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LITTLE IN A BIG WAY : Jim Vatcher walks softly at 5-foot-8, but he carries a big stick t the plate and has a cannon for a throwing arm in center field as he leads Cal State Northridge into the Division II playoffs.

Times Staff Writer

Baseball might be full of promise for Jim Vatcher if it weren’t for a bad case of the shorts. If he were only 10 inches taller, he might be considered another Darryl Strawberry. The Cal State Northridge center fielder could have been a high draft pick in next month’s major league draft, except for one little fact--he’s 5-foot-8.

As it now stands, his shortness makes him a longshot in professional baseball. Like Randy Newman, who sang the words “Short people got no reason to live,” many scouts say if a player is under six feet, he might as well be six feet under.

Still, Vatcher has racked up some big numbers in leading the Matadors to the Division II West Regionals, which begin today at noon at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The senior outfielder is batting .362 with 15 home runs. His on-base percentage is .513 and his slugging percentage is .655.

Most impressive, though, is Vatcher’s defense. He has good range in center and a strong arm. “His arm is surprisingly exceptional,” said Dave Stabelfeldt, a CSUN assistant coach. It even got to the point during the current season where Northridge players openly encouraged opposing baserunners to challenge Vatcher by going for an extra base.

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“He threw so many out,” Stabelfeldt said. “Once he nailed a guy who tagged at second on a deep fly to center. He threw him out easily at third. He’s a gutty little player. And he really drives the ball--especially for a little guy.”

There it is. Even in the most effusive praise, there is almost always the amendment regarding Vatcher’s stature-- Especially for a little guy. From the warning track, he can throw out a runner trying to score. Gee, that’s a strong arm-- for a little guy. He can line a pitch 450 feet over the center-field wall. Now that’s stroking it-- especially for a little guy.

He could hit the ball 600 feet and it would be a helluva shot--for a little guy.

The phrase has followed Vatcher around since grade school.

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“I’ve heard all the jokes about being short,” he said. “Ever since I can remember, outfielders always moved in when I came up to the plate. I’d hear the comments like, ‘Who’s this? The bat boy?’

“But, I’d lick my chops when I saw them move in. It has worked out well. I don’t hear too many jokes anymore.”

Which is to say, word has gotten out that Vatcher, for a little guy, can really hammer the ball.

Teammate Robert Wheatcroft, a pitcher, said Vatcher utilizes his lack of size in another way. “His strike zone is so small that pitchers have no choice but to bring the ball to him. He just sits and waits. And then he mashes it.”

Said Vatcher, with a shrug: “I guess I have surprising power. A lot of it comes from timing. And a lot of it is leg drive. I get a lot of carry off my bat. I have strong forearms and good bat speed, but most of it comes from my legs.”

Vatcher graduated from Palisades High and attended West Los Angeles College, where he played outfield and pitched.

Two years later, CSUN Coach Terry Craven, himself only 5-7, was willing to overlook a shortcoming such as lack of height. He recruited Vatcher before the 1986 season and Vatcher moved into the starting lineup in right field last year. He batted .286 with six home runs.

“I never really got on a tear last season,” he said. “I missed the first month with a broken jaw and that set me back. And we never could crawl out of the hole as a team. We finished below .500 and it was very frustrating. This year, we finally crawled out of the hole.”

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The Matadors finished the regular season 36-20 and 18-12 in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. They play Cal State Chico in today’s first regional game.

The other team in the regionals is Cal State Dominguez Hills.

If Northridge is eliminated in the regional playoffs, Vatcher’s playing days will probably end. The consensus at Northridge is that Vatcher is the team’s most valuable player. Craven said Vatcher could have been the CCAA Player of the Year, “if his numbers had been just a little better.”

As it turned out, he was voted to the all-conference first team, along with teammates Tim Rapp (third base), pitcher Dan Penner and first baseman John Balfanz. Balfanz, 6-3, 200 pounds, nipped Vatcher this season for the team home run lead with 16.

All the Little-Engine-That-Could talk notwithstanding, Vatcher’s size has dissuaded professional scouts. Said Craven: “Jim is as good as anybody, but his obvious thing is his stature. Scouts just don’t look at people under 6-foot. A guy who is 6-6 is going to get a better look than a guy who is 5-6.”

Vatcher is painfully aware of that fact but still is unwilling to believe. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I get drafted,” he said. “One scout asked me the other day how tall I was. He said I looked taller. It seems like I’m growing a little these days.”


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