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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: PETE LaCOCK : Baseball Nomad Finds a Home in the Midwest : Family man: After a brief but unpleasant stay in Japan, former Taft High standout is happily settled in Kansas City.

September 19, 1990|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He could very well be the answer to a question on "Hollywood Squares," the TV game show hosted by his father Peter Marshall:

"Which former major league baseball player played in the World Series one year and in Japan the next?"

Bzzzzz zz.

Pete LaCock.

In 1981 he spent a season with the Taiyo Whales one year after playing in the Fall Classic for the Kansas City Royals.

LaCock's experiences in Japan were reported in The Times on Sept. 7, 1981, with his team 23 games out of first place. Except for the sushi, he was not enjoying himself and he made barbed comments about Japanese baseball.

"These people are nuts," he was quoted as saying a week before the season ended.

Did LaCock ever find happiness in Japan?

No way.

The Times caught up with the 1969 Taft High graduate recently and found out that he and his family left Japan immediately after the season on the first available flight. LaCock never unraveled the mysteries of the East--or left-handed pitching, for that matter.

Back in the States, LaCock had offers to play in the majors again but decided to retire, he said, "to put down roots and raise a family." He spent the past decade living in Overland Park, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City.

Japan might have been a cultural overload for a guy from Woodland Hills, but LaCock was able to handle the Midwest.

"I like it here," LaCock said.

But does he miss Southern California?

"Not that much. I miss the ocean. I miss my mom, who lives in Malibu, and my dad, who lives in Encino, but between the traffic and the craziness of L. A., it's a lot more relaxing in Kansas."

LaCock, 38, is an account executive for a financing service. Living in the Kansas City area enables him to capitalize on his Royals connection--he played for them for four seasons, hitting .303 one year as a part-time first baseman--but the name recognition also works against him.

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "People you call on can be impressed that they're meeting a baseball player, but they can also think, 'Why does he need the business? He's a rich player.' "

LaCock did strike it rich--at an age when his friends were still earning $2 an hour flipping burgers. As a strapping 18-year-old phenom at Taft, LaCock hit .500 his senior year and was the No. 1 draft choice of the Chicago Cubs, who gave him a $58,000 signing bonus.

"I decided I wanted a new Porsche," he said. "If baseball didn't work out, I could always go to college."

Nobody at Taft would have predicted that baseball would be LaCock's main sport. He was a 6-foot-4, 215-pound terror at offensive and defensive tackle for the Toreadors.

In his senior season he was named West Valley League player of the year, made All-American and All-City Section teams and was offered several college football scholarships.

In baseball, he did not even earn a varsity letter until his last year at Taft. He had to be talked into going out for the team by the now-retired Ray O'Connor, "probably the best baseball coach anywhere on the high school level," LaCock said.

LaCock, a left-handed hitting first baseman, played nine years in the majors, including five with the Cubs. Good with the glove--he led the American League in fielding in 1979--he was mainly a platoon player because of his inability to hit left-handers.

Even though LaCock had his best season in 1979, the Royals acquired Willie Aikens from the Angels in an off-season deal and announced that Aikens was their starting first baseman in '80. LaCock wound up playing part time in the outfield and contributed only a .205 average to the Royals' conquest of the American League.

He did not get to bat in Kansas City's World Series loss to the Philadelphia Phillies but did make late-inning defensive appearances.

A free agent after the 1980 season, LaCock entertained offers from Oakland, Pittsburgh and the Chicago White Sox.

Then, out of the blue, he got an offer from the Whales, who are owned by Japan's largest fishery.

Even though he was only 29, still in his big-league prime, LaCock signed a reported $300,000 contract with the Whales and moved his family to Yokohama for his season of disorientation in the Orient.

LaCock, with his wife and two daughters, lived in an apartment in a largely American section of Yokohama and frequently ate at American fast-food restaurants. Japanese baseball was difficult for him to fathom, with its strange rules and attitudes.

For instance, the Whales wouldn't let him chew tobacco, talk to opposing players or smile on the field. The team's management, he says, even accused him of fixing games because he was seen talking to opposing players on first base.

"They'd always say, 'Not Japanese way,' " LaCock said.

LaCock hit .320 for the Whales and had 15 homers, but his teammates ignored him. Separated by language and culture, he had no relationship with them or the manager.

"The Whales aren't the best team for American players," LaCock said in the 1981 Times article. "When I walk in the locker room, the guys don't even say hello to me."

He still likes sushi, however, and has not entirely gotten baseball out of his system. Last year, he played in the three-month-long Seniors Professional Baseball Assn., batting .306 for Winter Haven.

"I'm planning on playing again next year," he said. "It's really fun."

Meanwhile, he remains physically active. Last week, he scored his first hole-in-one.

"I'm a happy camper right now," he said.

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