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Skeels Wields Explosive Bat in Spokane

Times Staff Writer

Who says life in the minor leagues isn’t a blast? Certainly not Andy Skeels, the former Thousand Oaks High outfielder and All-American catcher at Arkansas.

Since signing with the San Diego Padres in June and joining the Class-A Spokane (Wash.) Indians, Skeels has been both a party and witness to bang-up jobs on the diamond.

“So far this season I’ve seen Captain Dynamite three times,” said Skeels, the Padres’ seventh-round selection in the June summer free-agent draft. “This guy is about 70 years old and goes out with about four sticks of dynamite and blows himself up by second base.

“He constructs something like a paper rectangular coffin. He calls it his coffin of death. He puts one type of explosive cylinder on each side of the coffin and lies in it and counts to 10. I don’t know how he detonates it but at zero it blows up. He lays unconscious for about 10 seconds, then he wakes up to the approval of fans.

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“He’s a pretty cool guy, I guess--but it’s a tough way to make a living.”

Another tough way to make a living in the Northwest League is to be a pitcher facing Skeels and his explosive bat.

After adjusting to his move from Arkansas with just one major problem--"I miss the fishing,” he said--Skeels hasn’t missed much else, especially at the plate. Through games of Aug. 21, the 5-11, 180-pound catcher had a .301 batting average, 20 doubles (leading the league), 5 home runs, 55 runs batted in (1st)) and 45 walks (1st). He has 11 game-winning RBIs to outdistance by far the rest of the league; nobody else has more than five.

As Rob Picciolo, a former major leaguer and now Skeels’ manager at Spokane, said: “You got to like his hitting.”

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Then again, hitting never has been difficult for Skeels, who was named the league’s player of the month for July. After graduating from Thousand Oaks High in 1983, Skeels attended Oxnard College, where he batted .402 as a sophomore. The next season, after transferring to Arkansas, he hit .324. These were good seasons, but no match for Skeels’ senior year.

He set a single-season school record for home runs (18) and batted .382 with 76 RBIs and a .763 slugging percentage as the Razorbacks (51-16-1) finished in the final six in the College World Series this year. Skeels was selected to the All-Southwest Conference team, the CWS all-regional team and Baseball America’s All-American second team.

That Skeels would set the Arkansas record for home runs in a season was about as likely as Tom Lasorda passing up the postgame buffet for a week. He had hit only four home runs the year before as a regular.

“I think it was just a case of the more you do something, the better you get to know yourself,” Skeels said. “I made my swing better with a few corrections, like with my weight transfer. It was a few minor adjustments.”

But Skeels recognized that getting a 350% increase in home runs takes more than throwing your weight around.

“It was a lot of luck,” Skeels said. “But Branch Rickey said that luck is the residue of design, and I did spend a lot of hours in batting practice.”

Skeels isn’t hitting as many home runs in the minor leagues as he did in college, but he isn’t playing in the smaller college ballparks, either. The fences at Spokane Interstate Fairground Stadium are 335 feet down the lines, 411 feet to center and 370 feet to the alleys. On top of that, the outfield fences are 28 feet high in some places. “It takes a big-league poke to get it out of here,” said Tom Leip, Spokane’s general manager.

Said Skeels, only half-jokingly: “I’m not sure any of the home runs I hit at Arkansas would have been home runs here.”

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The big field, along with Skeels’ switch to wooden bats from aluminum, has turned the catcher’s home run power to doubles power. That suits Skeels fine--he never considered himself a power hitter, anyway.

“I’m a line-drive hitter,” Skeels said. “A lot of home runs are mistakes--just high popups that are lofted instead of driven.”

What has never been as apparent as Skeels’ hitting ability, however, is his fielding, or even his position. In fact, after playing the outfield and second base for Thousand Oaks, he didn’t begin catching until his sophomore year at Oxnard College.

And when he arrived at Arkansas, it was back to the outfield until this spring when he became the starting catcher. That experience, coupled with his work behind the plate for Spokane this summer, has made 1987 Skeels’ first full year of catching.

Now is better than never.

“I just think it was maybe a case of recognizing where my talents lay,” he said. “In the outfield, my athletic prowess really didn’t show up too much. I was quick, but I was always slow.”

Nonetheless, Skeels hasn’t been slow to learn the tricks of the catching trade, despite his late start.

“Although offense is his biggest asset, Andy’s defense has improved greatly this season,” Picciolo said. “It shows in his throwing and blocking of balls, his intelligence and calling of pitches.

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“I think he definitely has the ability to get to the major leagues as a catcher.”

The Padres also believe Skeels has a major league mind-set.

“One thing that has become evident over the course of the season is that he is an outstanding leader,” said Tom Romenesko, San Diego director of player development and scouting.

Said Picciolo: “We don’t name leaders on our team--guys just emerge as leaders, and I’d say he is right up there.”

Skeels said he wants to be the guy everyone looks to no matter if things are going well or badly.

“I think it’s something that comes with the territory,” Skeels said. “But I think it’s a lot easier to be a leader if things are going good.”

Things currently are going better than good for Spokane. The Indians clinched first place in the league’s Eastern Division early last week. Through Monday, the team was 45-17 and in first by 15 1/2 games.

The parent Padres’ record is nowhere near the Spokane mark. But while the Padres have been the cellar-dwellers of the National League Western Division all season, they have the likely National League rookie of the year in Benito Santiago, who happens to play the same position as Skeels.

“He’s awesome,” said Skeels, who doesn’t think the presence of Santiago will impede his progress to the major leagues.

“I kind of have a feeling if I’m ready to play in the big leagues, I’ll play, no matter who’s ahead of me,” he said. “Any competition between him and me is probably a year or two down the line.”

A bonus in reaching the major leagues for Skeels would be joining his former high school teammate and longtime friend Kurt Stillwell of the Cincinnati Reds. Stillwell and Skeels were teammates from the age of 13 through graduation from Thousand Oaks High in 1983.

“People always knew he was going to be in the big leagues,” Skeels said. “Now hopefully it will be my time soon.”

Skeels said that Stillwell and he have had periodic telephone conversations during the season. Stillwell’s advice is short and simple.

“He says to keep your head up and go out and play really hard, and that’s about it,” Skeels said.

If Skeels does reach the majors, he will be one of the smaller catchers, joining the likes of Alex Trevino (Los Angeles), Mike Lavalliere (Pittsburgh) and Mike Heath (Detroit).

“I think that’s a unique thing about the game of baseball. As long as you get the job done, I don’t think it matters how big you are,” Skeels said.

Padre officials are reluctant to make public their impressions of minor leaguers such as Skeels.

“We don’t try to make any evaluations about any first-year players,” Romenesko said. “We’re just very happy that he’s having a successful first year.”

One could even say Andy Skeels’ first year in professional baseball has been dynamite.


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