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Pepperdine Baseball Star Has Case of the Guilts Over Trying to Be Best in the World

August 13, 1987|ADAM MARTIN | Times Staff Writer

His statistics--athletic and academic--surpass those of most student athletes. But what may really separate right fielder Rick Hirtensteiner from the rest of the world is his guilt.

Hirtensteiner, Pepperdine's starting right fielder who this week carries his contrition to Indianapolis for the Pan Am Games, strives for perfection on the field and in the classroom. Like anyone else, he falls short. But if he doesn't strive, he suffers.

"If I ever did badly at something when I was younger," said the 19-year-old Hirtensteiner, "I didn't feel well. If I don't give my best all the time, I feel kind of guilty, like I've cheated myself out of something."

In 34 games this summer against some of the world's best competition, the only cheating the 5-11 and 185-pound Hirtensteiner's done is on the base paths. His above-average speed stole him 10 bases and his .327 batting average and 20 RBIs washed away most of his doubts. As a business major, he matched his athletic success with a 4.0 grade-point average in his sophomore year and a 3.93 over four semesters, the highest of any Waves' student athlete.

His numbers make guilt seem irrelevant. "But you sense he puts a lot of pressure on himself," said Robert Hirtensteiner, Rick's father. "He always wants to give something extra. That's the type of guy he is. I think he strives to be perfect."

In conversation, Hirtensteiner seems low-key. He speaks as though his achievements are nothing special. Lots of guys hit .330 while carrying a 3.9, right? Maybe. Lots of guys have little humility too. Hirtensteiner doesn't mind when teammates razz him about his California cool, but he shrugs when people mention his intelligence.

"I'm not super intelligent and certainly not the smartest on the Pan Am team," he said. "Half the guys may be smarter. I just study a lot, and they know that. At Pepperdine the guys ask me to help a lot, and I do that."

Hirtensteiner's Puritan-like work habits have him earning 17 credits during fall semesters when the Waves play a full junior college schedule. On road trips he often studies in the car. Balancing school and baseball presents time constraints, but, he said, the weekend always offers time for the beach.

In less than a year, however, Hirtensteiner may be landlocked on a professional minor league team, polishing his talent on a path to the majors. He plans to enter major league baseball's amateur draft after his junior season at Pepperdine. He believes early entry will give him added bargaining power with major league clubs that worry he might return to Pepperdine for another year instead of signing a contract. But even if he waits until graduation to enter the draft, he intends to get 500 major league hits before finding his name on the Fortune 500 list of wealthy business wizards.

"I want to play baseball and that's it," he said.

"Baseball is every young man's dream," added Barbara Hirtensteiner, Rick's mother. "I might find it difficult to accept, but he loves it, and it's his choice."

It's also a choice Hirtensteiner made in one form two years ago. The Houston Astros drafted the Buena High standout in the 34th round of the 1985 amateur draft, hoping to lure him away from college.

"We selected him with hopes of convincing him to begin his pro career," said Dan O'Brien Jr., Astros scouting director. "He was a very talented player, especially with the bat. But obviously his interests were in going to college, and that came as no big surprise."

O'Brien indicated the Astros retain some interest in Hirtensteiner and said Houston might draft him again. If that happens, Hirtensteiner said he's ready to play, something he was not ready for two years ago.

"I wanted to play ball at that time, but I knew I wasn't prepared physically or mentally for professional baseball," he said. "I was a good student and wanted to go to school, get away from home and live by myself."

The statistics suggest he made the right choice. He complements his GPA with noticeable ripples in the Waves' program. After hitting .281 his freshman year, he was named rookie of the year as Pepperdine shared the Western Coast Athletic Conference championship with Loyola-Marymount. The next season, Pepperdine went 48-12, won the conference and Hirtensteiner hit .363 with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs and was named to the all-conference first team.

Before being selected in April for the Pan Am team, he excelled for several other all-star squads, including the Southern California high school all-stars and the USA Junior Olympic Team. He also hit about .360 last summer in an Alaskan league, recognized as one of the top three amateur leagues in the country.

With that history, Hirtensteiner's opportunity to play for his country may not be a surprise. But plenty of surprises awaited him this summer, as the Pan Am team battled Japan, China, South Korea and Canada in the states and recently traveled to Cuba for a five-game series with a country bonkers over baseball.

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