Fred Warrecker ranks tied for seventh in CIF-Southern Section history with his 615 baseball victories at Santa Barbara High
Young Fred Warrecker would ride shotgun on the family tractor whenever his dad plowed the fields at their Santa Maria Valley farm.
At the tender age of 10, however, he suddenly found himself alone in the driver’s seat.
“Dad didn’t say a word, he just jumped off the tractor,” Warrecker recalled six decades later. “He thought I knew what I was doing, so he just left me there on that big International Harvester in the middle of a field without saying a thing.
“I stayed on it for the rest of that afternoon … You couldn’t have gotten me off that thing.”
He meant that story as a metaphor for what had been his unexpected detour into high school coaching. It took him on a journey that lasted nearly half a century.
Warrecker’s own story reached its conclusion on June 26 when he died at age 84.
He guided Santa Barbara High School to 615 wins during 43 seasons as its varsity baseball coach.
That total moved him into a tie with Lompoc High’s Dan Bodary, his old Santa Barbara County rival, for seventh place in the CIF-Southern Section record books for most victories at the same school.
Warrecker was 76 when his own son, Donny, took over the steering wheel at Eddie Mathews Field in 2015.
He was inducted just a year later into several halls of fame, including those of the California Baseball Coaches Association, the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table and the Santa Barbara Foresters Baseball Club.
Warrecker’s sharp mind may have turned foggy in his final years, but he still liked talking baseball until the very end with former assistant coach Michael Cooney.
Nobody was fonder of telling a story than Fred Warrecker. That helped make his class in Sports Literature one of the most popular courses at Santa Barbara High.
“He had a real incredible memory and used it all the time when he was a coach,” Cooney told Noozhawk. “It was like he was a very bright light that slowly dimmed and went out recently due to his general illness.
Warrecker was born in Santa Barbara in 1939 to the family of Arthur Fredrick and Graciana Delores Warrecker.
It wasn’t long, however, before the family moved to the North County farm of his Basque grandparents, Ignacio and Marie Apalategui.
Warrecker was a lefthander who threw wicked curveballs even before he went solo on a tractor. He pitched in the first Little League game ever played in Santa Maria in 1950. He lost a 1-0 pitcher’s duel in a contest played with much pomp and circumstance before a crowd of 400 at the current site of Simas Park, at 600 S. McClelland St.
His love for baseball had become irrevocable by the time he graduated with Santa Maria High’s Class of 1956.
“A lot of how I coach goes back to my own coach at Santa Maria High, Don Wilson,” Warrecker told me. “I just loved him. He made it seem like you were doing something so neat, to put on the uniform and run around at Elks Field.”
Warrecker made a point of sitting next to Wilson on every one of the team’s bus trips.
“I wanted to hear what he’d say,” he explained. “He had a great sense of humor.
“Every bum you’d see on the road, he’d perk up and say, ‘See, that’s what happens when you can’t hit the curve ball.’”
Back in Santa Barbara
Warrecker was supposed to transfer to UCLA after his freshman year at Santa Barbara City College. He threw the Bruin recruiters another one his curves, however, after his freshman season with the Vaqueros in 1957.
“I said, ‘Nah, I’m not leaving Santa Barbara,’” he said.
He played three seasons at UC Santa Barbara, outdueling one of UCLA’s ace pitchers along the way.
He was named as the Gauchos’ most valuable player during his senior year of 1960 after having honed his skills with the Foresters during the previous three summers.
He served his two-year military obligation before returning to UCSB to earn a graduate degree in English literature.
“My idea was to get a Ph.D. and teach in college,” he recalled.
That plan changed after Warrecker coached after-school sports at Dolores — a Catholic elementary school now known as the Notre Dame School — to “make some money in the afternoon.”
It was the first step toward a profession that would consume the remainder of his life.
“It was as good a job as I’ve ever had,” Warrecker said. “I loved it, and the kids were fantastic. I was there for three years while finishing up at UCSB.
“And then, because all those kids were going to Bishop Diego, some of their parents put in a good word for me.”
The school hired Warrecker during the fall of 1968 to teach English and history as well as coach its junior varsity football team. He took on freshman basketball in the winter and varsity baseball in the spring.
“We had great teams,” he said. “We had some talent. The kids were good.”
I joined those kids on his Junior League baseball team during the summer of 1969. I was in the transition of changing schools to Bishop from La Cumbre Junior High before the start of my sophomore year.
Warrecker gave me a start at second base. He had second thoughts, however, when I let a ball bounce through my legs during one of our first games. He’d preached the importance of staying down on a ground ball just one practice earlier.
Warrecker opened our next practice, as always, with a story. It was about Jack Lucas, a 17-year-old Marine who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“This kid forged his mother’s signature and joined up when he was just 14 — younger even than all you babies,” he began.
“He threw himself atop two grenades that had been tossed into the trench he was sharing with his buddies.”
Warrecker then looked directly at me while adding, “He put his body on the line for his friends.”
He then called out everyone’s position for infield practice. I was relieved to hear my name for second base. And then I was dumbfounded by this addendum:
“… Leave your glove in the dugout.”
I heard another instruction while trotting to my position:
“The whole team will run a lap for each groundball that gets past an infielder.”
Warrecker paused a few seconds, perhaps to see if his bare-handed second baseman would quit his post, before batting grounders at us all. I spent the next excruciating minutes as a human backstop, happy only for having worn my protective cup that day.
“OK,” Warrecker said when the barrage finally ended. “You’re still my second baseman.”
Some old, yellow newspaper clippings tell me that we won the Junior League championship that summer with a record of 14-2-1. We beat each of the summer teams from the three larger, public high schools.
The athletic director at Santa Barbara High took notice and hired Warrecker just one year later.
“The only reason I left,” he insisted 40 years later, “was because it was double the salary, plus the eventual benefits you get from working in the public school system.”
I asked during that interview if he remembered my gloveless workout. He nodded his head and laughed.
“Different era … I couldn’t get away with that now,” he said. “Hey, we were sending kids off to Vietnam back then … A few ground balls weren’t going to kill you.
“You know, that Lucas guy survived those hand grenades … and so did you.”
I knew what I was getting myself into when I joined Warrecker’s JV football team that fall. He toughened us up enough to go 8-0, beating the bigger boys at both San Marcos and Dos Pueblos. We outscored our opponents 245-46.
His success in developing young football players continued at Santa Barbara High. His freshman teams won 41 consecutive games over one stretch.
Josh Bryant recalled how Warrecker made his players wear their helmets and pads home after a rare loss to Lompoc.
“Coach may have been tough on discipline, but deep down, he was all about helping kids,” he said. “If you messed up, if you truly owned your mistake, he’d give you a second chance.”
Bill Oliphant, his longtime assistant in both football and baseball, recalled the gritty but crafty way Warrecker prepared his young Dons for a muddy game at Crespi in Encino.
“First order: As we came dressed, he had everyone run and slide on the ground, get mud- and grass-stained before we took a snap,” he recalled. “Guys were fired up about that! No complaints.”
Warrecker and his staff wore only T-shirts and baseball caps for another rainy game at Buena in Ventura.
“Buena’s coaches were in full rain gear,” Oliphant recalled. “First order again: Everyone slide, get wet, get dirty in the pouring rain.
“We led 28-0 by halftime.”
Bulletin Board Material
The stories he told his players weren’t always about the virtues of bloody or muddy battle. He’d often begin practice with a moral lesson, offering a quotation or anecdote to emphasize a point.
He even put a bulletin board in the Dons’ dugout to let the players tack on their own “moral maxims.”
“We really try to integrate literature and philosophy into baseball,” Warrecker said. “And I try to keep things present, too, so the kids can relate to them.
“My favorites are stories like The Ugly Duckling, The Little Engine That Could — any of those kinds of things. I think that’s what the kids need. They need encouragement. It’s very surprising how many kids are discouraged by adults.
“And that idea of the beautiful swan emerging, in some metaphor or another, is a constant. I always talk about success stories.”
Jesse Orosco, who pitched on Warrecker’s first Santa Barbara High teams of 1974 and 1975, was one of those success stories.
He became a two-time Major League All-Star, won World Series rings with both the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, and set a big-league record of 1,252 appearances.
But Warrecker’s baseball program really hit its stride during the late 1990s. It began turning out a succession of future Major Leaguers, starting with Ryan Spilborghs.
Virgil “Matt” Vasquez also made it to the big leagues after pitching the Dons to their first CIF-Southern Section final in 48 years in the 2000 season.
Dylan Axelrod and Cord Phelps were other Major Leaguers from an era when the Dons won 10 Channel League titles in a 13-year span.
Jack Crummer, who batted a team-best .412 for Santa Barbara’s championship team of 2010, said Warrecker’s stories would often get specific about the exploits of those Don greats.
“He’d always talk about the amazing play that Cord Phelps once made in the hole, and how it made the entire stadium of the other team get quiet,” he said.
Cooney thought Warrecker preferred the workouts more than the games.
“He ran a really good practice,” he said. “He’d be like an announcer, and he’d cheer for a kid who made a diving stop on the third-base line, or something.
“It might as well have been the World Series, he’d get so animated and excited. It generally allowed Fred to support kids in a way that he had trouble doing during the games because he was so uptight.”
Cooney said it was awkward for Warrecker to deal with parents, but “he really connected with the kids.”
“They wouldn’t want to leave at the end of practice,” he said. “They’d just go to the batting cages, or whatever. And that was similar to the reactions he’d get from his storytelling in class.
“The kids had fun, and that helped him get the most out of his teams. It was actually pretty impressive.”
A Family Affair
Some of Warrecker’s best players were his own sons. All six — Wes, Willy, Jonathan, Tony, Teddy and Donny — played for the Dons.
Donny, Fred and Marcia Warrecker’s youngest child, made the All-Regional team as a catcher after UCSB’s NCAA Tournament run of 2001.
The Warrecker legacy continues with grandson Bryce, Wes’ son, who served as the ace of Cal Poly’s pitching staff last season. He’s expected to be chosen in the MLB Amateur Draft which begins next Sunday.
Baseball has kept the entire family close.
“It’s a blessing, trust me,” Fred told me in 2010.
“I love that part of it,” he added. “It’s so fun to go over to Wes’ house, which is usually the meeting place. And we meet at Teddy’s place, too.
“And we’ll sit there, and they’re not just your sons anymore — they’re your brothers.
“That’s what’s really beautiful. You’re equals, and you go out and talk … and you pretty much share the same values.”
He learned that atop a tractor, a long time ago.