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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | BASEBALL / STEVE HENSON

Rookie Players Find Green Acres

July 05, 1998|STEVE HENSON

In the far reaches of Montana, a last vestige of "The Dodger Way to Play Baseball" has yet to be dismantled by the team's new ownership.

Twelve miles outside Great Falls, then another five down a bumpy dirt road surrounded by livestock and orchards, sits the home of Dennis and Mary Kay Green, a couple who give new meaning to the term "farm club."

Each of the past four summers they have provided free room and board to three players from the Dodgers' rookie Pioneer League affiliate. They hand over the keys to a big red diesel truck, take the boys fishing out at Holter Lake and root like the dickens at Great Falls' home games.

Yes, there is a fresh-baked apple pie cooling on the window sill. On or off the field, the Greens are folks who know the importance of being safe at home.

"Our kids are grown up and moved out, so this is a neat deal for everybody," Dennis Green said. "It's good for the players because they are with a family. It feels like home."

The brood this year includes Jorge Piedra, a former three-sport star at Notre Dame High who turned down a scholarship to USC to sign with the Dodgers as a free agent last August.

Two years ago, Jon Tucker (Chatsworth High) and Casey Snow (Crespi) spent a summer on Green's acres.

Something about homespun hospitality must agree with young ballplayers: Piedra is batting .460 and leading the Pioneer League in runs scored.

Tucker and Snow both flourished as well, using Great Falls as a springboard to greater heights.

Tucker, a first baseman-left fielder at double-A San Antonio, leads the Texas League with 28 doubles and is batting .308 with eight home runs and 57 runs batted in. Snow, a catcher, is batting .354 with 14 doubles in 154 at-bats at Class-A San Bernardino.

"The Greens live way out in boonville," Tucker said. "It's straight country, nothing but land. They only get three channels on their TV. We had a little dirt bike we rode into the mountains and a boat on the lake."

The laid-back living agreed with Tucker, who grew up only a gap shot from Cal State Northridge.

"What a wonderful family," he said of the Greens. "It's a totally different lifestyle than anything I was used to. It was great."

The culture shock is similar for Piedra, accustomed to the hustle required to play quarterback, point guard and the outfield at Notre Dame and the bustle of growing up in the Valley.

"I'm not used to a farm environment, but the air and water are clean," he said. "I pet the horses in the morning, read a lot and just concentrate on baseball."

*

As comfortable as life is with the Greens, Piedra understands that his immediate goal is a promotion out of the Pioneer League.

"I see myself getting 200 times better because I am playing every day," he said. "I enjoy playing baseball. I'm doing what I wanted to do since I was three years old."

Piedra, who is batting leadoff and playing center field, was signed only days before he was set to begin school at USC. Dodger scouts George Genovese and Joe Ferrone became sold on Piedra when he gained 20 pounds the summer after he graduated from high school.

"In the spring he wasn't strong enough to swing the wood bat," Ferrone said. "But he turned himself into a totally different player. He's an excellent athlete with great intangibles."

Piedra spent last fall in instructional league and went through extended spring training before being assigned to Great Falls. His only regret came when he watched the Trojans dogpile after winning the College World Series.

"I said to myself, 'That'd be me getting a great big ring,' " Piedra said. "But I've never once said I'd be better off in college. A decision as big as I made, you make it because you want to do it."

Living with the Greens helps Piedra overcome homesickness. He especially misses his 12-year-old brother, Anthony.

"He plays every sport," Piedra said. "I'm excited about getting back and teaching my brother everything I've learned from the Dodgers."

*

Tucker has advanced steadily through the Dodger organization after spending his first two years in rookie league. He was batting behind Adrian Beltre in the San Antonio lineup when the third baseman was promoted to the Dodgers two weeks ago.

"We were sitting there in El Paso and the manager called him into the office," Tucker said. "We all knew he was going to [triple-A] Albuquerque, but he came out and said I'm going to L.A. It was an awesome moment. It was pretty emotional."

Tucker gets especially fired up thinking about his own future. The recent changes the Dodgers have made don't bother him because opportunity could be knocking louder than ever. Mickey Hatcher, the new Dodger batting instructor, was Tucker's manager at Great Falls in 1996.

"The doors are opening slowly," Tucker said.

*

A bad break for New York Mets infielder Matt Franco (Westlake High) nearly resulted in a disaster for minor leaguer Benny Agbayani.

Franco broke a toe last week and Agbayani was called up from triple-A Norfolk, Va., to replace him.

What should have been one of the happiest days of his life was clouded because it jeopardized one of the other happiest days of his life.

Agbayani and his fiancee, Niela Guigui, were scheduled to be married at home plate before the triple-A all-star game Wednesday in Norfolk. Now it appeared they'd have to scramble to find a church in Manhattan.

Guigui had something of a premonition on Tuesday morning, asking Ben, "What if between now and the all-star game you get called up to the Mets?"

Agbayani assured her it wouldn't happen. Then the phone rang.

As often happens, true love nearly won out over common sense: Agbayani declined the promotion until Norfolk Tides President Ken Young suggested a solution.

Realizing the all-star break for the majors and triple-A teams coincide, Young said the home plate nuptials could go forward although Agbayani couldn't play.

* MINOR LEAGUE STATISTICS: C13

* MINOR LEAGUE DAILY REPORT: C13

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