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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

First Season No Waltz in Tennessee

Minor league baseball: Hamill had most success of eight from SoCal who played in Johnson City.

September 17, 2000|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight came. Six escaped injury or illness. Four started. Two were invited to fall instructional camp. One made the all-star team.

The Southern California contingent playing for the Johnson City (Tenn.) Cardinals of the rookie Appalachian Cardinals ran the gamut of emotions and experiences. They share one feeling today, relief to be home.

The 67-game season wore on them near the end. The exuberance of beginning their pro careers gave way to the grind of playing every day in hot, muggy weather in front of small crowds in aging stadiums.

The most successful of the eight Southland players was Ryan Hamill from Chaminade High and UCLA, who led the team with 12 home runs, 56 hits and 46 runs batted in.

He made the Appy League all-star team and gained a coveted invitation to instructional camp, a sign that the St. Louis Cardinals believe he is a prospect.

Hamill, 21, is older and more mature than most of his Johnson City teammates. It helped. He adjusted well, spending spare time boating and fishing.

"I can't say I'll miss Johnson City," he said. "It's a small town with three main streets. Coming from L.A., it was a completely different atmosphere.

"But I had fan support and the people were really nice."

Hamill reported to Johnson City in excellent physical condition, which helped during the long summer. Many of his teammates lost too much weight or fell ill.

"I lost about six pounds, but some guys lost a lot more," he said.

John Santor, a first baseman from Highland High, was happy to drop weight. He was admittedly out of shape at the beginning the season, then dislocated a finger after six games and spent most of the season as the first-base coach.

Rather than stay idle, however, he ran every day with the pitchers.

"I'm in way better shape than I was," he said. "It was meant to be for me to get hurt. I turned it into a positive by running. I wasn't gonna sit and mope. My legs are stronger."

Santor, 18, was not invited to instructional league and figures he will return to Johnson City next season.

"My goal is to go into spring training in good condition and be stronger so I don't have to come back here," he said. "But I'm young and [the Cardinals] probably want me to play a full season before moving up."

When Hamill left this weekend for instructional league, he was joined by Brian Fatur, an infielder from Moorpark College and Calabasas High.

Fatur opened the season as a utility player, but became the starting shortstop when two players were injured.

He made the most of the opportunity. Fatur did not make an error in his first 18 games and was steady in the field all year. However, a zero-for-26 season-ending slump dropped his batting average from around .270 to .233.

"The only thing I'm mad about is my batting average," he said. "Everything I hit went right to them. It was pretty ridiculous."

The minor league lifestyle agreed with Fatur, an introverted sort content to sleep in and watch TV before games.

After games, he played cards with teammates until 3 a.m.

"I liked it," he said. "The town wasn't so bad. Guys on other teams in the league lived in real small towns. We lucked out."

Albert Rodgers considers himself fortunate. An undrafted free agent, he batted cleanup most of the season, although a late slump caused his average to slip to .218.

Rodgers, who attended Long Beach Jordan and Santa Ana College, led the team with 12 doubles.

Matt Dogero, a catcher from Santa Barbara City College who turned down a scholarship to Cal State Northridge to sign, was a backup catcher who batted .215 in 65 at-bats.

Dogero's shining moment was a home run on the first pitch thrown to him, but he hit only two more homers.

Justin Albertson, a second-year outfielder from Beverly Hills High, began the season on the disabled list and had only 94 at-bats, batting .223 with two homers.

Albertson did get to pitch two-thirds of an inning against Bluefield, striking out two and walking five.

Richard Burgess, a starting pitcher from Redlands, posted only one victory in 10 starts.

John Lockhart, a reliever from Redondo Beach, rebounded from a lengthy illness and had a 5.09 earned-run average and two saves in 19 appearances. He was invited to instructional league.

The team brought up the rear of the West Division standings. Johnson City was 24-44, finishing 24 games out of first place.

"It was kind of disheartening, knowing by fourth inning you are getting your [butt] kicked," Hamill said.

"But you have to go out there and do your best."

Hamill, a catcher in high school and college, played a little first base and often served as designated hitter at Johnson City.

He said the Cardinals might convert him to third base in instructional league.

"I'm a catcher, but the more positions I can learn, the better," he said.

Johnson City provided a learning experience beyond the ballfield. Hamill's fervent wish is that it becomes nothing more than the first step in his climb to the big leagues.

"The bus rides were brutal and the hotel was uncomfortable," he said. "But it's the minor leagues. That's what it is.

"Now it's a memory."

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