Eric Anthony stepped back into the batter's box at the Houston Astrodome Saturday facing a zero-and-two count and San Francisco's Rick Reuschel, the National League's starting pitcher in this year's All-Star Game.
Anthony, 21, a left-handed hitting outfielder from San Diego, had just been called up from Houston's double-A team in Columbus, Ga. It was hoped he could add some muscle to an outfield that had produced just five home runs all season.
Some 420 feet away sat a soon-to-be-lucky fan about 20 rows up the right-center field pavilion. Seconds later, he became the owner of Anthony's first major league hit--a total that exceeded his high school varsity production by 100%.
A few innings later, Anthony connected with a Rich Gossage pitch for a double that hit just inches below the yellow line that marks the top of the outfield fence.
In front of a national television audience, Anthony displayed the kind of swing that made him a minor league star and "untouchable" prospect in the Astros organization.
In 1988 with Class A Asheville, N.C., Anthony led all minor leaguers in home runs (29), while driving in 89 runs and hitting .273, despite missing the first month of the season. This season in Columbus, he had 28 home runs, 79 RBIs and a .300 average before he was called up Friday.
"People in the organization figured he was ready for the jump," said Art Howe, Houston's manager. "It's hard to say how he will do. He's only played three ballgames. But he's hit the ball well. He's got a quick bat with a lot of pop.
"His attitude is outstanding. He's all business . . . (And at least) for the time being, he's in the lineup."
A little more than three years ago, Anthony could not have dreamed of such a scenario.
Anthony was born in San Diego and grew up in Rancho Penasquitos. For three years, he attended Mt. Carmel High School, a perennial power in San Diego County baseball.
Mt. Carmel's baseball coach, Sam Blalock, said Anthony hit six or seven home runs for the freshman team and that he probably would have started on the varsity his sophomore year.
But he was academically ineligible and forced to sit out as a sophomore. As a junior, he regained his eligibility and started as a running back for the Sundevil football team.
When baseball season arrived, Anthony remained eligible under CIF standards but not his mother's. Again, he sat out.
"I just wasn't getting after it in school," Anthony said. "It was one of those things that happened. Being young and blind, I didn't realize the consequences. I wasn't performing up to my mom's standards.
"At the time, I really didn't have any desire to play baseball. I was into football. I loved it. I think I was a good running back, and I probably could have played somewhere after high school."
That came sooner than he expected. Instead of going to Mt. Carmel for his senior year in the fall of 1985, he dropped out and moved to Oakland to live with his brother, William.
Four months later, Anthony moved again, this time to Houston to live with another brother, Mike. His parents are divorced; his mother, Jo Krole Phillips, and younger brother, Bernard, live in Cardiff by the Sea, his father somewhere in Texas.
While in Houston, Anthony took classes at Sharpstown High and eventually passed a test to receive the equivalent of a diploma. He was also working to support himself.
"It was a learning experience," he said. "Definitely. If I had the maturity I have now, I would not have done some of the things I did."
In May 1986, Anthony was mature enough to call Reggie Waller, an Astro scout and minor league manager who had shown interest in him in San Diego.
Waller, a San Diego resident and part owner of the San Diego School of Baseball, said he remembers going to watch a North County Palomino League game in the summer of 1985.
"It was a strange thing," Waller said. "A fellow was talking with me and some of the other scouts. I've known (him) for a long time and he said, 'I don't know why you're watching these other kids. The best guy around is Eric Anthony.' I tried to act like I didn't hear him and just walked away."
Waller contacted Anthony and set him up to play with a summer league team.
"He was a pudgy little kid, about 5-11 (he is now 6-feet-2), 195 pounds," Waller said. "He was a mess in the field. He couldn't field the ball. He would run the wrong way. To say the least, he wasn't that overwhelming, until he stepped in the batter's box. His first time up, he hit one out. Way out."
A few more plate appearances, and Waller was convinced of Anthony's talent, raw as it was. He sent a recommendation to Houston.
But then, said Waller, "About two weeks later, he disappeared. Nobody knew where he went. It wasn't until he called me from Houston in 1986 that I knew what had happened to him. All my counterparts claim I hid him out in Houston (until the draft)."
Houston drafted Anthony in the 34th round, but the Astros were not sure they were going to sign him . . . until they saw him take batting practice for the first time in the Astrodome.
"I came out just as he was finishing taking his cuts," said Chuck Pool, Houston's assistant director of public relations. "All the coaches and scouts had gathered around the cage, and I saw these big smiles. I was wondering what was going on. He had hit about three or four home runs, and I think it was the first time he had used a wood bat."
The Astros signed Anthony and sent him to their rookie team in Sarasota, Fla.
His first season was full of frustration. He played in just 13 games and had three hits and five strikeouts in 12 at-bats (strikeouts continue to be a problem, 127 in his last 403 minor league at-bats). Because of his inexperience, he spent that first season the way a rookie quarterback might, holding a clipboard on the sidelines, trying to learn the game and its intricacies.
Said Dan O'Brien, the Astros' director of scouting: "Eric was about as raw and crude a player as you can be. Plus, he had been working, and he was nowhere near in shape to play. It took him about six to eight weeks just to get into condition.
"The evaluation by Mr. Waller was that he had excellent physical tools, and he was very good athlete. We drafted him in the 34th round but that's only because we felt that none of the other 25 teams knew about him. If he had played in high school or given a different set of circumstances, he would have been a much higher draft choice."
Recalled Anthony: "I was a little raw, like I still am. But at that point, I was just excited to be there.
"Sometimes I'd be talking with the guys. And they would all be talking about their glory days in high school or wherever. They would ask me about mine, and there were none. I didn't play. They were excited for me when they heard that."
The next year, he was back in rookie ball, but he was given a chance to play every day. And he produced. He led the Gulf Coast League in home runs (10) and RBIs (46) while batting .264.
Last year, he was promoted to Class A, where he continued to hit and improved dramatically on defense. He was fast becoming the talk of the organization and this year was invited to the big league camp in the spring.
Said Pool: "He hit only one home run in spring training, but it was a mammoth shot at Orlando . . . Whenever he took batting practice in spring, he became the feature attraction. The media and the fans all wanted to know when he was hitting."
Anthony batted .348 for the spring, but was cut with two weeks left.
"I knew I wasn't going to make the team," he said last Wednesday, a little more than 24 hours before receiving word from assistant general manager Bob Watson that he was being called up. "I figured they'd send me down and let me play every day. And hopefully . . . "
Anthony, like so many others in the organization, had thought the Astros would bring him up when rosters are expanded from 24 to 40 players on Sept. 1.
But with the Astros in the thick of the divisional race, Anthony is being given an early but deserved shot.
Said Blalock, his would-have-been high school coach: "I don't know what made it for Eric. Maybe he had already gone through enough hard times. It doesn't surprise me, but it certainly makes me think well of him."