GARDEN GROVE — Gerald Laird, a tall, lithe, happy-go-lucky young man who plays baseball as if he invented the game, will have an exceptionally busy senior season.
Laird, La Quinta's catcher, should be one of the more sought-after players in the county this season. He hits with power, has an above-average arm and runs exceptionally well for a catcher. And La Quinta, which has won five consecutive Garden Grove League titles, figures to have a strong enough lineup that Laird won't have to carry the Aztecs.
Colleges (especially Arizona State) are interested, and it is expected he will be a high major league draft pick come June.
"Though he has to make some improvements to be a first-rounder, he really has no weakness," said one American League scout, who has watched Laird for two years and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He's a good, all-around player. And he shouldn't agonize over this season. Scouts usually don't go by statistics; they go by what they see and feel."
Then there are the record books, which might have Laird's fingerprints all over them by season's end. If he has a senior year comparable to his freshman, sophomore and junior years, Laird could finish with four county career records, and two Southern Section records.
In 1997, Laird was a one-man wrecking crew, hitting .505 while belting 14 homers and driving in 46 runs in 30 games. He helped La Quinta reach the quarterfinals of the Division IV playoffs and was selected The Times Orange County player of the year.
Laird said he will block out the anticipated distractions and concentrate on having fun, along with helping La Quinta win a championship.
"I've been waiting four years for a big senior year," Laird said. "It's going to be fun. I've set goals for myself, but they won't consume me. All I want is to win league and a [section] title before we leave. That's my main goal."
To prepare, Laird spent his summer playing with and against the best competition possible.
In June he played on a Connie Mack All-Star team that competed in a tournament in Chicago. Laird's team reached the championship game, held at Comiskey Park. The game was rained out after four innings, but Laird said it was "the chance of a lifetime to play there."
A month later, he was selected to the USA Junior Baseball Team for which he played in a world tournament in August. He played center field because of a finger injury. The U.S. team won the bronze medal.
"The experience made me better," Laird said. "I got to see other players out there. It made me want to step up my game. When you're around people who are all good, it makes you strive to be better."
Laird also got a taste of the kind of attention he will draw this season--not all of it good.
"I learned about carrying myself around people I don't know," he said. "Most everyone was great. But I also ran into people who wanted to contact me later, who had heard of me. I did not speak to them."
Mark Johnson, baseball coach at Cherry Creek (Colo.) High who coached Laird's Connie Mack All-Star team, was impressed by Laird's play.
"I really liked him, not just because of his skills but also because he loves the game and plays hard," Johnson said. "Though I like him as a catcher, there will be interest in him at other positions.
"I also work for the Astros and our people told me they thought he was a legit guy. When he got out there, there was no question he was as good as any of the other all-stars out there. I do see him as a high draft pick. Whether it's a No. 1 pick is too early to tell now. But he is out of a very good program, and his total game puts him among the top players in the U.S."
Laird's father, Gerald, who played semipro baseball, said the most important lesson he passed on to Laird was not getting upset with others who did not play the game as easily as he.
"He has always wanted to win so much, I had to teach how to play with people not as good," Gerald's father said.
La Quinta Coach Dave Demarest had to inspire a different level of maturation. When Laird transferred to La Quinta from Rancho Alamitos in 1995, he overwhelmed the team with his talent, and underwhelmed Demarest with his attitude. Demarest threatened to bench his young catcher.
"When he came to La Quinta, his dealing with negative situations was not good," Demarest said. "But a lot of it was not knowing how to deal with them. He thought trash talking was part of the game, that he had to get the last word in. And he was an excuse guy, which happens from a kid people expect perfection from.
"I told him he had to learn to deal with failure like the success. He reminds me in talent of [Seattle shortstop] Alex Rodriguez; but with Alex you would not know if he'd gone 4-4 or 0-4 because he played the game hard and focused on his team's success. And that is where Gerald has grown."