Going Against the Grain : Scouts Say Gieseke Has the Tools to Pitch, but He Would Prefer to Do His Work With Wood

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Mark Gieseke was a 16-year-old junior at Westlake High the day he passed up flipping burgers for spending money and opted for something more consistent with his long-range goals.

He made only the minimum wage at Joltin’ Joe’s Baseball Batting Range in Agoura Hills, but the benefits package--all the swings he could handle--was substantial. And Gieseke took full advantage of the daylong swing shifts. He taught himself how to switch-hit, loading the pitching machines with balls before unloading on the mechanical Nolan Ryans from both sides of the plate.

“It wasn’t always easy dodging shots behind the screen and picking up crates of balls,” Gieseke said. “Sometimes during the summer it was 110 degrees. But whenever I had some free time, I’d be out there swinging and swinging.”


Taking 250 swings a day, Gieseke occasionally flirted with heat stroke while developing what turned out to be one of the hottest strokes in college baseball. The 6-foot, 1-inch, switch-hitting outfielder batted .477 last season and was a first-team All-American for Cal State Sacramento, which finished second in the Division II World Series in Montgomery, Ala.

“He hit from the beginning of September and didn’t stop until the last game of the World Series,” Sacramento Coach John Smith said.

This summer Gieseke (pronounced GUY-sik), 21, is even hotter, batting .500 for the San Fernando Valley Dodgers, a semipro team that finished 11th in the National Baseball Congress World Series last year.

“He doesn’t do anything fancy or spectacular,” Valley Dodger Manager Mark Morton said. “He’s just a guy who at the end of the day has three hits and three RBIs.”

Gieseke, however, is undergoing an identity crisis of sorts. He played first base in high school and junior college, is an outfielder at Sacramento and many professional scouts are projecting him as a pitcher.

Despite his .477 average, 8 home runs and 51 runs batted in at Sacramento, the less-than-fleet Gieseke was not drafted last June.


“Scouts were saying, ‘If you play first base, you have to hit the long ball,’ ” Gieseke said. “Well, eight dongs isn’t the long ball. So I was an outfielder, but an outfielder has to have blazing speed. I was kind of in a Catch-22. Anywhere I went, I wasn’t going to have something.”

What Gieseke possesses, besides a sweet swing, is a mouthwatering left arm. He pitched in high school but has never thrown an inning on the collegiate level anywhere but in the bullpen. Yet, two major league teams have contacted him this summer about pitching tryouts. “They say I have a live arm, a fresh arm,” Gieseke said. “To this day, everyone is waiting for me to get on the mound. I hit .477, but something went wrong so maybe my future is pitching. But I’d still like to give hitting a shot.”

And why not? Everywhere Gieseke has played, he has hit like Wade Boggs.

As a senior at Westlake in 1985, Gieseke batted .468. In 1986 at Valley College, he batted .390. The next year, he transferred to Canyons and batted .379.

Curiously, Gieseke discovered there was no market at local four-year schools for a sure-handed first baseman who was a proven hitter. Cal State Northridge said the position was already filled, Cal State Dominguez Hills said no scholarship money was available and Pepperdine was mildly interested in Gieseke but only as a pitcher.

Enter Smith, who was working at a baseball camp at Pepperdine when he saw the left-hander throw in the bullpen.

“We recruited him primarily as a pitcher,” Smith said. “That was our intent. But he just did so much at the plate, he had to play every day. He did not pitch at all for us. I didn’t want to spoil a good thing.”


Adjusting to life in Sacramento was tough at times. Gieseke’s apartment was burglarized twice and he also was robbed of his chance to play first when a logjam at the position pushed him to right field.

“They stuck me in the outfield and that’s where I learned to play it,” Gieseke said. “Let me tell you, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Every day after practice, Gieseke spent an hour catching fly balls and learning to gauge distances between himself and the fences. A few face-first collisions with chain-link barriers helped speed the process.

“He not only had great concentration as a hitter but in the outfield as well,” said Lorenzo Lesky, who played third base for Sacramento and the Valley Dodgers. “Mark wasn’t always pretty to watch, but he always made the play.”

And he almost always got his hits. Only once during the season, in a series against Northridge, did Gieseke play in consecutive games without getting a hit. He had a .771 slugging percentage, a .555 on-base percentage and batted .475 against Division I opponents.

“I felt he was a good, strong .350 or .375 hitter,” Smith said. “But he’s obviously better than that. He had some games where he was just unconscious.”


Gieseke knocked out more than one pitcher with his Joltin Joes’ swing. His biggest blows came during the Hornets’ six-game spring trip through Georgia, when Gieseke went 18 for 25. In three games against Columbus College, he was 14 for 15 with 6 extra-base hits and 12 RBIs.

In the final game of the trip, against Columbus, he was 6 for 6 with 3 home runs, 2 doubles and 8 RBIs.

“He hit a home run from the right side, then the left, then the right again,” Lesky said. “It was the greatest performance I’ve ever been associated with. Every time he hit the ball, it was going out of the yard.”

Understated Gieseke: “I was just having a good day.”

Next season, there are certain to be more good days. Gieseke, however, is not sure whether he will be enjoying them at the plate or on the mound, or in Sacramento or the minor leagues. During the past two summers, five players--all pitchers--have signed professional contracts while playing for the Valley Dodgers. Gieseke has made it known that he would not mind being the sixth, provided the price is right.

“It’s a guessing game as far as pro ball is concerned,” Gieseke said. “But to tell you the truth, I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”

If Gieseke returns to Sacramento, he will have his choice.

“We’re going to play it by ear and see what happens,” Smith said. “If he wants to pitch, he’ll pitch. He’s a guy who has to be in the lineup every day, so if he does pitch, he’ll hit for himself.”


And, Gieseke hopes, become a hit himself.