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Split Decision

UCLA's Page chooses to divide his time and conquer football and baseball

September 09, 2005|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

That tee-ball coach who jokingly offered to be Jarrad Page's agent so long ago didn't know the half of it.

The coach saw a 4-year-old who could hit for power and field the ball cleanly at an age when his teammates sidestepped grounders and ran the wrong way around the bases.

If he could have envisioned Page as the two-sport star at UCLA whose biggest hits have come as a strong safety on the football team, the coach might have asked to move in with the family.

Page blossomed into a sterling shortstop who was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the fifth round of the 2002 Major League Baseball draft out of San Leandro High.

Suspecting that perhaps his future lay in football, though, Page declined the Brewers' $750,000 offer and signed with the Bruins so that he could keep alive his dreams in both sports.

"I couldn't see myself coming straight out of high school and going to the middle of nowhere to do that right away," Page said of signing a baseball contract that probably would have entailed reporting to a remote minor league outpost. "I didn't want to miss the college experience."

It's an experience that Page has relished, despite a sometimes-exasperating tug of war between the two sports. He misses fall baseball practice while playing football and spring football practice while playing baseball.

The lack of prep time in baseball seemed to catch up with Page during a dismal junior season in which the switch-hitter struck out 48 times in 101 at-bats for a Bruin team that finished 15-41. The converted center fielder batted .149 with one home run and nine runs batted in -- and still was drafted in June by the Colorado Rockies in the 32nd round.

"A lot of our interest in him was based on him being an athlete and knowing that football was taking up most of his time," said Bill Schmidt, director of scouting for the Rockies. "We kind of looked past the numbers."

Page's football numbers are more impressive. The four-year starter in UCLA's secondary tied for the team lead last season with three interceptions and finished second with 79 tackles and seven passes broken up. He also forced two first-half fumbles in a victory over Illinois.

In the Bruins' opener last Saturday at San Diego State, Page made five tackles -- including a key assist on a third-and-one play in the first quarter that halted a drive before the game turned into a rout.

His teammates praise him as an explosive playmaker who instills fear in receivers, but the chiseled 6-foot-1, 222-pound senior says his biggest asset is experience.

"I know the defense really well," Page said. "I know what everybody on the defense is doing all the way down to the linemen. When you're real confident that you know the defense, and you know tendencies and you know what everyone's doing, you can play a lot faster."

Page is a quick study in football, considering that his parents, fearing injury, didn't let him play the sport until middle school. He grew up playing baseball and basketball -- sports his older brother, John Jr., excelled at before enrolling at UCLA in the mid-1990s. "I just really enjoyed whatever sport I was playing at the time," Page said. "I was never in one season waiting to play the other sport. I was always caught up in that season."

A stiff shoulder prevented Page from playing baseball as a freshman, but his sophomore season provided several highlights. Page homered against Fresno State in his first collegiate at-bat and in another game threw out a baserunner at the plate from his spot in center field, about 360 feet away.

John Savage, who took over as coach of the UCLA baseball team last season, described Page as a major league-caliber outfielder who never got enough at-bats to show what he could do as a hitter.

"You're talking about a guy who really hasn't been given a chance to be what he is in baseball," Savage said. "He's just not had the reps and the amount of time on the baseball field that allows you to be a good player."

Said Page: "If I played all year round, I think I would have been a lot better, but you can't change what happened. I got a chance to play football now."

And for that, UCLA secondary coach Gary DeLoach is grateful.

"Jarrad's in the best shape I've ever seen him in," DeLoach said. "I can't say enough about him, his intensity or his passion for the game. He's flying around and making plays."

Making plays has been a theme of Page's college career, whether it was collecting a timely hit or intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown against New Mexico in the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl.

"It's the same feeling," Page said when asked whether making a big play in baseball or football was more rewarding. "When you're competing, you were better. You won."

Page said he rooms with four other baseball players "because I got a good deal" on rent, but his football teammates insist he is a football player first and foremost.

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