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Paulsen’s Still Coming Back

Twenty-six major league teams re-open their files on Troy Paulsen today, but first, some rudimentary math will be required.

Four years at Stanford.

Three different positions.

Two trips to the College World Series.

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One blown-out left knee.

How will it add up?

Paulsen and his high school coach, Dave Demarest, are both here in Omaha, awaiting the word. The last time they tried this, in 1986 after Paulsen’s senior season at La Quinta High, Paulsen lasted until the 28th round, when the New York Yankees finally added the shortstop to their draft list.

But then, the deck was stacked against Paulsen. He’d already committed to Stanford, which made any Draft Paulsen movement a waste of time, regardless of his .517 batting average and reputation as a glovesman.

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“It was more a courtesy draft than anything else,” Demarest says. “No doubt, he could have gone higher if he hadn’t declared he was going to Stanford. I don’t know about the top five rounds, but he’d have probably gone in the eighth to 10th round.

“No way was anybody going to give him the money to match (or dissuade him from) going to Stanford.”

It was a gamble then and it is a gamble still. Paulsen had leverage coming out of La Quinta. He was the Orange County high school player of the year, the player Demarest continues to describe as “the best I ever coached.”

To that point, Paulsen’s baseball career was traveling the same path as a deep fly ball--on the rise, gaining altitude by the foot. But since his arrival at Stanford, Paulsen’s trajectory has been more like an infield chopper--up, down, up, down.

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Up. Paulsen signs with Stanford and is starting at shortstop by the end of the first week of his freshman season.

Down. During the ninth game of his freshman season, Paulsen tears up a knee while trying to leg out an infield grounder. He never plays a 10th.

Up. After a year of rehabilitation, Paulsen straps a brace to his knee and returns to the starting lineup in 1988. He bats .342, assembles a school-record 28-game hitting streak, makes the all-Pac-10 first team and wins a national championship.

Down. Paulsen commits 15 errors in Stanford’s first 16 games of 1989 and loses his job at shortstop. Cardinal Coach Mark Marquess banishes him to left field, where less damage can be done. Paulsen limps home with a .271 batting average and Stanford fails to qualify for the NCAA regionals for the first time in nine years.

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Paulsen figured things couldn’t get much lower. He figured right. For the moment, the law of gravity is back on his side, which is why Paulsen now finds himself playing a new position--second base--amid old surroundings--the College World Series.

“It’s good to be back,” Paulsen says. “We got a little complacent after winning it in ’88. I don’t think that will ever happen here again. You can never be too greedy when it comes to World Series rings.”

Paulsen already owns two, but he devalues the first, which he received while a member of Stanford’s 1987 disabled list. “I wasn’t too much a part of that one,” he says. “I didn’t even play in a league game.” He considers 1988 his first trip to Omaha and this his return.

In all likelihood, the booking wouldn’t have been done without his assistance. Paulsen hit .337 during the regular season and became the first Stanford player to log 100 hits twice in a career. He rejoined the all-Pac-10 team. And, he remains the reason Stanford remains in this World Series, driving in the winning run in the Cardinal’s first-round extra-inning victory over Georgia Southern.

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Stanford hasn’t played like a No. 1 seed--see Sunday’s 16-2 loss to Georgia--but because Paulsen delivered in the 10th inning Friday night, the Cardinal has one more life left in the tournament.

And at that, he considers himself fortunate. If Friday’s umpiring crew didn’t lose Rob Fitzpatrick’s long fly ball in a sea of billboards--his home run got marked down to a double--Georgia Southern wins in regulation and Paulsen never gets to take his final at-bat.

“I wasn’t too sure about the home run, but the replays showed it cleared the fence,” Paulsen says. “The umpire didn’t call it, though. I don’t feel too bad about it.”

Better to be lucky than be good. Paulsen knows from experience. When his knee took a turn for the worse down the first-base line in 1987, his past was wiped out, his present placed in jeopardy and his athletic future forever tarnished.

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“It happened three years ago and I don’t wear the brace any more,” Paulsen says, “but the first thing scouts ask me is, ‘How’s the knee?’ I’ve been healthy ever since, but scouts still want to know about the knee.”

That’s why Demarest has advised Paulsen to keep his hopes in check before today’s amateur draft. Demarest comes to the College World Series every summer to watch, but this year, he has also come to coach. Call it post-graduate work.

“I don’t want him to wake up Monday and not be taken in the first 10 to 12 rounds and get down,” Demarest says. “I told him, ‘You’ve played shortstop, second and the outfield. They can use you in a lot of spots. You could go anywhere in the minor leagues and survive.’

“I think he’ll do OK in the pros. In pro ball, there are so many ups and downs and it’s so political. But Troy’s biggest strength has always been his maturity. He’s always had the ability to take failure and not panic. He had a tough year last year and look how he’s come back.”

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If the scouts regard that as a plus, Paulsen’s Stanford career will go down as the same. And if not, well, there are the two World Series rings--and the latest shot at a third.

“I think I made a good decision,” Paulsen says. Today, he hopes some major league team will follow suit.


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