Sultans of Squat : From Sons Who Follow Dads' Example to Reluctant Converts, Area Boasts an Abundance of Quality High School Catchers

Times Staff Writer

Their knees tend to creak like a $6 rocking chair. Their fingers are bruised and battered. They often move with all the grace of a 100-year-old man running the 110-meter high hurdles.

They are catchers, and they are rare dogs.

"Very few kids want to catch," Chatsworth High Coach Bob Lofrano said. "When you have tryouts, you get 40 kids at shortstop, 80 in the outfield and two or three kids standing back there behind the plate."

Every team, however, must have one. Not having one would tend to slow the game quite a bit, what with the pitcher chasing the ball to the backstop after every pitch. What is rare is a good catcher. They come along about as often as a good Chicago Cubs team.

But for the second season in three, the Valley will showcase so many quality catchers that you will have to excuse those nasty red welts on the arms of area baseball coaches, the result of those same coaches pinching themselves.

"You only get one good catcher on your team every once in a while," Lofrano said. "This is a very unique year around here because there are so many really good ones . . . legitimate Division I, draftable catchers. In my 10 years of coaching here, I've never seen such a large crop of really good ones at the same time."

The class of 1987 also was highly regarded by scouts and colleges. The evidence: Mike Urman of Canoga Park is in the Atlanta Braves' farm system and Tim Laker of Simi Valley is with the Philadelphia Phillies organization; Jim Henderson of Westlake is at Arizona State and Frank Charles of Montclair Prep is at Pepperdine.

This year's group:

Casey Burrill (Hart): Last year, Burrill had 30 runs batted in, six home runs at Hart's oversized field and batted .392 with an on-base percentage of .500. Lofrano, who coached Burrill in a recent all-star series, said that the senior might be the most polished catcher of the bunch.

Yet Burrill's coach at Hart, Bud Murray, claims that for all his talent, Burrill isn't even the best on the team.

"Our best catcher is Jason Edwards, our best pitcher," Murray said. "He was the starting catcher as a freshman and sophomore, but pitching has taken away from that. He's the best around, I think, behind the plate. He's just too valuable as a pitcher.

"Casey has things Jason doesn't, though. Casey has better arm strength and is stronger with the bat. Casey is going to make a great catcher someday, a major league catcher. He has everything he needs behind the plate, and he can hit the ball. That will help him along the road."

Strapping on shin guards and a chest protector long has been the first thing Burrill does when he steps on the diamond.

"I've always been the catcher. Since the age of 8 in Little League," he said. "No one else wanted to get back there, and I fell in love with it right from the start. All of the other positions are so boring.

Burrill, who wants to play for a Division I school, knows that catching involves more than, well, catching a baseball.

"I love the responsibility that comes with catching. That's the real challenge," he said. "Of course, getting hit in the cup is a real high point, too. It's one of the occupational hazards. You're always getting bumped and bruised. At least once a game you get it. You let out a 'Yow,' and just crouch back down and stay with it. It lets you know that you're still back there."

Eric Johnson (Chatsworth): Johnson (6-3, 200 pounds) transferred last year from Michigan. He has been catching for only two years. Lofrano said that he has had little time to watch his new catcher, but so far he likes what he sees, both offensively and defensively.

"He's a switch-hitter with power from both sides," Lofrano said. "He's a very good offensive player, and that's a little unusual for a catcher at any level, even at the big league level."

Johnson must concentrate on his squatting to become a heavyweight defensively.

"I'd say he is an average defensive catcher. But he just needs more work behind the plate, and already I can see the improvement," Lofrano said. "He's very willing to work a lot. He brings a Midwestern work ethic to Southern California. I don't want to knock our kids, but I think Eric has that Midwestern upbringing and really busts his tail to improve."

Coaches from Michigan also influenced his selection of a position.

"I was an infielder since Little League, but my coaches in Michigan wanted me to catch. It wasn't my idea," Johnson said. "They told me it would be a wise choice, so I tried it. And I loved it. All of the action is there. The foul balls off the face mask aren't much fun, and your knees hurt a lot, but the rewards are so great.

"It's the only position I would ever play now. I'd like to keep catching for a long time, at college and into pro ball."

Del Marine (El Camino Real): Marine played quarterback on the Canoga Park football team as a junior but quit football--and Canoga Park. He transferred to El Camino Real to concentrate on baseball, and he, like Johnson, has impressed his coach, Mike Maio, with his work ethic.

"I think the nature of the position demands that they work harder. Catching is just physically harder than any other position," Maio said. "If you find a kid who likes to put on the catching gear, you've got a pretty hard-nosed kid to start with."

"Most kids don't enjoy getting hit in the throat, or someplace else. But catchers don't seem to mind."

Marine is one of those few good men who don't mind the service.

"I like catching because it forces you to stay in the game, to be alert every second," Marine said. "It allows for more aggressiveness and you get more contact, and I like that. Foul tips, getting bruised and all that, that's what I like about being a catcher.

The future holds the no-lose choice between a college scholarship and signing with a major league team, he hopes.

"I've got to play hard this year and then see what happens," Marine said. "I hope I have a lot of choices to make. I'd like to go to CSUN, but if I get drafted, that could change everything."

John Dempsey (Crespi): Dempsey is the son of veteran major league catcher Rick Dempsey but surprisingly, he didn't try catching until last year. His coach, Scott Muckey, said that Dempsey is already a professional prospect.

"John is very, very good. He has a terrific arm and is a solid hitter," Muckey said. "He's only been catching for a few years, and he's made considerable improvement. You figure Rick Dempsey's kid grew up squatting down, but he's really new at it."

Observing firsthand the physical toll catching has taken on his father kept younger Dempsey from donning the same mask.

"My dad always wanted me to catch, but I always resisted," Dempsey said. "I played third base and just about anywhere else but catching. Catching didn't look like much fun. If you saw the bruises my dad always comes home with--some real evil bruises--you wouldn't want to catch, either."

But a familiar scenario evolved: The older the kid got, the smarter the old man appeared.

"Last year I decided to try it, and I love it," Dempsey said. "You can control the whole game. And now, I've got the same bruises my dad has."

Gregg Zaun (St. Francis): Speaking of family, Zaun is the nephew of Rick Dempsey. But it was Rick's younger brother, Pat, who was largely responsible for Zaun's success as a catcher.

"He gave me my first glove--a catcher's mitt--when I was 6 or 7," said Zaun, a 5-10, 165-pound three-year letterman. "He taught me how to catch because Rick was always off playing somewhere."

Pat Dempsey caught in the minors with several teams, including the A's, Yankees, Twins and Orioles, but was able to spend enough time with Zaun to teach him more than the rudiments of the position.

"Growing up, I just idolized Pat," said Zaun, who hit .489 last year.

For Zaun and John Dempsey, it's not just all in the family, but all in the league. The two will battle one another for All-Del Rey League honors and face each other three times in league play. Last season, Zaun earned first-team honors, perhaps as much for the way he handles pitchers as for his offensive production.

Zaun, of necessity, has become an unofficial pitching coach for the Golden Knights. Monty Holmes, the pitching coach, left the team last month to pursue business interests.

"He knows all the hitters, he knows just about everything," senior right-hander Erik Hagge said of Zaun.

Zaun said that he has picked up bits and pieces taking notes from college coaches and scouts as they speak to pitchers during winter-league competition.

Zaun, who carries a 3.0 grade-point average, has verbally committed to Texas and is in the process of determining if the Longhorns will offer a full or partial scholarship.

Derek Tamburro (Westlake): Bloodlines haven't hurt Tamburro's development, either. His father, Don, is the third-base coach at UCLA after spending three seasons as an assistant at Pepperdine.

Don Tamburro was a catcher at Fresno State, and his son has proven an eager student.

"He's a pretty smart kid," Westlake Coach Rich Herrera said. "And not just in class. He's a student of the game. He's one of those coach-on-the-field guys."

Figures, since his dad is, too.

Tamburro (6-2, 200) batted .308 with six doubles, two triples, three home runs and 20 RBIs last season. He is carrying a 3.9 grade-point average and preparing for college by taking courses in trigonometry, accounting and physiology.

"College is definitely in the overall plan," he said.

College already has provided him a jump on some of his rivals. Tamburro spent a portion of the off-season playing for Lofrano's Cubs against some of the top college teams in Southern California.

"It was good experience in tough competition," Tamburro said. "College guys can throw a curveball for strikes."

Tamburro can throw strikes, too. In a recent scrimmage against El Camino Real, Tamburro threw out two of three would-be thieves at second.

"Good arm, hits for power, handles the pitchers," Herrera said. "I don't have to spend too much time worrying about what Derek's up to."

Bobby Hughes (Notre Dame): At 6-3 and 210 pounds, Hughes has perhaps the best arm of any catcher in the Valley. He also might be the most experienced.

"This is Bobby's third year as our starter, and he's really become a complete player," Coach Bob Mandeville said. "He'll bat fourth for us and I'm sure will lead us in the power stats, the homers and RBIs. And he's got a real strong arm--the best of anyone in this area, I'd say."

Hughes' rocket arm is an effective deterrent to thieves.

"Very few people run on him anymore," Mandeville said. "After three years I guess they've figured it out."

Like most of the Valley's best at the position, Hughes figured out long ago that catching made him indispensable.

"I've been catching since I was a kid. I just liked being a part of the game on every pitch," Hughes said. "When I was kid I was big and had a good arm and I could just overpower people."

Hughes says that he wants to go to college, and plenty appear to want him.

"He's already gotten a lot of attention from scouts and college recruiters," Mandeville said. "There were a lot of pro scouts watching him last year, and I'm sure they'll all be back again this year."

Said Hughes: "College ball is my goal. It will be USC, Long Beach State, Loyola Marymount, Oklahoma State or Fullerton."

Mike Sims (Alemany): Sims is another with loads of talent. His emergence helped bump Jon Beauchemin, the team's outstanding catcher of two years ago, to third base last season. Sims batted .324 last season and threw out 80% of runners attempting to steal second.

"He's quick and agile and gets the ball to second base in a big hurry. We timed him at 1.8 seconds pretty consistently last year," Alemany Coach Jim Ozella said. "His offensive skills are getting better, but his defensive skills are so great that he stands out just on that basis."

Sims is an excellent student in the classroom who became a student of catching in high school.

"I was a second baseman, but the coaches at Alemany didn't like me there so they moved me behind the plate when I was a freshman," he said. "The first few times I tried it I said to myself, 'Oh, no. This won't work.' But now I love it."

Staff writer Steve Elling contributed to this story.

BASEBALL TOP 10

Selected by sportswriters of The Times

Rk Team League Record 1 Hart Foothill 26-1 2 Chatsworth West Valley 25-2 3 San Fernando North Valley 14-7 4 Simi Valley Marmonte 23-6 5 Crespi Del Rey 17-11 6 Saugus Golden 18-8 7 Kennedy North Valley 19-11 8 Notre Dame S.F. Valley 18-10 9 Westlake Marmonte 15-11 10 Monroe Mid-Valley 13-16

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