Bob Glassman, baseball coach at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana, took one look at Julio Vargas and knew the seventh-grader was born to catch.
Vargas had never played organized baseball when Glassman persuaded the youngster to put on a mask and shin guards and get behind the plate. Glassman quickly discovered that Vargas was a natural.
"He had the physical and mental tools and was eager to play," Glassman said. "Catching can be a very difficult position for someone who has never played, but it came easily to him. We never lost a game in two years with Julio at catcher.
"He was confident and self-assured. He was a real student of the game. It was like he was born to play baseball. I think he could make a living off the game."
In the past six years, Glassman, an 11-year veteran at Willard, has watched Vargas grow into a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior at Santa Ana High School.
Vargas, a two-time All-Southern Section selection, is batting .457 with three home runs and 17 RBIs and has struck out only two times. Power? Vargas has hit 13 home runs at Santa Ana, including two in a playoff game against Upland as a sophomore.
Bill Ross, Santa Ana's coach, says Vargas has become a more disciplined hitter this year, hitting to all fields. He showed plenty of patience last season when he walked 36 times. He has 27 walks this season, including eight in the past three games.
Vargas has paid a price for the long hours he spends on weekends at a batting cage in Tustin. He quit wearing batting gloves, saying he was wearing out a pair every three weeks and it was getting expensive replacing the worn gloves.
"I've concentrated on becoming a better hitter," Vargas said. "I'm trying to go with the pitches to right field, hitting the curveball and the inside fastball.
"I've also worked a lot with Coach (Herschel) Musick on my catching. He'll put me against a wall and throw a whiffle ball into the dirt to test my reflexes. I've still got a lot to learn.
"I'm getting better at handling pitchers. I'm not only watching where a batter stands in the box, but how much bat speed he gets on inside or outside pitches. I've also worked a lot on my picks (pickoff throws) to second."
In short, Vargas is working to become the complete player. He is very agile and quick for his size--physical tools that also make him attractive to football coaches.
Vargas was a starting tight end for Santa Ana for three seasons despite missing summer passing league competition and workouts each year because he had to work. Vargas said he hasn't ruled out a future in football.
"I didn't want to go out for football as a sophomore," he said. "But Coach (Dick) Hill talked me into coming out and then made me work my tail off for a starting position. Coach Hill taught me the rewards for hard work. We won the league title three times."
Ross wonders how much better Vargas could have been if he concentrated solely on baseball at Santa Ana.
"He needs to get away from football for a year and then I think he'll really develop," Ross said. "He came out this year with nagging shoulder and ankle injuries after playing football that set him back.
"He's had some trouble with his elbow and I'm sure the scouts are a bit suspect of his arm. But there are games where he just dominates. He picked off two runners against Villa Park and tagged out two runners at home against Foothill.
"Julio is a big, aggressive kid who's not afraid to throw. Very few players run on him. In fact, we hope they try to run."
Vargas, who plans to attend Rancho Santiago College in the fall if he is not taken in baseball's amateur draft June 5-7, rated himself in five phases of the game and gave himself high marks with the exception of power. Here's the Vargas meter:
--Arm strength: "Better than average. My elbow was sore at the beginning of the year, but it's fine now. I like to throw and I think runners respect my arm."
--Speed: "Good. I think I run pretty good for a guy my size. I've been timed under 5.0 in the 40."
--Hitting: "Better than average and improving. I'm trying to become a more aggressive hitter."
--Power: "Average. I'm not getting good pitches to hit. I'm a little disappointed here. I had more homers when I was a sophomore than I do this year."
--Intensity: "Good. My intensity is up and improving. I've heard people say that sometimes it looks like I'm just going through the motions. I'm hustling all the time."
Earlier this season, Vargas learned that he can't go out of his way to please the scouts after a disappointing afternoon against Ocean View.
"I concentrated too much on who was watching me and how I looked," he said. "I had a poor game. Now, I'm just going day to day and not worrying about who's watching me. I'm out there having fun.
"If I got drafted, I would probably sign. My dream is to play professional baseball. But I'd also like to get an education. We'll just have to see what happens and take it from there."