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Major Strides : In their pursuit of a career in baseball, there were stops on the road from Denver to Maine and points in between. Today five players from the Valley have reached the big time in a big way.

November 27, 1986|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

Nobody ever questioned Tim Foli's obsession with baseball.

When the longtime major-league infielder was in his first full professional season, as a shortstop playing Class-A ball at Visalia in 1969, he had a group of friends come up from the Valley to watch him play.

The group, numbering about 20, camped out at his house for the night. It was a warm summer evening, made warmer by the large group spread everywhere in the house. So Foli grabbed a sleeping bag and a radio and headed for the nearby ballpark. He spread out the bag between second and third, right at the spot where he played short, and went to sleep in the only place he really felt at home. He never again slept on the job, but he spent most of his waking hours on a diamond over the next 19 years.

In high school, he was a three-sport star. Although living in Canoga Park, he attended Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks because it was a private institution, which allowed him to play three sports as a freshman rather than the two he would be allowed in a public school. He started on the varsity baseball team all four years for the Knights and most of three seasons for the football and basketball teams. In his senior year, he was Southern Section 3-A Player of the Year in baseball, All-Southern Section in football and all-league in basketball.

"He was a great football player, a polished baseball player when he was 12 years old," one of his many managers, Gene Mauch, said while Foli was still an active player. "It's all he knew. He was going to revolutionize the game, a combination Pee Wee Reese and Joe DiMaggio. Anything less than that tore him up. Anything less than total excellence by his own young standards was torture."

Foli was on his way to USC to play quarterback for Coach John McKay when the New York Mets made him the No. 1 pick in the June, 1968, draft.

Foli couldn't resist.

He got a $75,000 signing bonus and, three years later, was at third base for the Mets. He went on to spend 14 years in the majors, going to the Expos after leaving New York, then on to the Giants, Mets again, Pirates, Angels, Yankees and Pirates again.

In all, he played 1,696 games, collected 1,515 hits, 25 home runs, drove in 501 runs and wound up with a .250 career batting average.

If he had been required to live and die with his statistics, he would have died. He didn't have the ability to consistently put up big numbers. But that didn't stop him from producing big plays. If he had ever won a triple crown, it would have been for most sacrifice bunts, most runners moved up and most baserunners protected.

Mauch built part of his offense around Foli's talents when the infielder was with the Angels. Foli teamed with catcher Bob Boone at the bottom of the Angel lineup to specialize in moving runners over and often home with bunts, sacrifice flies or whatever else the situation called for, a strategy that became known as Little Ball.

For Tim Foli, it was a career.

At age 35, Foli, a Florida resident for the past 11 years, has begun a new life. His active baseball career ended ingloriously with the minor-league Miami Marlins in the summer of '85.

But this past season, he was back in the bigs--as the third base coach of the Texas Rangers.

"I've fit in pretty well as a coach," he says. "My whole objective is to learn the ropes over the next two or three years and see if I can become a manager. If not, I'll go out and do something else."

Foli figured he'd be able to kick his emotions into a lower gear in his new career. After all, it wasn't him up there anymore, making an error or striking out.

He figured wrong.

"I take what the kids on this team do personally," he says. "When they have a bad day, I can't sleep. It's been a lot harder mentally than I thought it would be."

Foli focused on youngsters such as infielders Scott Fletcher and Steve Buechele.

"The success of this team, though, has got to come back to the manager, Bobby Valentine," Foli says. "He's not putting any excess pressure on these kids. You have to have a strong framework to build a house. Bobby is giving us some good pillars.

"And these kids today are bigger and stronger than we were and they have more ability. They all work out with weights. Plus, they are able to adapt a lot quicker."

But they just aren't as dedicated as their teacher. Not one of them, for example, has come to work with a sleeping bag.

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