NBC Baseball

How Wichita played a central role in Steve McFarland’s charmed baseball life

Steve McFarland (center) is pictured alongside assistants Brent Kemnitz (left), the former WSU pitching coach, and Jack O’Toole. They were the coaching staff that led the Anchorage Pilots to the NBC World Series title in 1986.
Steve McFarland (center) is pictured alongside assistants Brent Kemnitz (left), the former WSU pitching coach, and Jack O’Toole. They were the coaching staff that led the Anchorage Pilots to the NBC World Series title in 1986. Courtesy

He’s been part of championships, ranging from the NBC World Series to a NCAA Division II title to the World Series.

He’s coached future Major League Baseball Hall of Famers like Ozzie Smith and Randy Johnson.

He even played third base on legendary college baseball coach Augie Garrido’s first team, at San Francisco State in 1969.

It’s true Steve McFarland has had a charmed baseball life, which added another accomplishment on Sunday when he was inducted into the NBC World Series Hall of Fame. McFarland compiled a 56-22 record in 17 years coaching in the NBC World Series with the Santa Maria Indians (1978-83) and Anchorage Glacier Pilots (1984-94), winning two championships with a runner-up finish and five third-place finishes.

“I think my story can be traced back to when I first started coming to Wichita,” McFarland said. “To get that opportunity to come there with the players and coaches we had that helped me get noticed as a manager. It seemed like the opportunities just kept mushrooming from there to keep moving in different directions and keep me in the game.”

Twenty-five years had passed since McFarland had been back in Wichita. He wasn’t there to see Lawrence-Dumont Stadium one last time before it was torn down earlier this year in way to build a modern ballpark for Wichita’s incoming Triple-A organization.

That robbed him of the chance to stand on that turf field one more time and absorb nearly two decades of memories. But that didn’t prevent McFarland from reminiscing on the NBC World Series’ glory years during the 1980s.

“Back then, it was the showcase of the summer,” McFarland said. “The best players in the country were there and the fans really made it special and made us feel like we were playing in a big-time event. They knew there were future big-leaguers there. I remember how intense the general managers of the teams used to be. The players and coaches moved on, but the general managers stayed so they were competing every summer to get the best players.”

McFarland first made his name in 1982 when he guided Santa Maria (California) to an upset victory over Anchorage, an NBC powerhouse, in the NBC World Series final. The Pilots were so impressed by him that they eventually lured him away to coach their team. After joining in 1984, McFarland led the Pilots to an NBC World Series title just two years later.

On his Anchorage staff, McFarland recruited Brent Kemnitz, the WSU pitching coach who coached with McFarland in Alaska in the summers from 1984-87.

“When I first came to Wichita State in August 1978, I basically lived at the NBC tournament,” Kemnitz said. “I remember Santa Maria came here in these red uniforms and they had these great teams and I always admired (McFarland) from a distance.

“Then I got the chance to coach with him and he’s just the ultimate players’ manager. Guys absolutely loved playing for him. He kept the game simple. He kept the game fun. He knew the game. He just knew how to manage.”

One of McFarland’s favorite memories of playing in the NBC World Series was in the summer of 1993 when the Pilots featured WSU star Darren Dreifort, who had just been drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Dodgers following three spectacular years with the Shockers.

“That’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to someone being treated like a rock star,” McFarland said. “He had to dress inside the ballpark and then we had to usher him from the front office to the dugout because of all the people. And then after the game, it was the same thing because he was such a big deal.”

McFarland also inherited a Pilots team in 1984 with Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-10 pitcher nicknamed “The Big Unit” who would go on to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He recalls how Johnson pestered him the whole summer to let him bat, promising he could hit like Mark McGwire, who played for the Pilots in 1982. Finally, at the end of a blowout win, McFarland pinch hit Johnson. He took a four-pitch walk and never had another plate appearance that summer.

But McFarland’s favorite memory of Johnson came on the mound. That summer Johnson had dealt with shoulder stiffness and had trouble getting loose. Before one game, teammate Mark Gardner, who pitched 13 years in the majors, made up a story about overhearing the third batter on the other team talking about how he wasn’t worried about facing Johnson.

“So Randy goes out there and blows the first two guys away and then the third guy comes to the plate and of course he didn’t know what was going on,” McFarland said. “But Randy throws a heater and hits him and the guy falls to the ground and Randy is out there yelling, ‘What do you think of me now?’ The poor kid had no idea what was going on.”

McFarland’s career also includes coaching 21 years at Cal Poly, where in his first year he coached Ozzie Smith, who went on to become a Hall of Fame shortstop with the St. Louis Cardinals. McFarland led Cal Poly to the 1989 Division II championship.

From there, he joined the Miami Marlins as a minor league scout in 1994. He left to become a minor league coach for the Chicago Cubs in 1999 and moved into a scouting role with the organization in 2005 and has held that position since.

That gave McFarland his last baseball gift: being there when the Cubs ended their 108-year drought and won the 2016 World Series.

“That’s like the ultimate thing you would ever want to accomplish,” McFarland said. “It’s so special that it might not ever happen again. I’m sure every Cubs fan, every Cubs employee, every Cubs player said, ‘I want to be there when we win a World Series’ and I was lucky enough to be there when it happened.”

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