Baseball parks have been remodeled before to complement players' styles or to protect against opposing players' strengths. Outfield fences have been moved in and out for more or less home run production; base paths have been given fast surfaces or wetted down for more or less base stealing.
But Tony Diaz, Santa Monica High School baseball coach, made some alterations this season at his diamond that had no effect on how the game is played.
Diaz said he had to rope off gaps between the backstop and the fences along the first- and third-base lines because so many scouts kept inching out on the playing field to get a better look at Santa Monica senior catcher Kelly Mann.
"After our first game this year, against San Pedro," he said, "there must have been 15 scouts lined up from the bat rack to the opening in the fence. There sure were a lot of people with pads."
Mann, whose surname is appropriate because he is 6-2 and weighs 207 pounds and doesn't look much like a 17-year-old, merits the attention he's been getting from scouts.
A line-drive hitter with a .453 batting average and an arm that resembles a rocket launcher more than a human appendage, recently was named the ninth-best prep baseball player in the country by USA Today and has signed a letter of intent to play for UCLA.
And ninth-best may be underrating him. Diaz said he is "probably one of the top kids in the country," and Pepperdine Coach Dave Gorrie, who tutored Mann at a couple of camp sessions, said he "has all the potential in the world and definitely has major league tools."
Diaz, 26, has strong credentials for judging Mann's talents. He is a former Santa Monica High and Brigham Young University catcher and coached the junior varsity at BYU. He also played on the Santa Monica American Legion Post 123 team that won a national championship in 1976 and went to legion baseball's World Series the next two years.
Teammates in Pros
Several players from that legion team are playing in the high minors, including Tim Leary, Stanley Younger, Roderick Allen and David Montanari. At BYU, Diaz coached Cory Snyder, who was regarded by many as college baseball's best player in 1984 and who signed with the Cleveland Indians.
Like his coach, Mann played on a national championship team--twice. In 1981, he was on the Culver City Babe Ruth League team of 13-year-olds that won that program's World Series and also played with the Culver Babe Ruth 14- and 15-year all-stars who won a national title in 1983. He said he learned a lot of baseball from Art Keith, who coached those Culver teams.
Scouts were interested in Mann at the 1983 national championships, and Diaz said "the thing that attracts people to Kelly is that he has the best arm of any catcher I've played with, against or coached."
Gorrie said that Mann has "an excellent arm. He is a big, strong kid who throws extremely well and has a lot of power." Mann said he learned a lot about hitting from Gorrie at the camps he runs with Tom Gamboa, who manages the minor league Stockton Ports, and that he was surprised that Pepperdine didn't recruit him.
Gorrie said he has two other very good catchers this year, junior Chad Kreuter and sophomore Steve Erickson, and they are expected to return next year unless Kreuter, who is eligible for the June professional baseball draft, signs with a major league club.
If you want an unbiased opinion on Mann's golden arm, a fan of an opposing team at a recent game saw the way the Santa Monica catcher fired the ball back to his pitcher and shouted, "Put the catcher on the mound."
How does the object of all this attention feel about it? Apparently it doesn't surprise him. He can quickly tick off the names of the dozen or so major league teams and the dozens of colleges that have shown interest in him.
He said he has been preparing himself to play major league baseball since he was 13. "I stopped playing (Pop Warner) football when I was 13 because I knew what I wanted to do. I liked baseball better, and I didn't want to take any chances on being injured playing football."
Asked if he will sign with a major league team if he is drafted in June and pass up going to UCLA, Mann said he would go with the pros if he is offered enough money--though he would not say how much is enough.
Wants to Broadcast
"I can always go to college," he said, mentioning that he wants to major in communications in college and eventually become a baseball broadcaster.
"Being in baseball is really the best way to make a living," he said. "If you stay healthy and play a long time, you make much money. And you stay in the limelight a very long time if you're good."
Reminded that others have said they would get a college degree and didn't follow through, he hedged a little, wondering if he should have said what he did. But then he added that he would get a degree because "I've got a brain and a 3.0 (in a 4-point system) grade-point average."