Bob Natal, UC San Diego's slugging catcher, is not always as friendly as he seems.
Oh, sure, Natal is always ready with an encouraging word. And there are plenty of times when his teammates come to him for advice, and he is more than happy to oblige.
But don't let the senior's easy smile fool you. Sometimes, Big Bob can get pretty intense. And most of those times happen when the muscular 5-foot 11-inch, 190-pound senior sets his feet in the batter's box.
"When I step in there (the batter's box), it's like I want to punish the ball," Natal said. "I like going after it."
The transformation took place the other day at batting practice.
Natal dug in from the right side of the plate and assumed his closed stance, only inches from the black strip of the inside corner. A lot of batters crowd the plate, but Natal appears to engulf it.
He shoves his helmet down so that the bill of it is almost across the bridge of his nose. He waves his aluminum bat at the baseball as if it owed him money.
When Natal hits the ball, he hits it only one way--hard. Some go to right-center and others are yanked down the line in left. All leave the batting cage in a hurry.
Natal doesn't like to leave the cage at all. He'd rather stay. But his time is up, and the good-natured grin returns to his face, only to disappear as soon as it's his turn to swing again.
On his final swing of the day, he hit one that landed a few feet short of the fence 365 feet away in left-center field.
"Get in the weight room, Natal," one of his teammates yelled.
For Natal, there haven't been many power shortages this season.
Natal has set UCSD records with 16 homers, 58 RBIs and a .449 batting average. The records he has broken were his own, set last year: 15 homers, 56 RBIs and a .395 average.
In four years, he has 51 home runs and 199 RBIs.
Natal's slugging has been a big part of UCSD's most successful season. The Tritons won their final 12 games to finish 29-12--including a 7-4 victory over San Diego State--and gain a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The Tritons will open best-of-five West Regional play at La Verne today. A doubleheader will be played Saturday and Sunday, if necessary. All of the games will be played at La Verne with the series winner advancing to the championship tournament May 28-31 in Marietta, Ohio.
UCSD beat La Verne in three of their four games during the regular season.
"Bob Natal is an extremely coachable player who has a very positive attitude and outstanding work habits," said Lyle Yates, UCSD's coach. "He has provided excellent senior leadership all season. Everybody seems to respect him."
Especially pitchers. Natal, admittedly a free-swinger, has walked 33 times in 177 plate appearances, and he has been hit by pitches seven times.
"Thirty-three walks is an incredible number for him," Yates said, "but pitchers have to be careful with him. He's been hit a lot because they're trying to come in on him. If he gets his big arms extended, he's going to hit it a long way."
But intentionally walking Natal isn't the answer. A walk can turn into a double because the big guy has some speed, too. He has stolen 14 bases in 15 attempts this season.
It's true that Natal isn't widely recognized because he plays for a Division III school, but it's doubtful his exploits could go completely unnoticed.
Yates said that Natal is certainly a Division I-caliber player and plenty of pro scouts have expressed an interest in his future.
"Any offers will be accepted," Natal said. "I really feel I can compete at any level. I like trying to play up to the level of my competition."
In 1983, when Natal was a senior at Chula Vista's Hilltop High School, few thought he could play college ball. He had hit only three home runs in his high school career and spent a lot of his time fighting his weight, which peaked at 215 pounds.
Natal wasn't contacted by any Division I schools. Yates stumbled upon him while at Hilltop trying to recruit another player.
"I saw Bob as a power hitter who had very good bat speed," Yates said. "The day I was there, he hit a triple and I couldn't believe how well he could run for a big catcher. All of the Division I schools missed the boat on him."
Natal was set to attend University of Redlands but Yates persuaded him to stay in San Diego so Natal's father, Tony, and mother, Rosa, could attend most of his games.
"My father started me playing when I was little," Natal said. "He made my older brother (Ray) a pitcher and he made me a catcher. That way, we could always complement each other. It seemed like he had a plan for me."
Natal majors in physics, and would have his degree at the end of this semester if it weren't for the fact he changed his major from electrical engineering and computer science.
"I really would like to be a teacher once I'm done playing baseball," Natal said. "I really enjoy teaching things to other people. In fact, I'd rather teach something to somebody else than study for myself."
This season, Natal has done plenty of teaching while handling UCSD's young pitching staff. With two freshmen starters and one sophomore, the pitching was a big question mark at the beginning of the season. But freshmen Kyle Abbott (7-1, 1.28 earned-run average) and Mike Morgan (4-2, 1.86) and sophomore Rick Nowak (9-3, 2.02) have had big seasons.
Natal downplayed his role even though he has missed only six innings all season.
"I may tell them what to do, but they do it," Natal said. "Our pitching has really come through and that's one of the reasons we're doing so well."
But the main reason is Natal.
"I'd have to say he's the best player we've ever had at this school," Yates said. "Of course, it says that in the record book, but he's been outstanding in more ways than that."
A couple of weeks ago, UCSD was having a team barbecue and most of the players were out around the swimming pool having a good time.
But Natal, ever helpful, wasn't partying.
"He was inside, helping a couple of our freshmen players with their homework," Yates said. "There's this guy just sitting at the dining room table during a party teaching these kids some calculus.