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Aggressive Bent Puts Tagliaferri a Cut Above Rest

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Asking Gino Tagliaferri to quantify his inventory of animosities would be difficult, sort of like handing a Band-Aid to a leper. There’s so much to cover. Gee, Gino, where do we start? The top few, in no particular order:

Pitchers: Tagliaferri’s printable adjectives for this subspecies vary, but are usually along the lines of “loathsome” or “despicable.” Tagliaferri once said that he “hates pitchers because they’re the ones who make the game interesting or boring.” Makes sense. If they strike him out, it’s boring. If he hits it into the street beyond left field, well, you get the idea.

Umpires: Tagliaferri was ejected from games twice as a sophomore and twice as a junior, so his objectivity is somewhat suspect. But Tagliaferri says theirs is a little lopsided, too. If a malevolent stare from the man in the mask is any indication, Tagliaferri might be right, but most of the time he asked for it. “I’ve said some things to some umps that, well, they’d just stare me down, hard ,” he says with a laugh. Tagliaferri once hit a home run that, after clearing the fence, slammed into the side of the plate umpire’s parked car. Gino laughed, hard, when he found out who the owner was.

Baseballs: Inanimate objects, to be sure, but nonetheless worthy of a large dose of Tagliaferri spite. Heck, since Tagliaferri hit a City Section-record 23 home runs in three varsity seasons at Kennedy High, baseballs must be near the top of the scorn scale. “Tags” is not a nickname for a spray hitter.

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For Tagliaferri, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound shortstop, this aggressive stance is all a part of developing the winning edge, the thrill of the kill. When it comes time to bear down, Gino becomes part grizzly.

“Think of all of the kids you’ve seen that have the talent, but when it comes time to suck it up, they just don’t have it,” he said. “Hell, yes, being aggressive is important.”

It has become his trademark. His powerful swing usually results in an extra-base hit or the air conditioning of the grandstands. And when he’s not at the plate, he fans his competitive fires however he can.

“He’s as straightforward as they come,” says Kennedy second baseman Pat DeBoer, a senior who has played with Tagliaferri on various youth teams since they were 9 years old. “If he thinks the ump blew a call or somebody messed up, he lets you know. He speaks his mind.”

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Diplomacy be damned. Tagliaferri led the state in home runs with 13, establishing a City Section record, and his 23 career home runs is also a City mark. He ended his career with 91 runs batted in and a slugging percentage of .794.

His team won the City 4-A Division title this year, its third title of the 1980s. Tagliaferri was named the City 4-A Player of the Year on Tuesday, was drafted in the third round by the Detroit Tigers last week, has signed a letter of intent to play next year at Fresno State and dates a former Kennedy cheerleader.

He also is the first three-time member of The Times’ All-Valley first team and is The Times’ Valley Player of the Year for 1989.

“The All-Valley, the All-City, being drafted, Fresno State . . . It’s been a great year,” he said.

Great and grating, just the way he likes it.

Tagliaferri lives a long home run or two from the Kennedy baseball field in Granada Hills. While a ninth-grader at Porter Junior High, Tagliaferri started dropping by Golden Cougar baseball practices. Soon, he was taking a few cuts. By his sophomore season, he already had made an impact as a designated-hitter, belting a team-high five homers and driving in 23 runs.

In the fall of 1987, Tagliaferri started opening eyes outside the Valley area. While playing against college competition on a scout team run by Chatsworth High Coach Bob Lofrano, Tagliaferri hit a pair of home runs at Loyola Marymount.

“It was quite impressive,” Lofrano said. It was also a precursor of Tagliaferri’s senior year, in which he had three two-homer games.

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A few weeks before his junior season, Tagliaferri tangled with 1981 Kennedy graduate Phil Lombardi at the school’s alumni game. Lombardi, now a first baseman for the New York Mets’ triple-A affiliate in Tidewater, Va., and Tagliaferri squared off in a home run contest. DeBoer was the pitcher.

“That was a helluva sight,” DeBoer said. “Phil grabs the cheapest aluminum bat we have and starts hitting them 500 feet and Gino’s hitting them almost as far.”

After 10 swings, the two were tied.

“He’s got a lot of pop,” said Lombardi, who finally beat Tagliaferri in the third round of the competition. “When I was a senior, I think I hit two or three home runs all year. He was slamming them into the orchard, no problem.”

Tagliaferri again played for Lofrano’s scout team last fall, and the Chatsworth coach immediately noticed a difference. Tagliaferri had tempered his tendency to lunge at the ball and had stopped trying to pull each pitch into left field.

“This year he was real consistent,” Lofrano said. “He became a line-drive hitter, he sat back on the ball and was more patient.”

Lofrano also envies Tagliaferri’s line-drive style of play and leadership abilities. Had Chatsworth High had a player with Tagliaferri’s hell-bent attitude, it might have put the Chancellors over the top, Lofrano said.

“He brings his teammates up to another level of play,” Lofrano said. “He’s very vocal. (Chatsworth) didn’t have the one guy this year who didn’t care about your feelings, who let you know when you screwed up. He has that spark. We had a team of nice kids. . . . “

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“Nice” is rarely used to describe Tagliaferri after he crosses the lines. And don’t cross Tagliaferri, especially if you’re an umpire.

“I believe that’s the Italian in me, and I regret that,” Tagliaferri said. “That’s one thing I really have to work on. I know I can do it, I don’t believe in the word can’t.

Or shouldn’t. In a recent playoff game, Tagliaferri was in rare form. Dale Carnegie he ain’t.

“It’s a tight game, we’re battling, we’re losing,” Gino explained. “Their guy at the plate swings--he breaks his wrists and everything--and our catcher asks for help at first base. And no lie, the (umpire) is looking in the stands at some girl. He did not see the play. Everybody is staring at him, waiting for him, and he turns around and signals safe.

“I get on first base later in the game and I really start on him. I said, ‘Let me in on what’s going on in your head. Is there a good-looking girl over there . . . or something? He says, ‘Huh?’ I said, ‘Ever since that one call you blew in the third inning, your head’s been in the stands. Hey, I’m just telling you to do the job you’re being paid for.’ ”

“I was being a total smart ass.”

The same umpire worked Kennedy’s semifinal playoff game the following day. Tagliaferri approached the umpire before the game, shook his hand, then shook him up.

“I walked up and said, ‘Umpire, good luck, because you’re gonna need it to keep your head in the game,’ ” Tagliaferri said, laughing. “He stared me down haaard all game.”

Said DeBoer: “Gino came back to the dugout and told a couple of us that he’d already started ragging the guy. He thought it was pretty funny.”

Some thought Tagliaferri’s football exploits were rather humorous. Despite having no football experience before entering high school, Tagliaferri was the long snapper on punts and the kicker as a sophomore. As a junior, he tried out for--surprise--quarterback.

“I told them right off that I wasn’t really a quarterback, I never pretended to be that good,” he said. “I just thought I could provide some leadership out there.”

Kennedy Coach Bob Francola was soon won over by Tagliaferri’s overall attitude and raw talent. Or was that raw attitude and overall talent?

“With one-tenth the work, he was nearly as good as the two other guys we had out there,” Francola said. “And he figured to improve, so I went with Gino.”

The gamble didn’t pay off. In six games, Tagliaferri completed 14 of 42 attempts (33%) for 146 yards. He threw four interceptions, one touchdown pass and absorbed a ton of punishment. “If I had it to do all over again, I’d put him at wide receiver,” Francola said. “He’d have been a game-breaker.”

Francola sees the same characteristics on the baseball field. “He likes crushing the ball, he likes getting his nose in the dirt,” he said.

As it stands, Tagliaferri seems headed to where there’s a snootful of soil--the central San Joaquin Valley. Talks broke down with Detroit last week, so it appears Tagliaferri will be headed to the land of good ol’ boys. He should fit right in--he already drives a pickup truck.

“We get him a pair of boots and he’s all set,” Fresno State Coach Bob Bennett cracked.

Tagliaferri, 18, will attempt to fill the Tony Lamas of All-American shortstop Eddie Zosky, a junior who last week was drafted in the first round by Toronto. After graduating from St. Paul High in Santa Fe Springs in 1986, Zosky turned down a substantial offer from the Mets after being drafted in the fifth round. Tagliaferri appears poised to take the same route.

“They’re already saying Gino might be another Zosky,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if he’s another Zosky defensively--Eddie’s more of a finesse player--but Gino has as good a set of stats as anybody we’ve had in a while.”

Bennett said that Tagliaferri will play at short, third or second. “I think a guy like Gino could definitely start as a freshman,” he said.

First, however, Tagliaferri must meet the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s requirement by scoring at least a 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or risk losing a year of eligibility. Tagliaferri again took the SAT on June 3 after failing in his first three attempts. As insurance, he took the American College Testing (ACT) exam Saturday. Bennett said that Tagliaferri is welcome at Fresno State next season whether he is eligible or not.

“It embarrasses me when people ask me about it,” said Tagliaferri, who says he has a grade-point average of 2.8. “But I feel I’ll get through it.”

Once Tagliaferri gets there, he’s confident he’ll catch on fast. In fact, he’s practically sure of it.

“College pitching is much better,” he said. “It’s not hard to hit a ball when it’s around the plate--in high school, you don’t know where the ball’s gonna be. I strongly believe I’ll be real successful and that I’ll improve at Fresno State or wherever.”

It’s probably just as well that Tagliaferri chose not to sign with Detroit. When asked what he knew about the Tigers, he answered: “Not much--Kirk Gibson.”

Kindred spirits, to be sure. Both former football players, volatile types, nitro in spikes. Of course, even for a self-described hard guy, emotion can sometimes be a two-way street.

“At our team banquet, I gave about a 20-minute speech about how I felt,” Tagliaferri said. “I thanked my parents, my friends, my girlfriend, coaches. Hell, I thanked everyone.

“Then it sort of hit me, and all of a sudden, I broke down. I started crying--not bawling--but I got real choked up.”

Mixed emotions about escaping from high school? This guy? It seems that unlike a belt-high fastball, he wasn’t ready to kiss it goodby.

“I think it was because it all went so fast, boom , it was gone,” he said. “We won that (4-A title), and I wanted to enjoy it one more time. High school goes fast, you know that, we all know that. Now it’s out into the real world.”

Somebody alert Fresno.

ALL-STAR CASTS

The all-star baseball teams for Ventura County and Glendale can be found in their respective sections in today’s edition. See Part IX.

STATWATCH A look at Gino Tagliaferri’s senior season and career statistics. SENIOR SEASON

Batting Average .365 Runs 37 Hits 35 Home runs -13 Runs batted in 36 Slugging percentage .875 CAREER Batting Average .383 Runs 80 Hits 95 Home runs *23 Runs batted in 91 Slugging percentage .794

Led state, set single-season City Section record. * Set City Section career mark.


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