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Catching His Dream of Majors : Baseball: The wait soon will be over for SDSU catcher Eric Christopherson, who expects to become a first-round pick in the June major league free agent draft.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Christopherson is sitting in a San Diego State assistant baseball coach’s office. It is about one month before he expects to cash in a lifetime dream and become a first-round pick in the June major league free agent draft.

He stares down at his shoes.

“I don’t know if it’s wise to say anything,” he says.

He looks back up. His lips curl into a smile, his eyes glimmer. Here it comes.

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The Eric Christopherson Scouting Report. On Scouts.

“They can’t hit, and they can’t run,” he says.

Pause.

Laugh.

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“Just kidding.”

Hey. Seems only fair. So many scouts have filled out so many forms on Christopherson that he might as well get the chance to turn the tables.

See, he knows these people well. They started following him in his final years at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach, then tracked him to San Diego State and continued the watch.

Their reports prompted the Oakland A’s to draft him in the 14th round after his senior year at Ocean View in 1987. When he decided to wait, it only meant they would spend many more nights at the ballpark watching Christopherson develop, filling out new reports.

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Mostly, he notices the scouts during batting practice. They arrive early, cluster around behind home plate and watch him take infield. They carry briefcases stuffed with index cards, notebooks filled with observations, and stopwatches and radar guns packed with hard numbers.

They’re pretty easy to spot.

“They usually show up by themselves,” Christopherson said, continuing his scouts’ report. “They’re dressed nice. Casually nice. Some of them straight out wear a hat or jacket with what team they’re from.”

Their phone calls interrupt his days and their mail litters his apartment. The calls are constant and, lately, have been coming as early as 7:30 or 8 a.m.

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“That’s all right,” he said. “Whatever is convenient for them. It doesn’t bother me.”

And then there are the games, when the baseball diamond is a big fishbowl and Christopherson is the prize catch. There have been as many as 30 scouts at a single game this spring, grading him and thickening their notebooks.

“The poor guy is getting hammered,” SDSU Coach Jim Dietz said. “I’ll be glad to get back out on the road for his sake.”

Even when the Aztecs are on the road, two or three scouts generally show up.

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But with Christopherson’s junior year coming to a close, the scouts are about to close their notebooks on him.

Christopherson says he is ready to chase his dream.

The word on the grapevine is that the kid is legitimate. He’s a catcher, which is a high-demand position in the major leagues. Baseball America says he is one of the top 10 college prospects for the June draft.

A cross-section of a couple scouting reports on him: soft hands, outstanding arm, quick release, better-than-average velocity and ball carry, agile, quick feet and a good catcher’s body. (Christopherson is 6-feet-1, 190 pounds).

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In a sport in which a player’s future is determined by the sum of his parts, this isn’t a bad start.

“He’s one of the better catchers in the U.S.,” said one full-time scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for both himself and the organization for which he works. “College-wise, he should be ranked in the top three.

“The question is whether he’ll hit for a high average in professional baseball. But with his defensive skills, if he hits .240 it would be a plus. . . . His baseball has improved each year (in college). He has gotten to the point where he is close to major league ability in catching right now.”

The scouts say he needs to work on his hitting. Christopherson says he can hit better than the scouts think. Whatever, he has improved at the plate. Entering this week’s Western Athletic Conference playoffs, he is batting .340, with six home runs, five triples and 16 doubles. He also has 44 runs-batted in, third on the team.

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In his first two years at SDSU, he had no homers and one triple. He batted .283 his freshman year and .256 his sophomore season, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy him.

“I didn’t ever play as well as I could have the first two years,” he said. “I knew that, and it was really frustrating.”

Dietz thought Christopherson did fine.

“Freshmen are freshmen,” Dietz said. “It’s like a disease. It only goes away in a year. My expectations for him are just what’s happened. To see him improve each year.”

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Christopherson was frustrated enough that he decided to work harder than ever over the summer, fall and winter. He decided to play in Alaska over the summer with several other top college players. The way he figured it, they didn’t know him and he didn’t know them. He could just play, without expectations from other people.

Then he set a goal. Pretty simple, really.

“To be in the position I’m in right now,” he said. “To do well enough to be a first-round draft pick.”

All he ever wanted to be was a baseball player. He is in his third year of majoring in baseball at SDSU, and he doesn’t try to hide it.

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“School isn’t exactly my favorite thing,” he said. “School has definitely not been a priority. I’ll admit to that.”

So many college athletes breeze through classes while chasing a professional dream. So many times, they drift off toward what might have been.

“He loves the game of baseball,” Dietz said. “That’s about the only thing he really lives for. Some guys live and die to become an engineer. Some guys live and die to become CPAs. He’s living and dying to become a major league baseball player. I think he’s probably got the ability to pull it off.”

The times Christopherson regretted passing on Oakland’s offer came late at night, when the only sounds in his apartment were the rustles of him turning the page of a textbook as he studied for an exam. Sometimes his mind would change directions and at times he would find himself thinking of Brent Knackert.

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Christopherson and Knackert were teammates at Ocean View High, and Knackert is one of Christopherson’s best friends. One day, they assured each other, Brent would be pitching to Eric in the big leagues.

Knackert made it first. He is a rookie pitcher with the Seattle Mariners, and Christopherson is pretty impressed. He last talked with Knackert in April, when Seattle was in Boston.

“He told me some stories,” Christopherson said. “It’s unbelieveable . . . I was playing high school three years ago with the guy. He was telling me that a couple of nights ago, he struck out Jose Canseco twice and Mark McGwire once. He was telling me he’d probably be pitching the next day against Wade Boggs. Just thinking about it . . . wow! I caught him all through high school and the summer leagues.”

Those weren’t the first stories Knackert told Christopherson. He was with the Mets during spring training, and they also talked then.

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“That was really weird to hear about Howard Johnson, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry,” Christopherson said.

But Christopherson had his reasons for turning down Oakland. He thought he could go to college and improve both his game and his draft position. He told his mother he would be a first-round draft pick in three years.

“I just thought I needed to get better and stronger and mature more,” Christopherson said. “I think I’ve done that.”

The statistics bear him out. His average and power numbers at the plate are up, but perhaps most telling is that he is tied for the team lead in walks with 53. He has become much more patient at the plate than in the past.

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“It shouldn’t take him too long to be catching in the big leagues,” said Dan Dixon of the Major League Scouting Bureau. “He’s the best defensive catcher I’ve seen in seven years of scouting.”

Dixon is responsible for San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties.

“As a receiver, he could probably be there right now,” Dixon continued. “Same with his arm. It just seems like he is learning how to deal with the pressure. That was one of his weaknesses his first two years (at SDSU).”

His SDSU teammates started calling him ‘Stro during the summer before his freshman year. It’s short for Astro, the dog on The Jetson’s television show.

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“He was kind of in his own world,” said outfielder Jeff Barry, a freshman with Christopherson and one of his closest friends. “When he was catching, if he wasn’t up (to bat), he would keep all of his gear on and sit in the corner of the dugout and not talk. And he had long hair and he always had a hand in it, curling it, like his mind was on something else.”

Said assistant coach Gary Brown: “He kind of had that spacey demeanor, like you’re on a planet somewhere.”

Three years later, he is still called ‘Stro, but he has grown up.

Now, he waits for the June draft, and his first summer in professional baseball. He doesn’t even try to count how many tests the scouts have given him--motivational, personality, eye . . . he runs through them all, knowing that his most important tests will come in the future.

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Aztec Notes

Top-seeded SDSU will open the Western Athletic Conference tournament against fourth-seeded host Hawaii at 10 p.m. PDT Thursday. . . . It’s a double-elimination tournament. If the Aztecs win Thursday, they’ll play at 3:30 p.m. Friday. If they lose Thursday, they’ll play at 12:30 p.m. Friday. The championship is Saturday. . . . The NCAA Selection Committee will announce the 48 teams, pairings and sites for the tournament Monday. . . . SDSU won the regular season WAC title by sweeping four games at Air Force last weekend. The Aztecs finished 21-7 in the WAC (43-20 overall), one-half game in front of Brigham Young (20-7-1). . . . The Aztecs are 2-2 against Hawaii and BYU this season and 1-3 against Wyoming, which finished third in the WAC.


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