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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONHEIMER

Hallway of Fame

Workouts at Home Helped Mold Nickeas, of Westlake High, Into a Catcher with a Future

February 21, 2001|ERIC SONDHEIMER

WESTLAKE VILLAGE — The Nickeas family didn't have to build a wind tunnel to conduct experiments on catching a baseball. The family hallway was good enough.

Mark Nickeas threw tennis balls to his 7-year-old son, Mike, who would wear a catcher's mask, shin guards and chest protector. Mike tried to block the ball even if it short-hopped on the carpet.

"I would stop the ball at all costs," Mike said.

There was good reason for Mike to use every trick imaginable to block the ball.

"If it came through the archway, it was my territory and I would confiscate it," said his mother, Sherrie.

Meanwhile, the family dog, a Labrador retriever named Sarah, would bark and go crazy. And the nice, peach hallway required more than a squirt of cleaning solution to take away scuff marks caused by the nightly escapades.

"We always had a can of fresh peach paint for the hallway," Sherrie said.

Little did anyone know that those early training sessions would help launch Nickeas' catching career. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior at Westlake High is rated the 87th-best prospect in the nation by Baseball America.

He's such a talented catcher that professional scouts have used him to work out their best pitching prospects.

Before his junior year, he accepted an invitation from the New York Mets to catch one of their top draft choices at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

"It was awesome," Nickeas said. "I spent the whole day with the Mets, met the general manager, was in the locker room. It was incredible."

When the high school baseball season begins next week, Nickeas will be the region's player to watch. He's coming off a junior season in which he batted .422 with 12 doubles, five home runs and 23 runs batted in.

That was dramatic improvement over his .237 batting average as a sophomore and reflected his growing confidence and maturity. It sets the stage for Nickeas to emerge as the region's most complete catcher since Mike Lieberthal, former Westlake standout, hit 13 home runs, batted .448 and was the third player taken in the 1990 amateur draft.

"I think he can be a player of the year," Coach Chuck Berrington said. "He's that good."

Georgia Tech, rated No. 1 in the nation by Baseball America, signed Nickeas in November. Pitchers such as Matt Harrington and Barry Zito have thrown to him during the off-season.

He knows so much about catching he could write a 50-page term paper on the subject.

"You say catcher and you think guys like Mike Piazza and [Ivan] "Pug" Rodriguez," Nickeas said. "The thing some people mistake for a good catcher is a good hitter. I believe a good catcher is someone who can handle his pitching staff. He should have bonds with all of them and know how they'll react to different situations.

"You almost have to be a psychologist. You have to understand if a pitcher's struggling, do you go out there and get on his case or baby him so he feels more confident?

"It's the most important thing about catching. It's more important than being able to throw a guy out at second base or batting .700 because if you can handle the pitching staff, it will help them achieve and help the team win."

The surprise about Nickeas is he didn't become a soccer player. His father was born in England and played professional soccer for 14 years.

But Mark never pushed the sport on his son.

"My dad and I have an amazing relationship," Mike said. "He was an Englishman who's never played a game of baseball in his entire life, but he knows enough about sports and fell in love with the game as much as I did. That's why he let me pursue the sport."

Mark became Mike's youth baseball coach and was soon calling pitches. They became best friends, with Mark going to batting cages to pitch to Mike.

"If you look across the board at the great players of all time, they all have a certain aura and dignity about them," Mike said. "My dad has that. It's something I've admired in him and something that I hope has rubbed off on me."

Nickeas threw out 11 of 14 runners who tried to steal last season. He had one passed ball.

Sitting in a crouch has become as second nature to him as breathing.

"It's the most amazing position in the world," he said. "I'm a guy who likes to be in control and when I'm behind the plate, I'm the only guy who can see everything."

Every birthday and every Christmas, Nickeas has always wanted baseball-related gifts--cleats, gloves, bats, shin guards, helmets, caps. Before he'd finish unwrapping his presents, he'd usually say, "Let's go hit."

He turned 18 last week and couldn't be happier with his new turf shoes and hitting jacket.

Whatever happens this season, Nickeas will continue to play the game the way he has since T-ball.

"I try to achieve greatness whenever I go onto the field," he said.

*

Eric Sondheimer's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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