As a teen-ager, Wally Trice had trouble falling asleep.
Girls? Grades? Job?
"I used to tape tennis balls between my fingers before I went to sleep," recalled Trice, then a pitcher at Mar Vista High School. "Then baseballs, then softballs. It was pretty painful for a couple hours, then I'd get to sleep."
The split-fingered fastball--a pitch that, ideally, tumbles from between the index and middle fingers--requires a wide gap to do so.
His fingers suitably splayed, Trice mastered the pitch. In fact, he thought it near unhittable.
Until he threw one to Ray Plantier of Poway High.
Plantier, like Trice an All-San Diego Section player, "knocked the . . . out of it," Trice said.
Trice can laugh now. This year he has benefited from Plantier's hitting while pitching for U.S. International University.
In 45 games, Plantier hit 11 home runs, drove in 43 runs and had a .391 average--plus 10 stolen bases and a .707 slugging percentage.
Trice, who tired and whose earned-run average ballooned to 5.06, won 11 and lost 4 on an 18-26 team.
Trice no longer tapes balls between his fingers, but baseball still consumes him.
And Plantier, who says that in high school "all I thought about was surfing," now seems driven to fulfill his considerable talent.
Their coach, USIU's George Kachigian, rates the two seniors as "sleepers" for the June 6 amateur draft.
"I think they would really help somebody," Kachigian said.
Kachigian's judgment is valued by Spider Jorgensen, a Chicago Cub scout for Southern California who signed a touted first baseman, Mark Grace, at Kachigian's behest. "George knows whether a player has moxie or not," Jorgensen said.
A look at the two and their shared dream:
His best fastballs go only about 82-84 m.p.h., and during his first three years at USIU, he questioned why he was at a university, so undistinguished were his performances. But this season, Wally Trice struck out 134 batters in 121 innings. He led the nation in strikeouts about two months into the season and remains among the leaders, even though his season is over.
Why the transformation?
"My roommate reads a lot of those old baseball books, and this winter I began reading about (Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai) Three Finger Brown," Trice recalled. "I was trying to figure out how he threw the ball with just three fingers."
By jamming the ball between the ring and middle fingers, Trice made it act like a screwball. Moreover, he throws his screwball without the wrenching motion that left Carl Hubbell, who rode the pitch to the Hall of Fame, with an inwardly bent elbow.
"It's an off-center fastball; I throw it just like a fastball," Trice said.
Said Kachigian: "The biggest problem with left-handers is what to do with right-handed batters. (Those batters) love to have the curveball come in to them. Screwballs--that's the key. Not too many people have that."
A peek into Trice's childhood reveals his passion for baseball and his knack for improvisation.
Trice's father and mother divorced when he was 8. He grew up in Imperial Beach--"You could spit on the border from my house"-- and says that his family often required welfare. Choice baseball equipment was out of the question.
"I used to play tape ball with my brothers (Brian and Scott)," he said. "We'd tape everything. Tape newspaper into balls and into bats. Used to break windows; we drove my mom (Judy) crazy.
"My stepfather (Bob) bought me one of those Catfish Hunter balls, with the fingers painted on and an instruction book on how to throw pitches. He and I'd throw. We'd play a (simulated) game. Sometimes I'd cry. It was so much fun, though. We were pretty competitive."
If his background makes him a better pitcher, his fastball makes him less enticing to the pros. He is 6-feet 4-inches tall and weighs 185 pounds but says that he should fill out and that professional coaching would improve his fastball.
Should a pro team select Trice, it would get a left-hander, to be sure. As in free-spirited.
One rainy day this spring, Kachigian got a call from campus security. Seems someone had been buzzing passers-by on an all-terrain vehicle. It was Trice.
"I used to walk around (Mar Vista) with a baseball, all the time," Trice recalled. "People knew it was just Wally."
Trice hates the taste of liver but eats a plateful before every game. "I did before a game in high school one day and did really well," he explained.
"My friends like to call and pretend they're scouts," Trice said. "One time, a real scout did call me. I must have sounded like a real jerk. I'm saying, 'Oh yeah? Uhh-hunh. Really. Sure.' "
He laughs about it and takes pride and comfort in his 3.3 grade-point average and June graduation plans. But when the draft is mentioned, Trice's eyes dilate.
Ray Plantier's body seemed to be saying it was not ready for the pitch.
The blur seemed to be by him. Maybe next time, kid.
The ball landed 400 feet away.
Hands don't lie.
"Ray has got some of the quickest hands I've ever seen," Kachigian said. "That's what you look for in a major league ballplayer. . . . If he could polish up at second base, he could be a gold mine because of the way he hits."
Near this time a year back, Phil, Ray's younger brother, heard from the Boston Red Sox. Boston had drafted the Poway senior in the 11th round.
"I think I'm a little better athlete than (Phil)," assessed Ray, who is perhaps his brother's No. 1 supporter. "He is really disciplined, he carries himself well, he gives me a lot of advice. I just told him, learn by me. He knows about the mistakes I made. . . . I was immature. I used to be cocky. Now I'm confident."
It is pointed out that Ray seems to be a young man making up for lost time. He nods his head vigorously.
Ray graduated young, at 17. He hit .515 his senior year and had a scholarship offer from Oklahoma but elected to stay in San Diego. But he never could find his niche, attending two area community colleges.
Then he took a year off, mostly because of poor grades.
"Working for a living is a harsh reality," Ray said of the year, in which he sold shoes, moved furniture and worked construction.
He decided to give college and baseball another try, and he hit .434 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs for NAIA power Ft. Hays State in Kansas. Then he returned to San Diego to play for Kachigian this year.
"Ray had a bad attitude as a youngster," Kachigian said. "He came back to me and said, 'I've grown up a lot; I've matured.' Sure enough, he has. His attitude is 1,000% improved.
"He has speed (6.6 seconds in the 60-yard dash), he can hit, and he's versatile--he played six positions for us this year. He's going to be a big surprise for somebody."
Trice credits his mother with buoying his dream when reality proved harsh. Plantier credits his fiancee, Diane.
Plantier, 22, also will have a 3.3 grade-point average and degree to fall back on, should his dream vaporize. Yet he, too, gets a faraway look at the mention of the draft.
"I could get philosophical about this, but I won't," Plantier said. "I was satisfied before--I used to read articles and look at my stats. I'll never be satisfied again.
"There's nothing more I want than to play baseball. I just want a chance, that's all."