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Tim Brown ON BASEBALL

Kotchman's Dad Is Tuned In to His Life

April 04, 2006|Tim Brown

SEATTLE — A few hours before Casey Kotchman's first at-bat Monday afternoon, his father, Tom, was driving in the Florida Panhandle.

"The Redneck Riviera," Tom shouted wryly over a ballgame on the radio and the roar of the passing trucks.

Besides managing the Angels' short-season rookie team in Orem, Utah, from June to September, the elder Kotchman works Florida as an area scout. And that's a lot of blue highways.

He has heard plenty of Casey's at-bats on XM Radio along those same roads, while out looking for a big, strong prospect who might hit for power, respect the strike zone and field his position.

A player like, well, his own kid.

Casey had seen 85 big-league games over the last two seasons, but never an opening day. He'd felt the weight of a first call-up, Mothers' Day two years ago, and that of last season's pennant race and postseason, but never the march of 162 games.

Now he's got a job, an organization behind him, a Gold Glove first baseman in center field to clear his way.

All of which, from Casey, brought a subtle shrug. He's not big on small talk.

"Being here from the start is just a chance to help these guys out," he said in a room that leans toward Vladimir Guerrero and the pitching staff. "I'll be looking forward to having the opportunity to do that."

Tom has been in the ballpark for some of Casey's 242 at-bats, but in the car for a lot more of them.

"Sometimes it's hard to concentrate," he said. "I'm oblivious to the cars in front of me. I hope I don't run into anybody."

About the time Tom was looking for a sports bar that had cable television and a shift manager with an affinity for the Angels or Mariners, Casey was lining a fourth-inning single into Safeco Field's center field, driving in the Angels' third run.

When Casey was working a nine-pitch walk to lead off the ninth inning, which started a two-run rally and beat the Mariners, 5-4, Tom was on the side of the road, pouring coolant into the steaming radiator of his 1998 van, 215,000 miles into its life-span. But, Tom got that on the radio, about two hours from home, the van up and running again, just one of those days whose soundtrack was another very capable plate appearance.

"That he can do," Tom said.

Along the way in a professional baseball career that began in 1977, Tom worked two seasons with the Detroit Tigers and three with the Boston Red Sox before becoming an Angel lifer. He has managed 27 years in the minor leagues, the 28th on the way, and in that time met and became familiar with the likes of Ted Williams, Rod Carew and Rick Down.

"When you get to be around hitting instructors like that, or guys who were great hitters, you pick things up," he said.

When Casey was 15, Tom sent Carew a tape of his kid.

"That," Carew told Tom, "is a good swing."

So, they stayed after it, sometimes together and sometimes not, Tom spending his summers in Boise, Provo or Orem, Casey, the Angels' first pick in the 2001 draft, toiling in such places as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Little Rock, Ark., and Salt Lake City.

They once had seven games together in Provo; Casey had 11 hits in 22 at-bats.

Casey's mother, Susan, is an elementary school principal in Florida. His sister, Christal, is a freshman at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., where she's a freshman shortstop for a softball team that has won 40 of 46 games.

"It's a neat feeling that your kid's a major-leaguer," Tom said. "Mom did a great job raising both of the kids. When baseball's done, they're going to be good people. They understand at some point the cheering is going to stop."

Tom and Casey talk almost every day, still. Tom's text message to Casey on Monday morning read, "Good luck. Go get 'em."

And so Casey did. Batting seventh, behind Darin Erstad and before Jose Molina, he singled home Erstad against left-hander Jamie Moyer.

Then he worked back from a 1-and-2 count against another left-hander, George Sherrill, to give the Angels their pivotal baserunner in what was a 3-3 game.

"I was just trying to see baseball," Casey said.

A few inches off the plate, he let it go. His on-base percentage in 47 big-league games last season was .352. In 94 triple-A games, it was .372. An Angel, imagine that, who will take a walk.

The Angels hope Kotchman will someday soon become the middle-of-the-order bat to go alongside Guerrero's, perhaps replacing Garret Anderson, who has become injury prone and Monday was hitless in five at-bats. Juan Rivera hit behind Guerrero and had a single in four at-bats.

"He's important for us this year," hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "Adding another big bat is going to be a huge factor."

It might as well be Kotchman's.

"That's not even in my head," he said. "I'm just privileged to be here in this clubhouse, in this lineup. I'll go from there."

At about the same time, Tom was feeling content driving the last few miles through the darkness, and the van was happy on its fresh coolant.

"An hour from home," he reported. "It's a good day."

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