The city of Lakewood sprang to existence as a conduit to home ownership for World War II veterans. In a span of three years at the turn of the century, empty fields gave way to 17,500 homes. It is still regarded as one of the original model bedroom communities in Southern California.
It is also the hometown of three established major leaguers: Angels infielder Matt Duffy, Seattle Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford and Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud. All three graduated from Lakewood High in a span of six years. All three have persisted through obstacles to keep alive their alma mater’s underdog legacy.
Duffy and d’Arnaud were designated for assignment within a few months of each other in 2019. Each found his way back to the majors. The Philadelphia Phillies, who drafted Crawford in the first round in 2013, seemed to give up on him when they traded him to the Mariners in 2018. Since then Crawford has thrived, turning into an everyday starter and even a Gold Glove Award winner in 2020.
All three have something in common besides just a hometown. It is, at least for Duffy and Crawford, a voice inside their head. It is the voice of Matt Nuez.
Nuez was an assistant coach at Lakewood High from 1999 to 2011. He went on to become the head coach at Los Alamitos, a position he held until recently stepping away to spend more time with his family. If you played for Nuez, hearing his voice long past your graduation day was a natural reaction.
“He’s out there every day yelling and screaming, just trying to get us better, and making one person fight for the person right next to you,” Crawford said.
“He cared so much,” Duffy said. “He toughened us up. When we’d come in there, we were young, pretty soft kids that hadn’t had a whole lot of challenges in life. He kind of gave that necessary experience to us. His whole thing was, ‘the world doesn’t care what you feel. You have to learn how to deal with adversity, deal with failure, deal with somebody yelling at you,’ or whatever it is. Not everybody could handle that, I think.”
Those who did thrived, forming habits that served them coming up through the minor leagues and beyond.
Watch carefully, and you will occasionally see Duffy and Crawford look down at their shoes as they cross home plate when scoring a run. That’s from Nuez. “Shooting the plate,” they call it – a fail-safe against missing home plate.
Crawford makes it a point to run hard out of the batter’s box, even when he walks. That’s Nuez, too. When Duffy is running the bases, he still tries to run through a between-pitches checklist he learned at Lakewood.
“It was pitcher, hitter, pitch, count,” Duffy said. “Who’s the pitcher? You’ve got to know his pickoff move, time to the plate. Hitter – who’s up, where does he like to hit the baseball, will he bunt, will he not. Pitch – so, like, anticipating a pitch, ball in the dirt. Then the count. After that, it was outfield, infield. After every single pitch you went through those things and showed the outs to the third-base coach.”
It’s nothing fancy, but the advanced-level training in fundamentals gave the Lakewood players a leg up on their peers. Duffy said he still encounters teammates at the major-league level who never learned some of the things he was taught in high school – looking back at home plate when trying to advance to second base on a hit-and-run play, for example.
To hear Nuez tell it, the story of how a public school in a quaint bedroom community produced three major leaguers isn’t about him. He thinks of himself as a conduit – continuing the tradition of the city itself and its baseball culture specifically.
Nuez calls John Herbold the “godfather” of that culture. The Stanford-educated coach compiled a 483-176 record across 28 years at Lakewood and Long Beach Poly, leading Lakewood to championships in 1970 and 1974. Herbold concluded his coaching career at Cal State Los Angeles from 1984-2004. He passed away in 2017 at age 88.
More than compiling wins, Herbold planted seeds, creating a strong youth baseball program in the city that continues to bear fruit. Crawford, Duffy and d’Arnaud are the 13th, 14th and 15th major league players in the history of the program.
It is telling that the two longest-tenured Lakewood alumni in the majors, Damion Easley and Chris Gomez, played a combined 33 years and made just one All-Star Game between them. They were fundamentally sound players who persisted despite being unspectacular – the epitome of the “working-class mentality” Nuez prided himself in instilling.
Nuez grew up in Lakewood. He remembers meeting Herbold when he was 7 years old at a youth baseball camp in town.
“He just cultivated that desire to learn baseball, to learn the game,” Nuez said. “Not just me. It was everyone.”
Nuez went on to play for Walter “Spud” O’Neil at Lakewood High, then continued his playing career at L.A. Harbor College and Pepperdine, before rejoining the Lakewood program as O’Neil’s assistant. O’Neil persisted at Lakewood after Nuez left for Los Alamitos. Last year, O’Neil became one of four California high school baseball coaches to win 900 career games.
“They just had a really good mix,” Duffy said of his two coaches. “Nuez taught me a lot. He was the tough-love coach that I wouldn’t have made it here without him. At first, you hate the guy. Looking back, it’s nothing but fond memories and love.”
“He’s the guy who shaped my young career,” Crawford said. “He’s the one who brought that energy and brought that culture.”
Like baseball men of every generation, Nuez fears that the culture he helped shape is eroding – that his unselfish ideal is giving way to the glamour of national letter of intent signing days and name, image and likeness riches. It’s a refrain as old as the game itself.
For now, Lakewood still has three walking advertisements for the triumph of culture and hard work and, occasionally, tough love. It’s an advertisement that won’t play during the All-Star Game. But it’s the best endorsement for Southern California’s baseball culture, as far from the Hollywood lights as the definition of “bedroom community” will allow.