Long Arm of Titans: Garcia Throws Convention a Curve

Times Staff Writer

By his own admission, Longo Garcia is something of a contradiction; a knuckle-curve throwing right-hander with a split-fingered personality.

One side is an intense competitor who risks discord with his girlfriend by outplaying her in friendly sets of tennis because "I don't like to lose in anything."

The other is a fun-loving character who refuses to take himself too seriously--a guy who laughs when he says his size--or lack of it--precluded him from playing basketball in high school.

One side yearns for a chance to play professional baseball and admits to being hurt that scouts haven't deemed him worthy of becoming a draft choice. "I don't know what they want," he says. "I just want a chance to play somewhere. Maybe that's another reason why I'm trying so hard. To prove to them that I can pitch."

His other side realizes that baseball is a small part of the big picture, and, though he wants to succeed, he wants to enjoy himself in the process. "It's a game. It's for fun. You can't get too serious about it."

This dichotomy has had a swift and measurable impact on Cal State Fullerton's baseball team. Garcia, a junior right-hander from Orange Coast College and Los Amigos High School, is 7-2 and a big reason the Titans have won 10 of their last 11 games and lead the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. standings. And his playful, unassuming manner and quirky behavior have helped keep things light around Titan Field.

"I think the best way I can describe Longo is he's a legitimate character," said Augie Garrido, Fullerton coach. "And that's not meant in the negative sense at all. He has a very sharp sense of humor.

"He hasn't been here that long, but there's already some Longo stuff. You can set your watch by him. When there's one minute before practice starts, Longo comes through the gate. It's harder to do that every day than it is to be 10 or 15 minutes early, if you think about it. The contradiction to that is he's always the first one in line for the meal money. First in some things and last in others. But Longo is Longo."

Taking this act on the road isn't always easy. Garrido has had to make special provisions to ensure that Garcia arrives at Titan road destinations a day ahead of his teammates. Star treatment, perhaps? Superstition? Neither. "I get bus sick," Garcia said. "Ever since I was a little kid. Even on vans. I have to sit in the front or I get sick."

Since the Titans can't have their starting pitcher getting motion sickness on the day of a game, they have allowed Garcia to forgo the team bus ride on game days and travel by car to such places as UC Santa Barbara and Nevada Las Vegas one day early.

Orange Coast Coach Mike Mayne caught Garcia's show for two seasons, and found it both amusing and endearing. "He's a very consistent person," Mayne said with a grin. "He's always strange.

"The thing I remember most about Longo are the phone calls at 11 o'clock at night. He'd call me up and ask, 'How'd I pitch today, Coach?' He knew he had pitched great. He just wanted to hear it again . . . before he went to sleep, I guess."

Although his coaches and teammates may find Garcia good for a few laughs, opposing hitters have to take him quite seriously. Fullerton was expected to have a solid one-two pitching punch in right-hander Mike Harkey and left-hander Larry Casian. Harkey is a top prospect for the June draft, and Casian was a first-team all-conference selection last season. But along came Garcia, who, with less than a month left in the regular season, has more victories than Harkey (5-2, 3.10 earned-run average) or Casian (6-1, 3.15).

Garcia's ERA has jumped to 5.25, but that is largely because he allowed 10 runs in 2 innings last Friday at Nevada Las Vegas.

Garcia's emergence has given Garrido the pleasure of having three effective starting pitchers. In the PCAA, in which games are played in weekend sets of three, this is a luxury. Garcia will be on the mound tonight at 7 when Fullerton (8-1, 29-12) visits second-place UC Irvine (6-3, 19-18-1) for the first of a three-game series.

Garcia has pitched 9 fewer innings than Harkey this season, but has 64 strikeouts to Harkey's 65. Harkey, at 6-feet 5-inches, overpowers hitters. Garcia, 5-10, teases them. He mixes a fastball, knuckle-curve and forkball to finesse and frustrate. And he takes pride in making his own pitching decisions. "I shake off catchers," he said. "I don't care if a guy's the best catcher in the world. I call my game . . . what I feel is working for me that night."

Everything was working on the night of April 3, until the elements interrupted. Garcia had a no-hitter through five innings against Cal State Long Beach before rain halted the game. It went into the books as a 7-0 victory and the first no-hitter during Garrido's 15-plus seasons at Fullerton.

Said Garrido: "He's got good stuff and he knows how to use it. It's an instinctive kind of thing that he's had since high school. He knows how to pitch. And he really thinks the game through. It's like watching a real good pool player at work."

There was a time last season, however, when Garcia was in no condition to hustle anybody. Although he had an 8-2 record and 2.19 earned-run average as a sophomore at Orange Coast, most of those statistics were accumulated before the last month of the season, before a strained shoulder muscle reduced him to an arm-weary junk peddler.

"I was overworked," he said. "They just pitched me too much, and I didn't prepare myself for it during the fall. I couldn't pitch like I was supposed to pitch. I was just lobbing the ball up there."

The sore arm resulted in a cold shoulder from major league baseball. The amateur draft came and went last summer, without mention of Longo Garcia. "You never really know, I guess, but I really thought I had a chance to get drafted," he said.

Said Mayne: "He was discouraged, I think to the point where he thought about not playing again. He felt his accomplishments were going unnoticed by the people who really mattered, the people he wanted to be noticed by."

Garrido did notice him, though, and, after a phone call to Mayne, who assured him the arm problem was not serious, the Fullerton coach offered Garcia a scholarship.

Garcia has been keeping the Titans entertained--and helping them win--ever since.

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