In 2001, Anthony Sanders, right, is greeted by a Seattle teammate after hitting a grand slam in a spring training game.
Few of the 349 members of the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame connect the way Sarah Beeson Andersen and Art Acosta do. Twenty years ago, he was her driver’s ed teacher.
After hitting .575 at Canyon del Oro High school, Andersen belted 28 home runs as a first-team softball All-American at Stanford in 2001. After being chosen a first-team All-America tailback at Tucson High in 1956, Acosta went to Michigan State and tore up his knee.
“There was a lot of crying,” he remembers.
On Wednesday, there was a lot of smiling.
The Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015 is so ridiculously good that it testifies to Tucson’s growth from an in-the-sticks outpost to one that has a serious backlog. Nine-year NFL starting tackle John Fina required 13 years from retirement to Wednesday’s selection.
“I had my moments,” said Fina, a former Salpointe Catholic and Arizona standout.
In 1958, self-taught golfer Bob Gaona, who grew up across the street from El Rio Golf Course in an economically-deprived home, won the state high school championship with a scoring record that stood until 1997.
Gaona came so far so quickly that when he played in the U.S. Junior Amateur as a Tucson High sophomore, he had never played a golf course rimmed by deep rough. He had only played Tucson’s hard-and-fast courses.
“When I got to Williamstown, Massachusetts, I asked another player ‘when are they going to mow the grass?’ ” Gaona says now. “The guy looked at me like I was from another planet. ‘They don’t cut the grass,’ he said. ‘That’s the rough.’ ”
The Class of 2015 is almost uniquely connected.
It includes three graduates of Santa Rita High School, which has never been confused with an athletic powerhouse. But on Wednesday, ex-Eagles Dannie Jackson, Shawn Charles and Anthony Sanders were honored simultaneously.
Much of it was due to the backlog that the PCSHF has been working on since 1990.
Jackson was the nation’s No. 1-ranked long jumper in 1976, and when Arizona State won the 1977 NCAA track and field championship, Jackson was a go-to guy, a versatile athlete who would win WAC and Pac-10 long jump and decathlon championships. Charles was undefeated in his final two seasons as a Santa Rita wrestler, becoming the first ever to win state championships in three different weight classes (98, 105 and 112 pounds). He became a four-time All-American at ASU and was the Sun Devils’ wrestling coach from 2009-14. Sanders, who initially enrolled at Arizona as a highly-touted quarterback, jumped to baseball where he reached the major leagues and was a gold medal-winning center fielder at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“You look around this room and you see so much good has come from Santa Rita,” said Jackson. “I’m proud to be part of it.”
The inaugural class of the PCSHF (1990) included Ed Updegraff, the leading amateur golfer in Arizona history. On Wednesday, the Class of ’15 included Judy McDermott, the distinguished executive director of the Tucson Conquistadores. She played golf with the 92-year-old Updegraff last week.
“Small world,” she said. “And he can still play.”
The Class of ’15 has big names and small-town legends.
Gilbert Mesa, who pitched a no-hitter as a freshman for Pueblo High School in 1964, became such an accomplished coach at Clifton High School that the baseball facility there now bears his name. When Pima College established its baseball program in 1974, Mesa was one of the forces behind it.
“Our baseball infield was basically all dirt, caliche,” he says. “We’d go play our rival, Morenci, and it was like a golf course. They had grass. But I always thought our kids were better fielders because they learned how to play on dirt. I loved my years at Clifton.”
Big names? Jim Young, Arizona’s football coach from 1973-76, and later the head coach at Army and Purdue, is part of the Class of 2015. So is the late Larry Smith, the Sun Devil tormentor, who, after leaving Arizona, coached USC to three Rose Bowls. Both learned their craft from the legendary Bo Schembechler at Michigan.
“Bo was furious when Larry left for Tucson. He’d go, ‘Why would anyone ever leave Michigan?’ ” says Smith’s widow, Cheryl. “He warned us that Larry would never be a head coach if he left Michigan.”
One the same day in 1976, Smith was offered the head coaching jobs at both Tulane and Washington State.
The Class of ’15 also has taste. In Dominic Johnson’s senior year at Amphitheater High School, he pole-vaulted 16 feet, 5 inches, to win the state championship. At Arizona, Johnson cleared a school-record 18-6. He became a three-time Olympian, in 1996, 2000 and 2008, and today he owns the Isabella’s Ice Cream company.
On Wednesday, he drove his old-fashioned ice cream truck to the DoubleTree hotel and treated everyone.
Sweet day. Sweet class.