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MLB prospect knows it's not all about him

Kyle Skipworth, expected to go early in amateur draft, is thinking about brother returning to Iraq.

June 04, 2008|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Whenever the national anthem is played before a baseball game, Kyle Skipworth thinks of his brother.

"I get chills every time I hear it," he said. "At the end of the song, I always say to myself, 'Keep my brother safe.' "

Skipworth whispers the same thing when he finishes saying the Pledge of Allegiance to start school each day.

On Thursday, the senior from Patriot High in Riverside is expected to be among the top 10 players selected on the first day of Major League Baseball's amateur draft.

On the same day, his brother, Spencer Jr., will return to his Army base in Oklahoma, where he will prepare to ship out for his second tour of duty in Iraq.

The date was highlighted on the family's calendar months ago. Spencer and Kathy Skipworth have attempted to ignore it -- and celebrate it -- for nearly as long.

"I'm so happy for my one son here, but I've got a another son who's leaving and I might never see him again," Spencer Sr. said. "It's both happy and sad."

Kyle is a 6-foot-3, 195-pound left-handed-hitting catcher who batted .543 for this season. He hit 13 home runs and drove in 47 runs in 30 games.

During one stretch, he recorded a state-record 18 consecutive base hits, while reaching base safely in 25 plate appearances in a row.

Scouts are fond of his smooth swing, raw power and ability to hit to all fields. Despite playing catcher full time for only two years, he has displayed natural abilities and instincts behind the plate.

Skipworth flew to Washington, D.C., last weekend for a workout with the Nationals, who have the No. 9 overall pick in the draft. He performed solidly, according to his father, launching eight home runs, including one that landed 21 rows up in the right-center field bleachers.

Washington's assistant general manager is former Angels catcher Bob Boone, who is very high on Skipworth.

"He's got a real good fancy for me," Kyle said. "I guess I'm in good graces."

Wherever he winds up this summer, Skipworth said his brother will be in his thoughts.

"Compared to me, what he does for the country, I don't really match up to him," Kyle said. "If my brother is putting his life on the line, I'm going to play as hard as I can."

Spencer, 29, joined the Army reserves 4 1/2 years ago to help pay off his college student loans. He was called up to active duty in the fall of 2006, and completed his first yearlong tour of duty in November. As a specialist in Bravo Company 2-149th General Support Aviation Battalion, he was assigned to protect former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

When he returned from overseas, his wife served him with divorce papers. They had a 6-month-old son at the time and two daughters, now 3 and 5. His parents and siblings helped him get back on his feet.

"I'm not the same guy anymore. I have a lot more patience," Spencer Jr. said. "I was always thinking, 'Let's do this now.' It's hard to explain what war does to someone, you couldn't put it into words."

Spencer was scheduled to fly back to Oklahoma on Monday, but changed his plans so he could be with his brother when he was awarded the Gatorade national player of the year award Tuesday night at a hotel in Rancho Cucamonga.

"I'm real proud of him," Spencer Jr. said Tuesday afternoon. "It's amazing how well he's grown up and how well he's developed on the field. . . . He has kept level-headed and stayed to our family values and how we were raised."

Spencer learned this spring that he was going to be redeployed on a 400-day tour. This time around, he will be a door gunner on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, a transport aircraft that flies mainly at night.

"The odds are greater of him being hurt more severely in this type of situation," Kathy Skipworth said. "He'll be touching down, letting troops out or taking them on. . . .

"You just have to think of all the good things and not dwell on it. You'll absolutely just drive yourself crazy."

Spencer and Kathy Skipworth came from military families. They're also lifelong residents of Riverside and attended Rubidoux High, where Spencer Jr. and his 31-year-old sister, Heather, also graduated. Rubidoux had its named changed to Patriot before the 2006-07 school year, when it reopened at another site.

As a boy, Kyle spent most of his free time tagging along with his parents to Spencer's baseball games and Heather's softball games. By the second or third inning, he would often wander away and start up his own sandlot game with other children.

"I would say that started me out," he said. "It gave me a better opportunity than a lot of other kids to learn the basics at a lot younger age."

When he switched from third base to catcher during his sophomore season, the transition came naturally. A year ago, Skipworth said he would have never envisioned himself as a top 10 draft pick. However, after a highly successful summer at various showcases, he drew enough interest that he decided to skip his senior football season, even though he'd been his team's starting quarterback the previous two years.

"To go in the top 10 would be unbelievable," Kyle said. "I couldn't have dreamed of having a year as good as this. . . . I just look at myself and say, 'Wow.' "

And when his thoughts drift to his brother, he feels an even stronger sense of pride.

--

dan.arritt@latimes.com

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