James Buccheri didn't think much about base stealing before this season. He had stolen a few bases because he is fast, but he was never preoccupied with it.
But last winter, Fred Hoover, the Golden West College baseball coach, decided to help Buccheri become a prolific base-stealer. Hoover encouraged Buccheri to run during the winter season as much as he could.
At the start of this season, Hoover was talking about Buccheri setting a single-season Golden West record. The Golden West record is 35, set in 1978 by John Moses, who is in the Cleveland Indian organization.
So far, Buccheri has 23 steals for Golden West, which is 12-8 overall and 3-2 in South Coast Conference play. He has not been thrown out or picked off.
Golden West has 16 conference games left and at least two games in the Saddleback tournament over spring break, so the record is within Buccheri's reach.
In the conference opener against Compton March 15, Buccheri walked, then stole second, third and home in his second at-bat. The steal of home occurred on a delay after the runner on first base broke for second and the throw was cut off but was relayed to the plate too late to get Buccheri.
With his success, Buccheri also has learned a new appreciation for stealing bases. He even carries a Rickey Henderson baseball card in his cap.
Henderson set the major league record of 130 steals for Oakland in 1982.
"We had a team meeting at the end of the winter, and he (Hoover) told me that I had a chance for the school record," Buccheri said. "When I found out it was 35, I really didn't think I had a chance."
Buccheri's chances improved when he had five steals in the first two games.
"Over the winter, I gained the confidence to go more," said Buccheri, who was a part-time starter in center field last season and hit .350 in 80 at-bats with 5 steals.
"Last season I would get the sign to go, but a lot of times I was afraid I couldn't make it, so I wouldn't. This season I just have a lot more confidence that I can make it."
Even with all his success, Buccheri still has to look for the steal sign.
"He had the green light in the winter, so he would run more. We almost had to force him," Hoover said. "But now there are times that are poor situations to steal, so we have a no-steal sign as well for him."
But being held back doesn't bother Buccheri.
"They help me a lot," he said about the coaches. "They always seem to know when a pitchout is coming, and so far it is one of the main reasons I haven't been caught. There have been some close ones, but so far I've been a little bit faster than the throw."
One of the reasons Buccheri has so many steals at this point is that he's hitting the ball well, which means he is getting on base a lot. Buccheri is hitting a team-leading .395 and is tied for the team lead in walks with 12. He also has two home runs, including one inside the park.
But he could be doing better at the plate, according to Hoover.
"He really doesn't utilize his speed as well as he could," Hoover said. "He could do more with the drag bunt and the push bunt, but he always wants to pull the ball and be a power hitter."
Buccheri came to Golden West in a roundabout way. He went to Marina High School for three years and played varsity baseball as a junior in 1985. His family then moved to Vero Beach, Fla., when he was a senior and he played football at Vero Beach High School in the fall of 1985.
His family moved again to Albuquerque, N.M., in the spring of 1986. He hit .429 at Ciebola High School as a senior. He earned a scholarship to the University of New Mexico, where he started last fall. But after a short stay, he left.
"It just wasn't for me," Buccheri, 19, said. "I wasn't sure what to do, but when I finally decided to leave I needed to decide where to go. At first I wasn't too sure if I should come back here, but I knew some people that had gone to Golden West, and it worked out for them. And it has worked out pretty well for me, also."