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For Royster, Many Positions but Just One Town : Padre Utility Player, in His Option Year, Says He Hopes to Settle in San Diego

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Times Staff Writer

Jerry Royster is in his option year. This means that, after the season, the Padres have the option of either telling him to get lost or telling him to stay here.

Jerry wants to stay.

“It sounds corny, but if you get the opportunity to play in San Diego, you gotta take it,” Royster said. “I don’t care what any free agent says. They come here to play because of the atmosphere in San Diego. That’s the single biggest reason. Listen to guys talk on other teams. They say, ‘How lucky are you to be playing in this kind of weather!’

“You can’t ask for anything more. You got weather, a good ballpark, an organization that cares about you. It sounds like I’m doing a commercial for San Diego.”

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He is.

Jerry wants to stay.

The Padres won’t let him know until October. He has asked them to tell him now, but they won’t.

Team policy.

“Hey, I have no beef,” Royster said.

“Great organization. If I wanted to talk to (team President) Ballard Smith today, I could. If he’s in a meeting, he’d probably get back to me. (General Manager) Jack McKeon is the same way. Jack won’t hold anything back. He’ll tell you straight what he thinks.”

Jerry wants to stay.

He says he can help this team. Already this year, he’s batting .277. The other night against the Mets, there were two out with the score tied in the ninth inning, and he doubled to deep center. Later, Tony Gwynn homered to win the game, and everyone forgot Royster.

People tend to do that.

It’s because he plays everywhere. Royster, who started out with the Dodgers, began playing regularly with Atlanta--back in 1976--as a third baseman.

In 1977, he was the Braves’ second baseman.

In 1978, he was their shortstop.

In 1979, he was their third baseman.

In 1980, he was their left fielder.

“That’s how I got the tag of being a good utility player,” he said. “To be honest, though, when I was first used at three different positions on three different days, I was scared to death. It’s not easy to go from one position one day to another the next day. No two are the same.

“In Atlanta, they used to move me from left to third base in late innings, move Dale Murphy from center to left and Brett Butler from the bench to center. I’d say, ‘Oh no!’ Everyone was saying how great this was, but we were sweating bullets. One day, Murph said, ‘I don’t know about you, but this is strange.’ ”

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Royster’s strange.

He can handle it now.

“Now, I’m tabbed as one of the best utility players,” he said. “And if not for Atlanta, it wouldn’t be so. If not for Atlanta, I wouldn’t have come here to San Diego. They wouldn’t have wanted me. They wanted a utility man. So it was good for my career. What it really did was make my career longer.”

Royster, 33, will play anywhere.

Catcher: “No shin guard could fit these bony knees, but I could play.”

Pitcher: “I never have in the majors. I did in high school. The last game before I signed out of high school, I pitched. I pitched a doubleheader. Funny, huh?”

First base: “I’ve done it in spring training. Should the Garv look out? No, he shouldn’t look out. But I could do it.”

Second base: “I like it the most. It’s more active than other positions. There’s more to do.”

Shortstop: “Well, I guess there’s a lot to do there, too. But I haven’t played there as much. . . . I could play it. I just need more practice. There’s more to think about.”

Third base: “That’s my star position. That’s home. I can do some things well there.”

The outfield: “I enjoy it. I have fun there. Outfield’s the most relaxing. Everything’s in the air. All you got to do is run over and catch it. All you need is speed. Outfielders should have to pay to get in. . . . It’s hard to mess up. The only way to mess up is if you drop a fly ball.”

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Royster, the human double-switch, is a little eccentric.

Most utility men are.

If he doesn’t start, he’ll watch the first inning from the bench. Then he’ll go back to the clubhouse and lift weights or lift food into his mouth.

“I’ve been caught with a hot dog in the middle of a game in Atlanta,” Royster said. “I’m in the clubhouse, and I’m looking at the game on TV, and I see the guy I’m playing behind get hurt. And I got this hot dog in my mouth already. So I’m running downstairs, and the manager doesn’t realize I’m not there in the dugout. As soon as I step inside, he’s waving me in the game.

“Well, I haven’t finished swallowing the dog. I spit it out on the ground, and I got quite an ovation from my teammates.”

Utility men never settle down in one place, whether it be second base or third base.

So Jerry Royster would like to settle down in one town.

San Diego.

He’s got his wife, Kathy, and his little girl, Kristie Marie, to think about.

“Oh, my wife’s great,” he said. “How’d I meet her? We’d just lost a game in Montreal back in 1981 right before the strike, and we were in a little bit of a slump. Me and a bunch of teammates took the Metro back from the ballpark, and we were walking and we were gonna go have a beer. We walked down the stairs of this place and there were a bunch of people, but I saw this beautiful girl, and she stood out.

“And I said kiddingly to these guys, ‘I’m gonna marry that girl.’ They all laughed. They asked me what kind of beer I wanted. . . . Later, her friend came over and introduced herself without us ever talking. We got to talking. So I saw this girl, but we didn’t make any plans or nothing, and I left. But Roland Office was playing for Montreal at the time, so when the strike was over I told him, ‘Hey, go to this place and look for this girl. I gotta find this girl.’ I knew her name but that was about it. I’d just seen her that one time, and it was toward the end of the night. I told Roland, ‘I want you to go there and see if you can find her.’ So I’ve got him checking after every game. And he’s reporting back to me every day.

“But we didn’t know when the strike was gonna end. As it turned out, though, our first road trip after the strike was up there, and--needless to say--the most important thing on my mind wasn’t the Montreal Expos. I couldn’t wait for the game to get over so I could go on my mission. I went, and she was there, and that’s when we started dating.

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“Funny, but after that first night she and her mom--who are both French Canadian--were talking and she told her mom she’d just met (Dodger pitcher) Jerry Reuss. And her mom, being the baseball fan, said, ‘I don’t think it could be Jerry Reuss because the Dodgers aren’t in town.’ And she said, ‘I’m sure that’s what he said.’ ”

To make a long story shorter, they ended up with a long-distance romance--$800 phone bills, Royster said--and were married in October, 1982.

“Is that a great story or what?” he said.

“Now we live in Rancho Bernardo, and during game days I do whatever my little girl wants me to do. We spend a lot of time at Chuck E Cheese’s. We spent five hours at the beach the other day building sand castles. She wanted to swim, so daddy and her swam. We love it here.”

Jerry wants to stay.

Jerry wants to stay.

“No doubt, no doubt,” he said.

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