Former Gahr High Catcher Starting for Cardinals : It's a Dirty Job, but Nieto's Glad to Do It

Times Staff Writer

He is not meek, of course, because that is not a trait permitted in a catcher. But Tom Nieto, who grew up in Artesia and became a St. Louis Cardinal, was blessed anyway, and thus inherited the earth.

And the earth is usually all over him.

"He's always dirty," said Whitey Herzog, manager of the Cardinals.

"I hate to shake his hand after the fifth inning," said Cardinal pitcher Rick Horton. "He's sweating all over and he's dirty from diving for balls and running to back up first base."

After each game Nieto looks as if he has emerged from a pigpen instead of a baseball diamond.

"I don't try to get dirty," said Nieto, who surprisingly is the team's No. 1 catcher after starting the season as a reserve. "I just play hard. It seems like dirt is always clinging to me."

And it is as hard to shake off as the work ethic that was instilled in him when he was a Little Leaguer by his father, Tom Nieto Sr.

Taught to Hustle

"My dad taught me to work hard," Nieto said. "I've always hustled and given it everything I had."

That attitude came easily because Nieto was always blessed with the desire to improve so much that he would get to where some people thought he'd never be: the big leagues.

He was there last Saturday, at age 24, in the late afternoon lushness of Dodger Stadium where, as a stocky kid at Gahr High School, he had dreamed of someday playing. The grass had begun to cool in the shade, the yet-to-be-filled orange and blue seats sparkled in the sun and the mountains shimmered in the distance as the Cardinals took batting practice.

Nieto stood with Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Tommy Herr, men far more famous and with physical abilities well beyond his. But he was one of them. A regular.

The lingering traces of adolescent pudginess on his face were offset by dark, bushy eyebrows, a hint of a mustache and a nose that, as Herzog pointed out, was definitely hard.

"He has stepped in and done a real solid job," Herzog said.

Nieto, who Cardinal officials had envisioned as only a backup catcher, received his chance early in the season when Darrell Porter, who had been the team's regular catcher for four years, was injured.

Errorless Fielding

As expected, Nieto has been impressive behind the plate. He went more than 50 games without an error.

"He could always catch and throw," Herzog said.

But he has also--somewhat unexpectedly--helped the first-place team with his bat.

Early in June, Nieto was hitting .279, and although he has fallen into the .240s, he still has a knack for coming through in the clutch. He has 29 runs batted in.

"He is the prototype catcher," said Horton, pointing to Nieto's size, his lack of speed, his toughness, even his hair.

Nieto is 6-foot-1 and usually weighs 200 pounds, although the arduousness of his job has him down to 193. On a team of hares, he is a tortoise. He even had a crew cut earlier in the year that matched Herzog's, except for the color.

Knows Pitchers

"He gets to know the pitcher," Horton said. "He takes it personally when the pitcher does poorly. With him catching you never feel you're out there alone."

The Cardinals' top pitcher, 16-game winner Joaquin Andujar, said, "When Nieto catches, I don't worry. Whatever he calls, I throw. He's a smart guy. He knows how to pitch everybody."

When Nieto was 12 and already strong of arm, it was decided by his father and his Little League coach, Jim Johnson, that he would be a catcher. They schooled him in the fundamentals and found him a quick learner.

"I went along with it. I liked it," Nieto said.

His father, a carpenter and a former sandlot center fielder, mapped a course for his son.

"I told him to take it a step at a time," Tom Sr. said. "I told my wife that if he grew, he'd be a big leaguer."

The growth was slow, however.

As a junior at Gahr in 1977, Nieto didn't play because he missed classes and got into fights.

Returns Each Winter

"I was being dumb and immature," said Nieto, who each winter returns to Gahr to tell the players the importance of good grades.

He got smart in a hurry and made all-league as a senior.

"He was a great defensive catcher," said Gahr Coach Tom Bergeron. "His arm was so good that he could throw out a runner even if the runner got a good jump. I had never seen a catcher like that in high school."

But Nieto's bat--he hit only .220 the next year at Cerritos College--and size were suspect.

"I never thought he'd be a big-league player," Bergeron said.

But Nieto, as his father had hoped, started to grow and improve with each step he took.

He was an all-American at Oral Roberts University when the Cardinals drafted him in 1981.

They assigned him to their AA farm club in Arkansas, where he hit .179 in '81 and .242 in '82. He was promoted to Louisville in '83, where he hit .272. Last season he batted .277 at Louisville before being called up to St. Louis, where, without showing the slightest hint of intimidation, he batted .279, with three homers in 33 games.

Worked on Batting Skills

All this improvement burst forth after long hours of hard work in batting cages and weight rooms. Never a slugger, he strengthened his hands and learned to control the bat better and hit to right field.

"His average hasn't reflected how well he's hit the ball this season," said Johnny Lewis, the Cardinals' hitting instructor. "He has a chance to hit .250-.260, then gradually improve year after year."

Nieto believes he has inherited the earth ahead of schedule.

"I thought it would take a lot longer (to get to the majors)," he said. "Everything has happened so quickly."

He said he has been unaffected by the major-league life style that has been known to swell heads as well as wallets. Nieto is making an estimated $65,000 this season and, if he continues as a regular, will make a six-figure salary next year.

But Nieto said, "I don't want to change. I want to be the same person I've always been."

Guiding Light

Which is low-key, like his father, his guiding light.

"He's been my biggest influence," Nieto said. "He's pushed me along. He was always there."

And still is.

"He calls me, I call him," Nieto said. "He can pick things up. If I'm doing something wrong (at the plate), he'll let me know."

Now, with the average slipping and Darrell Porter anxious to reclaim his job, the Nietos have a lot to discuss.

They are happy with what has been accomplished.

But, as Nieto said, "I still think I have a long way to go."

And that's a path he will take, as always, step by step, through the dirt.

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