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From the Vault: Former Santa Maria High football and baseball standout James Steels
From the Vault

From the Vault: Former Santa Maria High football and baseball standout James Steels

Santa Maria High School has a sneaky good athletic history. 

There are college or pro stars in various sports from Santa Maria's glory days. 

Perhaps there is one former SMHS standout that flies under the radar.

That would be the one and only James Steels, who graduated in 1979.

If Steels isn't included in the list of Santa Maria High's greatest athletes, he certainly should be.

Steels was a dynamic football player for the Saints, perhaps one of the school's best running backs, though that distinction likely goes to Eddie Johnson, who rushed for over 3,200 yards at Utah. 

Steels was so good on the gridiron, in fact, that he (almost) single-handedly engineered the Saints' huge upset win over San Luis Obispo as a junior in 1977. In that game, Steels had 28 carries for 131 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown in a 14-7 victory. 

Also, according to a report from Mark Patton, who was the Sports Editor of the Santa Maria Times back then, Steels "made a thrilling, juggling catch and ran it in for the other Saint touchdown on a 61-yard play in the second quarter."

Steels also kicked both of the Saints' extra points and narrowly missed a 36-yard field goal attempt that "struck the top of the goalpost's right upright." Steels also provided hard-nosed defense at his linebacker position and handled the Saints' punting duties, averaging nearly 36 yards a kick. 

After that game, though, Steels didn't take much credit for the win.

"It was the line, it was the line," he told Patton. "They blocked just great. The holes were there -- even in the fourth quarter."

Steels had 13 straight carries in the fourth quarter in that 1977 game in San Luis Obispo. 

During Steels' senior football season at Santa Maria High in 1978, he was the Northern League's leading rusher and finished third in the entire CIF Southern Section in rushing with 1,434 yards on 213 carries. He scored 20 touchdowns on the ground that year. 

Steels continued as the Saints' starting kicker. He booted 22 extra points that season and was the second-place scorer in all of the CIF Southern Section with 142 points. 

The running back led the Saints to the CIF Southern Section semifinals that year. He was named the Northern League's co-MVP along with Casey Candaele, who played quarterback for the Lompoc Braves.

Sure enough though, football wasn't the best sport for Steels or Candaele. In fact, both would go on to play Major League Baseball. (Larry Lee was San Luis Obispo's quarterback at the same time. Lee is Cal Poly's longtime baseball coach and was also a pro baseball player). 

For all his glory on the gridiron, Steels may have been better on the baseball diamond, a stellar outfielder and left-handed hitter. 

Santa_Maria_Times_Fri__Dec_21__1979_(2).jpg

Santa Maria High football and baseball standout James Steels.

Steels dominated the youth and high school ranks while playing for the Saints and was drafted in the seventh round by the San Diego Padres in June of 1979. Steels didn't sign right away and actually played football for a season at Hancock College in the fall of that year before signing his deal with the Padres in December. Of course Steels also excelled with the Bulldogs on the gridiron.

Steels made his MLB debut as a 25-year-old rookie with the Padres in April of 1987. He'd play his final MLB game in May of 1989, collecting 24 hits in his career that was derailed by injuries and bad timing. 

In 1990, Steels started the year with the Montreal Expos' Triple-A club in Indianapolis after being traded by the San Francisco Giants. At the Triple-A level, Steels was "in and out of the American Association's top 10 in batting until breaking his thumb in early July," according to a Santa Maria Times report from September of 1990. That prevented Steels from getting a call-up to the Expos when outfielder Marquis Grissom went down with an injury. 

Steels had metal pins placed in his thumb so he could continue playing then, but said "I couldn't throw real well and I didn't have any power."

Once healthy, he was traded the Pittsburgh Pirates, who then sent him to play in Mexico City, where he hit .308. 

"It wasn't that bad," Steels said of Mexico City, according to the Times' John Grennan. "I went there last winter and played. They had a Denny's and a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a McDonald's, so that made it livable."

Steels would never break back into the majors. He still had baseball in his blood, coaching for a number of years in the area, with Orcutt Babe Ruth and at Righetti High. His son, Jake Steels, was a baseball and football standout at Righetti, graduating in 2020. 

Player of the Decade: We're looking for the top player of the last 10 seasons

The sports staff at the Santa Maria Times, Lompoc Record and Santa Ynez Valley News is looking for the top football player from Northern Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County over the last 10 seasons of high school ball.

See who our nominees are thus far.

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