Big-time baseball players have been known to come out of small towns in Oklahoma. Most notably, Mickey Mantle grew up in Commerce, a spot on the map in the northeast corner of the state. Out west, the tiny hamlet of Binger produced Johnny Bench. Another settlement in western Oklahoma is Sentinel, population 800, and a young man from there is a rebel with a cause. His name is Rebel Ridling, and he is playing ball this summer with the Santa Barbara Foresters.
“The beauty of this team,” said Bill Pintard, manager of the semi-pro Foresters, “is we get guys from all over.” Pintard’s club is populated mainly by Californians who are adept at pitching, defense, and moving runners around the bases-hallmarks of West Coast collegiate baseball. But there is a smattering of players from the heartland whose approach is to thump the ball as hard and as far as they can.
Ridling is a solidly built (6Ê¹3Ê° and 225 pounds) first baseman and outfielder who joined the Foresters in mid June after helping Oklahoma State reach the Super Regionals of the NCAA baseball tournament. He started all 63 games for the Cowboys and finished his junior year with a .336 batting average, 14 home runs, and 68 runs-batted-in. In his first dozen games with the Foresters, Ridling was hitting .432, with three home runs, 14 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .750.
“He’s a big, strong country boy,” Pintard said. “He has a good demeanor and serious power.”
Ridling grew up on a ranch outside Sentinel. “There’s not much there,” he said. “A couple places to eat, a grocery store. : If you want to go to a movie, you have to go to Elk City, 30 minutes away.” One of the region’s biggest events is the annual Rattlesnake Derby in the town of Mangum. It is like a rodeo of serpents and also a culinary attraction. “They cook ’em up,” Ridling said. He noted that Mangum is the hometown of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Braden Looper.
Ridling went from Sentinel’s high school graduating class of 23 students to a junior college in Midland, Texas. One season there was enough to earn him a scholarship to Oklahoma State, a perennially strong program. The most famous Cowboy ballplayer was Robin Ventura, the infielder from Santa Maria whose 58-game hitting streak stands as the NCAA Division I record.
Ventura had an outstanding professional career, and Ridling aspires to do the same. This season with the Foresters is helping him get used to swinging wooden bats. “I was in a wooden-bat league in Virginia last summer and just did so-so,” Ridling said.
“You’ve got to square up every time with a wooden bat,” said Gary Woods, the Foresters’ hitting coach. “The sweet spot is a lot smaller than it is with an aluminum bat.” Ridling found the sweet spot last Saturday when he laced a double into the left-field corner. “I’m sure he will play at the next level,” said Woods, who played 10 years in the major leagues. “Rebel Ridling-that’s a major-league name.”
Pintard was awaiting the arrival this week of another slugger from the prairie. Texas outfielder Kyle Russell led the nation in home runs with 28. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Cardinals but is unsure whether he’ll sign a professional contract. In the meantime, Russell wants to play for the Foresters.
Santa Barbara is ahead of the pace set by last year’s club, which won the championship of the NBC World Series in Wichita, Kansas. The Foresters finished the month of June with a 22-3 record. Whereas half those games were on the road, they will play 11 of their next 12 at UCSB’s Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, starting Thursday evening, July 5, against the Palm Springs Power. The Monterey Bay Sox will visit for games at 5 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.