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Everybody Gives Garcia Thumbs Up

Dodgers: Young Mexican outfielder has received incredible reviews.

February 22, 1996|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERO BEACH, Fla. — The reports were almost unbelievable. How could a 15-year-old kid be this good?

Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president, needed someone he could trust to check out the kid. He telephoned veteran Dodger scout Gary Sutherland, instructing him to get to Mexico.

Claire had heard the rave reviews from Dodger scout Mike Brito, and he certainly values Brito's judgment. Brito, after all, discovered Fernando Valenzuela. Still, these reports seemed too good to be true. The kid had been playing baseball only a few years. His passion was actually golf.

But Sutherland left for Mexico with an open mind and when he got to Ciudad Obregon, took the kid to a baseball sandlot.

Sutherland watched him bat, run from home plate to first base, catch fly balls, and throw from the outfield.

Trying not to reveal any emotion, he thanked the kid for his time.

He then stepped on the gas pedal and drove furiously to the nearest pay phone.

"Fred," Sutherland said breathlessly, "I have just seen the Natural."

Gustavo (Karim) Garcia was that youngster and now, at 20, is baseball's outstanding prospect. And largely because of Sutherland, he is also the Dodgers' outstanding prospect.

"He's going to be a superstar," said infielder Juan Castro, who has been Garcia's teammate the last few seasons in the Mexican winter leagues. "People talk about Ken Griffey Jr. Hey, I'm telling you, this guy is just as good. He does everything."

Said Claire: "People are going to be talking about him for a long, long time. . . . My God, you're talking about a kid who's 20 years old. He'd be playing college ball right now, getting ready for the draft."

Where would he go in this year's draft?

"There's not a draft that high," Claire said. "He'd be in his own draft. He's that good."

Garcia already is so famous in Mexico that he was invited to join that country's president in a parade last November.

He is so popular that little kids are waiting at his parents' door each morning for autographs.

He is so celebrated that he cannot walk the streets without being swarmed by folks who simply want a glimpse of him.

"Let's put it this way, he's better than anybody I've ever seen," said Rick Dempsey, who managed Garcia last season at triple-A Albuquerque. "It's hard to imagine just how good he'll be. He has power. He has the batting average. He has speed. I could see him hitting 25 to 30 homers, driving in 100 runs, stealing 30 or 40 bases, and getting 16 to 20 assists each year. He can do it all.

"I've seen a lot of good players come up through the years. I saw Eddie Murray coming up when he was 19. But I've never seen a kid like this."

Catcher Tom Prince, who spent most of last season playing at Albuquerque, said, "All I know is that one day I'll be able to tell my kids that I played with him. I'm telling you, he's going to be that good. His potential is absolutely unlimited."

Apparently, anyone who has watched Garcia believes he has just seen baseball's next superstar.

When an 18-year-old kid is hitting 21 homers and driving in 84 runs in Class A one year, and batting .319 with 20 homers and 90 RBIs as a 19-year-old in Albuquerque the next, there may, indeed, be something special happening.

Garcia, the Sporting News' minor league player of the year, is being told that he will have the opportunity to compete for the starting left fielder's job, but more realistically, his time figures to be 1997. The Dodgers want him to have one more year of seasoning.

"I'd love to make the team now, but when I do, I don't want to be a nobody," Garcia said, speaking reasonably good English. "I want to be somebody. I want to be a star."

Garcia, who was on the Mexican national team when he was 14, wants to be known as the greatest power hitter Mexico has ever produced.

"My hero was Fernando Valenzuela," Garcia said. "That's why I signed with the Dodgers in the first place. I always wanted to play for the Dodgers. I used to watch the Dodgers when I was younger just to watch Fernando Valenzuela.

"As a kid, I couldn't leave the TV when Fernando was pitching. And when Mike Brito signed me, he told me, 'I used the same pen to sign Fernando.' I even got a baseball signed by Fernando, [Don] Drysdale, and [Sandy] Koufax.

"Now, I'd like to get people excited in L.A. about a Mexican player, just like they were about Fernando."

Garcia grew up infatuated with golf. He began playing when he was 6 and carries a nine handicap, with aspirations of one day joining the pro golf tour. He won the Mexican Pacifico/Corona tournament before leaving for spring training.

His father, Francisco, had been a famous outfielder in the Mexican League, but Karim was 13 before he took seriously to baseball. Six years later, the son was in the big leagues, called up last Aug. 31. His father wept at the news.

"My father's dream was to play in the major leagues, but at that time, it was too difficult to change leagues," Garcia said. "So when I got called up, it was like my dad made the big leagues too."

His proudest moment was getting his first major league hit, off Esteban Loaiza of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but nothing was more memorable than posing for pictures with Valenzuela the final weekend of the season. The two since have become close friends, and are regular golf partners during the winter.

"I know people are expecting a lot out of me, especially in Mexico," said Garcia, who dropped out of high school when he received a $120,000 signing bonus. "Those people put a lot of pressure on me. But I don't care. I know I can do it.

"When I'm in the big leagues, hopefully I'll hit 30 homers and bat at least .300 every year. Then I'm going to be just like the Shark, Greg Norman. I'm going to be real cool, show no feeling, show nothing."

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