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Ebb Tide for Waves' '92 NCAA Champions

July 12, 1998|STEVE HENSON

They play on different teams in the same league, so Steve Montgomery runs into Steve Rodriguez every so often.

That the league is the International and not the American or National makes their meetings melancholy. This time the script might not have a happy ending, and they know it.

Montgomery and Rodriguez were among a group of Pepperdine Waves drafted by major league teams during the College World Series in 1992. They won the national championship and were off to conquer the world.

But the euphoria and optimism was slowly eroded by the harsh reality of professional baseball. Not a single player from that championship team has stuck in the major leagues.

Rodriguez, the West Coast Conference player of the year in '92, has been released twice and put on waivers once. He hooked on with the Montreal Expos and is a backup infielder at Ottawa, their triple-A affiliate.

Montgomery, who had a victory and two saves and closed all four of Pepperdine's victories in the College World Series, is toiling at Rochester, N.Y., the Baltimore Orioles' triple-A club.

Now 27, he allows his mind to drift back in time.

"You don't really know when you're young how great Pepperdine was," he said. "You take it for granted. Now I wish I could be back there in those times.

"What a great time we had in college. The minor leagues definitely are not as much fun as Pepperdine in 1992."

Several of his former Pepperdine teammates would second the sentiment. They rejoiced together, but now share the frustration of careers stalling out below the big leagues.

* Dan Melendez: The first baseman led the Waves with a .354 batting average and 12 home runs, and was drafted in the second round by the Dodgers. He never displayed the power he did in college and is a backup at triple-A Albuquerque, batting .279 with two home runs and 20 runs batted in.

* Chris Sheff: Taken by the Florida Marlins in the 10th round, the outfielder stole 81 bases in his first three full minor league seasons. But in a year any farmhand with a glove and a bat is getting a chance to play for the Marlins, Sheff is locked in triple-A for the third year in a row because he changed organizations.

As a minor leaguer with six years of service, he left the Marlins and signed with the Oakland Athletics last winter. He is batting .289 at Edmonton, but has the fewest at-bats of the team's four outfielders.

* Derek Wallace: Considered the top prospect among the former Waves, the right-handed pitcher from Chatsworth High was the 11th overall pick in the draft, going to the Chicago Cubs. He was traded twice in 1995, first to the Kansas City Royals then to the New York Mets, where in '96 he began to fulfill his promise, going 5-2 with 26 saves for triple-A Norfolk.

Wallace finished the '96 season by making 19 appearances with the Mets and was considered a lock to make the team the following spring when he suffered an aneurysm in his arm that nearly ended his career.

After pitching 16 innings last season, he is the closer at Norfolk and has 11 saves and a 4.46 earned-run average in 33 appearances.

* Rodriguez: A fifth-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, he opened the season in Fenway Park in 1995 but was sent back to the minors after going one for eight in six games. Rodriguez was claimed on waivers by Detroit in September of that year and went six for 31 in 12 games.

He spent the last two seasons with the Tigers' triple-A team in Toledo, Ohio, posting solid, if unsensational, numbers and is indistinguishable from the 32 other pro ballplayers named Rodriguez.

* Catcher Scott Vollmer and pitchers Pat Ahearne, Steve Duda and Jeff Myers are former champion Waves already retired from professional baseball.

Ahearne, Pepperdine's ace right-hander, had a delivery uncannily similar to Orel Hershiser's. However, he made only a few appearances with the Tigers and, like most of his former Pepperdine teammates, is left only with memories.

*

Montgomery is fighting against the same fate.

The Orioles are having bullpen problems and he has pitched well at Rochester, notching seven saves to go with a 3-4 record and 3.57 ERA in 53 innings.

Best of all, he has 41 strikeouts and only 10 walks, an indication he has mastered the control problems that plagued him earlier.

"If the Orioles are trying to get guys fired up, they need to make changes," he said. "It does give you hope. It makes it more exciting."

Montgomery was genuinely fired up Feb. 16, 1996, when he learned the St. Louis Cardinals had traded him to the Athletics straight up for Dennis Eckersley. Coming off a '95 season in which he had 36 saves in double-A, Montgomery made the Athletics' roster out of spring training the following year.

However, he walked 13 in 14 innings over eight appearances and was demoted. Another opportunity in '97 ended the same way, with eight walks in six innings over four appearances. His big league ERA is 9.45.

"I wasn't as aggressive as I should have been," he said. "I gave the hitters too much credit."

Montgomery vows it will be different next time.

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