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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Labor of Love

Cicero, Pierce Catcher, Hopes to Be Down on the Farm

April 20, 2001|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODLAND HILLS — Tony Cicero wants to go farming.

Not at the old family business where he worked during childhood plowing fields and tending crops. That lifestyle, led by generations of Cicero men, was never his cup of tea.

He wants to labor in another kind of farm, in obscure little towns where they harvest major league baseball players.

"Ever since I was that age," Cicero said, pointing to a preteen boy playing catch on the Pierce College field, "all I wanted to do is play professional ball. I'm trying to follow up on a dream."

Cicero, a freshman catcher for the Brahmas, nearly got his wish once. As a senior at Cleveland High in 1999, he drew the attention of pro scouts because of his strong arm and quickness behind the plate.

Few runners attempted to steal against Cicero that year. Those who did, like the eight runners he threw out in a tournament game in Las Vegas, didn't stand a chance.

"He throws better to second base than [Todd] Hundley does, than [Mike] Piazza does," said Steve Landress, his former Cleveland coach.

The Oakland Athletics believed Cicero, 6 feet and 175 pounds at the time, had potential and drafted him in the 15th round on June 3, 1999, one day before he had a double and drove in a run to help the Cavaliers defeat Huntington Park, 3-1, in the City Division championship game at Dodger Stadium.

Cicero called it the best week of his life. A few days later, the jubilation gave way to crushing disappointment.

The Athletics selected Cicero as a draft-and-follow player, meaning they would follow his progress in college while owning the rights to him until shortly before the 2000 draft. He could have signed for a monthly salary, but there would be no bonus.

"There were never any negotiations," Cicero said. "They never offered a dime. It can be a cold business and I guess I got the cold end of it."

It got worse. Cicero had legal problems he won't discuss--"I'm not very proud of it"--and a strained relationship with his father, Joe, who ran several farms the family owned in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.

"It's very hard for a kid to work for his father," said Joe, who sold the farms and owns a tools store in Reseda. "He never wanted to be a farmer.

"I think it's great what he's doing. He just enjoys playing ball. He's working, standing on his own two feet, the whole nine yards. I'm proud of him."

Leaving home and learning to fend for himself was rougher than Cicero anticipated. He put baseball on hold and started working for a telecommunications company, installing phone lines, a job he still does part-time.

Last summer, the baseball bug came buzzing back, and Cicero couldn't stay away. He played in a wood-bat league and approached Pierce Coach Bob Lofrano about playing for the Brahmas.

It didn't take long for Cicero to regain his form. Now a chiseled 185 pounds, with a tattoo on his right biceps that spells his last name in Japanese, Cicero is more than trouble for baserunners. He's the complete package.

His .429 batting average ranks second in the Western State Conference and his catching, Lofrano said, is second to none.

"He's very athletic for a catcher," Lofrano said. "Someone once told me, if you have three catchers, put them at shortstop, hit them some grounders and you'll find your catcher. Any offense you get at that position is a bonus and Tony has given that and more."

Cicero is hoping major league scouts are noticing. He wouldn't mind becoming that kind of farm boy.

"I'm having a great time," Cicero said. "Confidence will take you as far as you want to go. I want to go far."

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