll just talk with our players and look at their swings for a while,” he said. “I'll see if there's anything that I can help them with, and on game days, I can give my experience of how to approach situations.”

When Kennedy first learned of Blackwell and Ontiveros' interest in coaching, he pictured each as a hitting instructor, but Blackwell quickly volunteered to be the pitching coach.

In the independent Northern League, Blackwell once served as both manager and pitching coach with St. Paul (Minn.) In all, he has managed 13 seasons in the minor leagues interspersed between coaching assignments.

“It's hard to figure up how many times I've managed and coached,” said Blackwell, 54. “I've coached up to Triple-A level and the big league camp. I've never managed above Double-A. Or I should say at this point.”

Blackwell last worked in pro ball as manager for High Desert, the Brewers' affiliate in the Class A California League in 2003. Then, not by choice, he was away from the pro game for two seasons.

“It was odd,” said Blackwell, who otherwise taught baseball lessons locally. “I called a number of clubs and absolutely got no response two winters ago. It was like my phone lines were cut.”

As circumstances would have it, Blackwell had a busy period of his personal life during that span. Three of his children graduated from college, and two were married. Also, both of his in-laws died after lengthy illnesses.

Blackwell received an offer to work for an affiliated club ahead of this season, but opted to stay close to home with the Surf Dawgs.

“I wasn't sure if I wanted to play house on the other side of the country for six-seven months again,” Blackwell said. “After being off for two summers, this will be a telling thing whether I want to pursue that avenue.”

Right now, for Blackwell and Ontiveros, this is just the place to be

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