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THE TIMES ORANGE COUNTY PLAYERS OF THE YEAR

A Big Catch at Plate

Baseball: La Quinta catcher Gerald Laird left his mark both offensively and defensively.

June 10, 1997|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Cypress standout Bobby Brito graduated last year, it was believed by county coaches and writers there might not be another great hitting catcher like him for a long time.

That "long time" lasted one year because of the emergence of La Quinta junior catcher Gerald Laird, whose tremendous season--.505 batting average, 14 home runs, 46 runs batted in--makes him The Times Orange County player of the year from among such worthy candidates as University's Garrett Atkins, Mater Dei's Mike Kolbach, Laguna Hills' Nick Harvey and Sonora's Jeremy Weinberg.

"I felt I had a pretty solid year," said Laird, 17. "I set goals for myself but went beyond them. I didn't expect all of the success."

But successful he was. Laird was one of four players--Harvey, Mike LaRue (Santa Margarita) and Aaron Ireland (Brethren Christian) were the others--to surpass the county single-season home run record of 13 set by Fullerton's D.C. Olsen in 1990. His 56 hits, including 11 doubles and four triples, were another county record. He stole 20 bases, and would have tried for more if La Quinta had not been so far ahead in most of its games. His RBI total tied him with teammate Shaun Larkin for third in the county.

And Laird did more than swing a bat. He is considered one of the area's top defensive catchers; his throwing arm is above average, and opponents were reluctant to try to steal against him.

The Aztecs' two main starters, Steven Lee and Jason Garcia, had pitched a combined 34 innings on the 1996 frosh/soph and junior varsity teams. Each went 12-1 in 1997, in no small part to having Laird calling the game behind the plate.

He also played shortstop and third, and did some relief pitching (four saves) for La Quinta (25-5), which finished as Garden Grove League champion. The Aztecs were eliminated by San Dimas in the quarterfinals of the Division IV playoffs.

Coach Dave Demarest never hesitates to praise players. But Demarest's declaration earlier this season that Laird was a "legitimate five-tool player"--one who can hit, hit with power, run, throw and field--is supported by others.

College and professional scouts who followed Laird during the season describe him as "terrifically talented" and one who could be a first-round draft pick next year if he keeps on improving. They also said Laird, despite only being a junior, already has a "commanding presence" on the field.

"He is one of the more mature guys we see in having a feel for the game," said one scout, who wished to remain anonymous. "What will help him most is to continue learning the game, all of the nuances. His quickness and other physical tools will be enhanced as time goes on. But if he gets stronger, as he should do, he will be one of the guys people will be taking an aggressive look at next year."

Those in the Garden Grove League who saw Laird play agree on his abilities.

"He is legitimate," Pacifica Coach Mike Willey said. "You can tell just by looking at him and how he presents himself. He is strong, smart, fast and has great instincts. To find a kid like that is rare."

"I think catching is the most important position after pitching," said Vern Nelson, who resigned as Bolsa Grande's coach after last season. "You can take athletes who are good in their position and they would not be able to catch. I've not seen anything to show he cannot keep catching. There are some adjustments he'll have to make but will make them. Great athlete, has all the tools. From our vantage point he has the temperament to improve."

One of the last questions about Laird is whether he will continue playing as a catcher. He's swift enough--having been timed at 6.8 seconds in the 60-yard dash--that a college or professional team may move him to another position so as not to sacrifice his speed.

"I would move if I was asked," Laird said. "But I love catching. It keeps me focused on the game. You're always thinking of pitches and their locations; you see the whole field and direct everything."

Demarest said he got an inkling of Laird's potential last summer when Laird played on Demarest's Connie Mack team.

"I saw him play with many top county players and he stood out as a sophomore," Demarest said. "He was maybe our best player."

And Laird did not miss a beat in 1997.

"From the beginning to the end, he did so much for us," Demarest said. "We had a very inexperienced pitching staff. And yet three of the five losses are by one run, and the other two are in extra innings."

The only low point this season for Laird was against San Dimas. Laird tried to protect a 5-3 La Quinta lead in the top of the seventh, but gave up a three-run, game-winning home run to outfielder Ryan Gutzke.

"Eventually I will put that game aside," Laird said. "It bothered me because I know how much our seniors wanted to reach the finals. I felt real bad for them."

Laird will have a busy summer. On June 24 he goes to Chicago as part of a Connie Mack all-star team, and will try out for the USA junior national team that hopes to qualify for the world championships in August.

If that weren't enough, Laird is also starting an extensive workout program to pack more muscle on his 6-2, 185-pound frame.

Just think, the player of the year expects to be even better in 1998.

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