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To Majors by Way of Left Field

April 18, 1999|STEVE HENSON

If there is a more unlikely player from the region to break into the big leagues than Gabe Kapler, it is Jeff Weaver.

Kapler, a 57th-round draft pick out of Moorpark College in 1995, overcame enormous odds to become minor league player of the year in 1998 and open this season as a Detroit Tigers outfielder.

Weaver was a first-round pick of the Tigers last season, so the fact that he pitched five shutout innings in his debut Wednesday to earn a victory over the Minnesota Twins and a postgame handshake from John McHale, Tiger president, might not appear a huge surprise.

But Weaver wasn't always a prospect.

At Simi Valley High, he didn't make the varsity until his senior year in 1994. He was a skinny reliever who pitched only a handful of innings and he attended Fresno State as a freshman without a scholarship.

Weaver blossomed in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, sprouting to 6 feet 5 and becoming a three-time All-American.

Although it appears Weaver and Kapler will be Tiger teammates for many years, they aren't yet.

When Weaver was promoted from double-A Jacksonville on Monday, the roster spot he took was Kapler's, who was sent to triple-A Toledo.

Kapler, an outfielder, batted .388 with five homers in spring training and was one for six the first week of the regular season.

Kapler arrived at Tiger Stadium for the home opener hoping to be in the lineup. Instead, he was ticketed for Toledo.

"I know Gabe doesn't want to hear it, but he needs to be playing somewhere every day," said Manager Larry Parrish of the Tigers. "This is a man with star potential--you don't want him sitting."

Kapler said he would rather have started the season in the minors than get an abbreviated taste of the big leagues.

"It's like dangling a piece of cheese in front of a mouse," he said.

Weaver, 22, expected to spend the season in the minors. Injuries to pitchers Seth Greisinger and Bryce Florie sped up the timetable.

"I've encountered a lot of guys in the minors who have been there four, five and six years," Weaver said. "I had a good opportunity to move quickly and there's no doubt I'll take advantage of it."

Weaver struck out the first batter he faced, Torii Hunter, and allowed only one hit--a double by Ron Coomer. With his fastball clocked as high as 95 mph, he struck out five, walked one and became the first Tiger to win his first major league start since Clint Sodowsky in 1995.

Weaver's parents and his brother were in attendance, and he gave them the lineup card and a game ball as keepsakes.

"I dreamed about the majors for so long," he said.

Although his debut came after only eight minor-league appearances, it followed an excruciating wait. Weaver was a supplemental first-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1997, but he held out all summer on the advice of his agent, Scott Boras, and returned for his junior year at Fresno State.

Even after being taken with the 14th overall pick last June, he held out most of the summer and made only seven minor-league appearances after signing.

Weaver lost his only start at Jacksonville this season, but in 54 minor-league innings he struck out 57 and walked five.

Now those numbers are 62 strikeouts and six walks as a professional.

"He didn't seem intimidated by a major-league lineup," said catcher Brad Ausmus of the Tigers.

Although the Tigers planned for Weaver to return to the minors when either Greisinger or Florie came off the disabled list, his performance has merited an encore.

"I'd expect his next start will be Tuesday," Parrish said.


Robert Fick made his Tiger debut before Weaver, making the most of a September call-up last season by hitting three home runs in 22 at-bats, including one against Roger Clemens.

Like Kapler, Fick was hoping to make the jump from double-A to the opening-day roster. But a lingering injury to his left shoulder has left him on the disabled list since April 5.

Fick, a catcher from Cal State Northridge, Ventura College and Newbury Park High, was injured while taking a swing in a spring-training game against the Kansas City Royals.

"I felt pain shoot down my arm," he said.

Although he lined out to shortstop on the next pitch and caught the rest of the game, the pain did not subside.

An MRI taken April 7 by a Tigers doctor in Lakeland, Fla., was negative and Fick also had the shoulder examined last week in Los Angeles by Dr. Ronald Glousman of the Kerlan-Jobe group.

"There is good news psychologically because there isn't a tear, but it's still sore," Fick said.

Glousman recommended surgery to tighten the shoulder, but because that would cause Fick to miss the rest of the season, other treatment is being tried first.


Want to root for a team other than the Dodgers or Angels? Mainly because of scout Dennis Lieberthal, more players from the region are in the Tigers' organization than any other.

Right-handed pitcher Bryan Corey (Thousand Oaks High, Pierce College) is at triple-A Toledo and outfielder Kurt Airoso and third baseman Eric Gillespie, both of Cal State Northridge, are at double-A Jacksonville.

Catcher Chris Parker (Westlake) is beginning his third professional season, and outfielder Barry Tolli (Newbury Park), catcher Joe Yingling (Camarillo) and left-handed pitcher Ryan Earl (Thousand Oaks) all signed with the Tigers last summer.

The last four are in extended spring training. Parker and Tolli are ticketed for the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League, and Yingling and Earl will play in the rookie Gulf Coast League.

Lieberthal, who signed all of the aforementioned players except Weaver and Gillespie, persuades the Tigers to draft players from the region almost every year. One that got away, however, is his son, Mike, a Westlake High product who was a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1990 and is the team's starting catcher.

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