It's Tuesday and the College of the Canyons baseball team has finished practice for the day. About 20 miles from the Canyons campus in Valencia, pitcher Frank Halcovich is at Granada Hills High, sitting on a rail along the first-base line watching his alma mater rout San Fernando. Sitting beside him is Fred Riscen, who pitches for Pierce College.
Halcovich and Riscen played together at Granada Hills. They're close friends. It's hot and each is wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Granada Hills wins the game, clinching a share of the Mid-Valley League title. Halcovich stares over to the pitcher's mound where the Highlanders are celebrating. He doesn't shout, he doesn't howl, he merely raises a clenched fist toward the mound.
Halcovich sits there quietly, a rarity. It's as if his mind were somewhere else. Three days later in Long Beach, maybe.
"Frank has something to prove," Riscen says. "He's always been good. Now, he wants to prove he's the best."
Much has happened since Halcovich and Riscen pitched Granada Hills to the City 4-A title at Dodger Stadium in 1984.
For Riscen, today will be just another day after the season. For Halcovich, who won 13 games for Canyons this season, however, today is the day he will lead the Cougars into the state tournament.
"You may not believe it," Halcovich said, "but I have all the clippings, all the headlines from last season. I have them up on my wall--a reminder of last year. It won't happen again."
What happened last season was that Canyons, with Halcovich on the mound, lost to Cerritos in the state championship game--and lost big. Halcovich turns somber when he reflects on the Cougars' 14-3 loss to Cerritos.
"I took it pretty hard back then," Halcovich said. "You work so hard all year and then it all ends in a couple of days."
Starting today, Halcovich gets a couple of more days to seek personal redemption. Canyons (36-5) plays Butte (30-7) in the first round of the state tournament at 2 p.m. at Blair Field in Long Beach. Ranked No. 1 in the the Southland Poll by sports information directors, Canyons is favored to win its third state championship.
Halcovich figures to be a central player.
The 6-2, 195-pound sophomore, touted as one of the best right-handers in the state, is undefeated this season. He is the most successful pitcher in Canyons history. This season, he led Canyons in strikeouts, innings pitched and broke two school records--best overall record and most wins.
When he isn't baffling batters with his fastball and slider, he's the team's designated hitter. In the Mountain Valley Conference this season, Halcovich batted .328 and was named co-player of the year. Last season, Halcovich batted .418 and was the state's player of the year and a junior college All-American.
In January, he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals. In April, he signed a national letter of intent with Arizona.
"He was the most actively recruited player that we have ever had here," Canyons Coach Mike Gillespie said. Not bad at a school that has won two state titles and 11 conference championships and has sent dozens of players to major universities in its 16 years.
"He's a damned good player who is really bright," Gillespie said. "A lot of people underestimate Frank, despite his accomplishments. People watch him and say, 'He isn't that good.' The fact is, he is good-- real good."
Gillespie believes Halcovich, 19, is one of the most intense competitors ever to play at Canyons.
"He really enjoys the challenge," Gillespie said. "He really enjoys playing, pitching and hitting against the best teams and the best players. He's a great competitor with great ability. I'm glad we've been able to have him."
There is another side to Halcovich, however, which is rarely seen during games. Although 13 teams this season probably couldn't find much humor in Halcovich, he has the reputation as the team cut-up. Said Gillespie: "He thinks he's Joan Rivers, Don Rickles and Richard Pryor. You give him an inch and he'll take the proverbial 100 miles."
"He loves to put one over on you," Canyons assistant Len Mohney said.
Earlier this season, Halcovich put one over on everybody. He showed up to practice with a new haircut. Normally, there's nothing terribly funny about a new haircut. But Halcovich sported a half-inch crew cut with his number, 40, freshly shaved into the back.
"I was just trying to do something crazy," said Halcovich, rubbing the back of head, where, if you look closely, you can still see signs of the numeral. "I'm an easy-going guy. I just try to keep everybody loose. I'm the most ragged-on guy on the team. I don't get any respect."
Maybe not as a comedian, but as a pitcher and batter, Halcovich commands attention. Take him lightly on the mound and he'll whiz strike three by you faster than you can say, "Not funny."
Take him lightly at the plate and he'll send a pitch over the fence faster than you can say, "He's just a pitcher."
"I like to get down to business," Halcovich said. "I like to sweat, I like to get dirty. Sometimes I won't shave before games because I want to look dirty. When it's time to play, everyone on the other team is my enemy. I don't care if I have played with them for years, I hate them. Even if I was playing against Fred, I'd hate his guts for nine innings."
There won't be anything funny about Halcovich today when Butte meets its new enemy. Halcovich has a chance to prove two things this weekend: that he can help his team win a state championship and, perhaps, become the first player ever to repeat as the California Community College Player of the Year.
"When I walk across those white lines, I'm all business."