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Everyday Power : Loyola’s Tony Kounas Just Needed a Chance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He had heard it all before.

Three times in the last three years, Tony Kounas had been told that he would finally get a chance to be a starter.

“They told me things that never came true,” Kounas said.

But there was something about Loyola Marymount baseball Coach Chris Smith that made Kounas believe it again when Smith called on him in San Bernardino last summer.

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Smith was looking for a right-handed power hitter.

Kounas was just looking for a place to play. He was killing time, playing catcher for the semi-pro San Bernardino Indians, hoping to attract the attention of scouts from Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach.

He had just been given his written release from baseball powerhouse Oklahoma State, where he had ridden the bench for most of the last three seasons.

For two of those years, Kounas was the reserve catcher. But after hitting .315 with eight home runs off the bench as a sophomore, he thought he would finally get a crack at the starting lineup.

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When Kounas found himself still on the bench at the end of his junior year, he decided to take advantage of Oklahoma State Coach Gary Ward’s open transfer policy, which would allow him to move elsewhere as a senior without having to redshirt.

Kounas had his release. And Loyola’s Smith contributed some understanding.

“Coach Smith knew where I was coming from,” Kounas said. “He said he figured I just needed a chance to play, and that he would give me a chance to do that at Loyola Marymount.”

Smith himself had started his college playing career in 1978 as a freshman outfielder at Oklahoma State before becoming disenchanted with the program and moving on to Los Angeles Valley College and UCLA.

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“Tony is the kind of guy who needs to settle into a place where he could play every day,” Smith said. “It’s hard to get into a groove if you’re not playing every day.”

Smith offered Kounas a scholarship, the offer was accepted, and the rest is history.

Kounas is one of the main reasons 14th-ranked Loyola Marymount (31-9) is in first place in the West Coast Conference and on solid ground for a run at the College World Series.

So far, the sturdy power hitter from San Bernardino has started all 40 games at Loyola. He’s leading the team in home runs with 11 and is second in batting average (.390) and runs batted in (42).

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“Coach Smith promised he’d give me plenty of at-bats,” Kounas said. “It’s a real relaxed situation. As long as I worked hard and did my best, I didn’t have to worry about coming out of the lineup.”

Especially not when he’s hitting tape-measure home runs. Kounas hit a blast at the University of Santa Clara--estimated at well over 450 feet--that many teammates said was the longest ball they’ve ever seen hit.

“It’s almost weird,” Kounas said. “When you start getting into a streak like this, it seems like it’s so easy to see the ball and hit it far.”

Last weekend, Kounas manhandled the University of Nevada-Reno pitching staff, hitting four mammoth homers in the four-game series. The fourth struck halfway up the trunk of a 70-foot eucalyptus tree behind the left-field fence at Loyola’s George Page Stadium.

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“Tony is a legitimate long-ball hitter from the right side of the plate,” Smith said. “But the main thing you wonder about when you get a transfer is how he will buy into your system. So far, Tony’s done everything we’ve asked of him, including being willing to play other positions.”

Kounas still isn’t playing catcher, his best position, because All-American backstopper Miah Bradbury (drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1989) decided to forfeit a year of the minor leagues and stay at Loyola for his senior season.

So far, Kounas has seen most of his action as Loyola’s starting left fielder, but it’s better than the view from the bench.

“I wanted to play if it meant playing third base or the outfield,” Kounas said. “So I don’t mind not playing catcher at all.”

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The transition to left field hasn’t been seamless for the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder. But Kounas doesn’t make many mistakes in the outfield. Last weekend, he took away a base hit from Nevada-Reno’s Rod Nettnin with a tough, sliding catch.

“He may not catch a ball in the outfield with the greatest mechanics,” Smith said, “but he covers a lot of that up with his great arm strength.”

Kounas’ strong arm enabled him to be an All-Citrus Belt League quarterback at San Gorgonio High School in San Bernardino, good enough for the University of Hawaii to offer him a football scholarship.

But baseball is Kounas’ main love. He hit .527 as a senior in 1986, and nixed Hawaii’s offer when it didn’t include a provision to play baseball as well as football.

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He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox as a catcher in the 15th round of the June, 1986, draft. But Kounas opted to head to Oklahoma State on a full-ride baseball scholarship.

Once there, Kounas found himself behind starting catcher Adam Smith, who ended up being drafted by the Texas Rangers.

His freshman year, Kounas went along for the ride as Oklahoma State rolled all the way to the College World Series, where it lost to Stanford.

But despite the team’s success, it wasn’t a happy time in Kounas’ life.

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“The team wasn’t close at all,” Kounas said. “They played like a bunch of individuals, just like they were in some minor-league system.”

Kounas has found in Playa del Rey what was lacking at Oklahoma State.

“This team has chemistry and a lot of team unity,” he said. “You need that in order to do well on the field and to be happy playing.”

He has also learned about a new brand of college baseball--the style played on the West Coast, which stresses fundamentals more than pure offense.

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“I think that’s one reason some of those teams back there haven’t been able to win the big ones,” Kounas said. “They don’t go over the little things every day like we do here--like pickoff plays, rundowns and bunting.”

Kounas recalled that during his freshman season, the Oklahoma State players didn’t practice bunting until the day before the national championship game with Stanford.

“By the time they decided to go over bunting, it was too late,” Kounas said. “Out here, you go over bunting every day.”

Such a system has helped make Kounas a more complete package for the pro scouts to look at. Smith said he’s confident that Kounas will be a better player in the pros than in college.

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“He’s a fine catcher,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, he’s playing behind one of the best catchers in the country here. But Tony will be a very good pro catcher.”

Kounas relishes the idea of pro baseball, just as he has enjoyed his past 40 days in the sun.


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