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BILL PLASCHKE

Peter Bourjos sets a fast pace in moving the Angels forward

The speedy center fielder leads the league in saved runs. Bourjos has a chance to one day become one of the symbols of baseball's post-steroid era, a sandlot kid who actually looks and acts like a kid, Bill Plaschke writes.

July 07, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos rounds second base during a game against the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium.
Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos rounds second base during a game against… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

How fast is Peter Bourjos?

In the first at-bat of his life, he singled to center, caught the ball and tagged himself out.

True story. It was his T-ball debut, and he was accustomed to chasing down his own hits when playing at the park with his father. So when he knocked the ball into the gap, he sprinted into the outfield, picked it up, and ran it back to the infield.

"I gave the ball to some kid on the other team and he was like, um..." said Bourjos.

How fast is Peter Bourjos?

So fast that this little-known Angels center fielder has pulled up alongside that famous Dodgers center fielder as one of the two most exciting players in Southern California this summer. So fast that his game rhymes with the pronunciation of his last name — gorgeous — as he screeches and bangs his way into breathtaking moments that have fueled an Angels resurgence.

He leads the league in saved runs. He leads the league in highlight video catches. And he surely leads the league in causing a middle-aged columnist's daughters to scream.

We were in the stands at Angel Stadium earlier this week when, against the Detroit Tigers, Bourjos created a run by stealing two bases and scoring on a balk. Then, a couple of innings later, he saved at least two runs by making a face-planting catch into the center-field wall of a Miguel Cabrera line drive.

Bourjos walked off the field, took off his cap and smiled into the crowd with messy black hair and the cherubic face of a 12-year-old who had just left an ice cream truck. Among the thousands standing and cheering were my two daughters who were shrieking, "Who is that?"

I figured I should eventually get back down to Angel Stadium to find out. I met Bourjos in an empty dugout Thursday afternoon for an interview that began with him thanking me.

"I'm really having a blast," he said.

I explained to him that it is Angel fans who are having fun, especially all those young women who congregate on the field-level seats before the game to cheer Bourjos while he stretches, girls holding up signs such as, "You Have My Dad's Permission To Marry Me!"

"I know how some people view me, and I really appreciate it but…it's kind of weird," he said, shaking his head.

Not really. Bourjos has a chance to one day become one of the symbols of baseball's post-steroid era, a sandlot kid who actually looks and acts like a kid.

He is the 24-year-old son of a former major leaguer who still talks to his father every day on the phone. He is a baseball junkie who literally lives across the street from the Anaheim stadium. His pregame meal includes a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. His beard stubble requires a week of growth.

His destination on a recent day off in Southern California? Where else? Disneyland.

"I'm just kind of taking it all in," Bourjos said, smiling, always smiling. "Every day I'm so thankful I'm even here."

Since his recall to the major leagues last August, it is the Angels who have been thankful, for an energy and athleticism reminiscent of past Angels center fielders Gary Pettis and Devon White.

"There have been times where I've been so focused on watching him chase down a ball, I realize I'm not standing in the right place," said first baseman Mark Trumbo, grinning. "But then he catches it and it's all good."

It's not always good, as Bourjos left the field with an apparent hamstring injury Thursday after an eighth-inning RBI double against the Seattle Mariners. He hurt himself after stopping suddenly between second and third base, the right decision also proving to be a painful one, the roaring crowd suddenly silenced.

"All my life I've had people wanting to race me, outside restaurants and gyms and schools," he said before the game. "I've always said no because I never wanted to hurt myself."

The Angels are hoping the injury isn't serious, because they are serious about chasing a championship with a guy who used to practice wild catches while flying off a diving board into swimming pool.

"My son actually loves the game more than I do," said Chris Bourjos, a former outfielder who played 13 games for the San Francisco Giants in 1980 and now scouts for the Baltimore Orioles. "We never talk about his play; we just talk about how much fun he's having."

The biggest problem in Bourjos' game is the game itself. It requires more than catching and running. It also requires hitting. Entering Thursday, Bourjos had a flailing career on-base percentage of .286 with 119 strikeouts and just 24 walks.

For him to maximize his Angels career, he has to eventually bat leadoff, but those numbers make that impossible.

"I know this, and I'm working on it all the time," he said. "Every day, shortening my swing, being more selective, I'll just keep working."

The joy in his voice makes him difficult to doubt. The serenity in his father's voice confirms it.

"The thing that I like most about Pete's game is how he handles failure," said Chris. "To him, every day is a new day, a new challenge, a chance to start over again."

Thus supplying the definition of fast forward.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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