John Eccles is not the type of baseball player who strikes fear in the hearts of pitchers when he steps to the plate. He's listed at 6-feet and 190 pounds in the Cal State Fullerton media guide, but he must have been standing on his tiptoes when they measured him and had his pockets full of buckshot when he got on the scales.
Add a boyish freckled face--straight out of a peanut butter commercial--and you get the impression a Little Leaguer could throw the ball by Eccles.
Last season, in fact, the Titan catcher was more likely to strike out than strike fear. He was Fullerton's designated hitter much of the time because of shoulder and hand injuries. Eccles hit .225 and drove in 14 runs in 42 games.
This season, however, the senior cleanup hitter brings a lot of imposing numbers to the plate. He still can't match Frank Howard in the height and weight department, but his .369 average, 20 doubles, 8 home runs and 45 RBIs are making people take notice.
Titan Coach Augie Garrido is hardly surprised, though.
"John could always hit," he said. "It's his defense that's really improved. The injuries hurt his offense last year and the pressure of just hitting was a factor . . . feeling like you have to produce at the plate.
"But his catching was really suspect. In one year, he's improved to the point where he is an above-average catcher. Now, it's his defensive prowess and his handling of the pitchers that make him most valuable to this team.
"I blame myself for a lot of his problems last season. I over-coached him because I failed to identify his personality type. You mention one thing to John and he'll spend forever working on it. Suggest 25 things and he can't do that."
It's not that he didn't try. There's nothing Eccles won't try if he thinks it'll make him a better player. He's almost always the first on the field for practice and the last to leave.
"He's always doing something to improve his game," Garrido said.
Eccles, a young man of few words, smiles sheepishly and shrugs. "That's the way I was brought up," he said. "It's easy for me."
Garrido, of course, knows most players require more motivation. And few ever acquire the never-give-up attitude that Eccles takes for granted.
"We're playing in the Fresno tournament (Best of the West) and we're losing, 13-4, in the top of the eighth," Garrido said. "John's on first with nobody out and the batter hits a pop foul behind first base. The first baseman plays it nonchalant so John tags and goes to second.
"That's the sort of play that has earned him the respect of this team. He's got real credibility with the other players and has become an outstanding team leader because he leads by example. He's one of the classiest people to ever put on a Fullerton baseball uniform."
Garrido's personal Most Classy Player award was nice, but Eccles was more interested in being the team's Most Valuable Player. So, he took his sore arm and ruptured ego North--to the Alaska summer leagues--and came back with the defense and the offense to be the team's on-the-field leader as well.
Eccles admits that he didn't exactly love every minute of his two-month sojourn in the Great Northwest, but he couldn't be happier with the results.
"Last year, I couldn't throw, and that was really frustrating," Eccles said. "Then I started pressing at the plate, thinking too much about my hitting. I went to Alaska to prove to myself that I could still hit, call a good game and get the job done defensively.
"I'm proud of what I did and I came back with a lot more confidence."
Garrido thinks it was a case of Eccles being able to assimilate all the information the Titan coaching staff dumped on him in his first year at Fullerton after transferring from Rancho Santiago College.
"He took all those instructions up there and was able to slowly and comfortably put them into use," Garrido said. "Now, he has no glaring defensive weaknesses and our pitchers love to throw to him. He brings out the best in our staff. They have a mutual trust that's really important.
"He took a giant step forward over the summer. I think he's ahead of most of the catchers in the West. Now he has to continue to grow, continue to mature and take the small steps forward that will keep him ahead of them."
Eccles, not surprisingly, has aspirations to play professionally. And it seems certain he'll get the chance.
"I would be very surprised if he didn't get a chance to play. He's going to get drafted. . . . I don't know where, but he'll get drafted," said Bud Pritchard, who scouts for a bureau that services 26 major league clubs. "Catchers are always a top priority, and when a kid makes that much improvement in a year, there's a great deal of interest.
"There was even a little interest in him when he was in high school (Mater Dei). There was quite a bit last year and now he's getting a lot of attention."
Eccles beams at the mere mention of professional baseball: "I'd sure love to have the chance to give it a shot." But he's quick to add that he's "more concerned with winning a national title."
"This team is put together really well," he said. "It's the type of team without stars where everyone counts on everyone else. We're just a bunch of kids playing hard and having fun, all out here for one thing."
The 11th-ranked Titans are 24-11 overall and 3-1 in Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. play going into this afternoon's game against Nevada Las Vegas at Titan Field. And, while Eccles may not realize it, the Titans do have a star . . . and it appears to be on the rise.