Greg Pirkl arrived at Fiscalini Field--Spiritland to the 3,000 fans who pack the ballpark to watch the Class-A San Bernardino Spirit--ready to play after 15 days on the disabled list.
His injured kneecap was sound as Pirkl walked through the stadium gates last Friday afternoon. He was wearing his best Kirk Gibson game face--two, maybe three days of stubble on his chin--as he entered the Spirit clubhouse.
Inside, he got the bad news. He could not take his spot in the batting order and catch Roger Salkeld, who would pitch for the Spirit against the Visalia Oaks, the California League leaders.
Dr. Lewis Yocum, an orthopedic surgeon for the Spirit, was at the U.S. Open in Medinah, Ill., and was unable to give Pirkl the OK to resume playing.
Pirkl later learned he would not be cleared to play until this Friday. He would not be able to play in Tuesday night’s California League all-star game hosted by San Bernardino, the Seattle Mariners’ Class-A affiliate.
A pulled hamstring that didn’t heal properly last season had led to Pirkl’s kneecap being knocked out of alignment. But now he was fit, having spent 15 days working out at his parents’ home in Los Alamitos and getting treatment at North Orange County Sports Rehabilitation Center in La Habra while the team was on the road.
“I feel as good as I’m going to get this year,” Pirkl groused as he played catch in the bullpen.
Later, he vented his frustrations in batting practice. He launched a series of fly balls over and into the 40-foot high trees that stand outside the left field fence. Other line drives scattered Visalia players who were stretching on the grass in left.
When you’re a 6-foot-4, 230-pound 19-year-old, batting a career-high .302 and pushing hard for promotion, such periods of inactivity can be maddening.
There isn’t time to waste.
“I’ll be ready to catch in the big leagues in a year and a half,” Pirkl said. “If I’m not there in a year and a half, I’d put it (on a) month-to-month (basis).”
Truthfully, it may take longer for Pirkl to become the Mariners’ catcher. After all, he has only been catching since 1988, when, as a senior at Los Alamitos High School, he batted .540 and was The Times’ Orange County player of the year.
He admits he has a great deal to learn.
But advancement to the majors is not an unrealistic goal, says Keith Bodie, the San Bernardino manager.
“There’s a lot there,” Bodie said. “There’s a lot to like. Right now, (Pirkl) needs to play and go through the trials and tribulations of being a minor league baseball player. He needs to play about 500 games before he’s ready to play in the majors.”
Pirkl admits he became a good defensive catcher this season. Before, catching was something he did to pass the time between at-bats.
His hitting attracted as many as 30 scouts to Los Alamitos games in 1988. They watched with stopwatches and clipboards in hand, as Pirkl pounded hit after hit.
“I’ve never seen a kid sting the ball like he did,” said Mike Gibson, who this spring retired from coaching after 21 years at Los Alamitos.
Once, with an audience of hopeful scouts watching and the student manager decked out in a wet suit, Pirkl and teammate Mike Kelly, now at Arizona State, staged a home-run hitting contest.
The manager stood on the edge of a drainage ditch that runs beyond the left-field fence at Los Alamitos, watching one ball after another sail into the water some 375 to 390 feet from home plate. Later, he’d dive into the murky water to retrieve the balls before they floated into the nearby San Gabriel River.
“I looked like Babe Ruth that day,” said Pirkl, who had pitched and played first and third base until his senior season.
Fearful opponents often placed all three outfielders in left field, the Pirkl shift, to combat his pull-hitting. Gibson remembers laughing at the sight of three outfielders barely five feet from the left-field fence.
“Sometimes he’d hit the ball so hard they still couldn’t get to it before it hit the fence,” he said.
Other times, Gibson stood in the third-base coaching box and warned the opposing third baseman, “We don’t have a bunt on, son. Better move back if you don’t want to get hit.”
Pirkl had 10 home runs, 13 doubles and 40 runs batted in as a senior. Most scouts figured it was merely a hint of what was to come.
College baseball was an option. USC and Oklahoma made offers, but Pirkl wanted a professional contract. “He wasn’t much of a student,” Jean Pirkl, his mother, said.
“It came down to bribery,” Tim Pirkl, his father, said with a smile. “The schools couldn’t pay him $80,000 a year to play baseball.”
So, when the Mariners selected Pirkl in the second round of the June draft, Pirkl grabbed his diploma and packed his bags for Bellingham, Wash.
“This was something I was good at,” he said. “Maybe someday, I’ll make a million dollars playing baseball.”
Pirkl did not send shock waves through the Northwest League in his first pro season, batting .240 with six home runs and 35 RBIs in 65 games. Last season, he batted .257 with eight homers and 36 RBIs in 70 games.
After the season, Pirkl returned home to find a batting cage in the back yard.
“It was easy to build, really,” Pirkl’s father said. “Just four big posts . . . “
Maybe the cage helped Pirkl secure a promotion from the rookie leagues to Class-A San Bernardino. More likely it was a new attitude.
Bodie, his new manager, took Pirkl aside this spring and lectured him about becoming a defensive-minded catcher.
“I never was a good catcher,” Pirkl said. "(Now) if I can catch a shutout, it’s more important than going four for four with four homers. It makes me look good and it makes the pitcher look good.”
He paused a moment, then said, “But those homers would sure be nice.”
Becoming a better catcher hasn’t hurt Pirkl’s hitting. In 48 games before going on the disabled list, Pirkl was batting .302 with four home runs and 21 RBIs.
“He’s ahead of most 19-year-olds in the country,” Bodie said. “It’s not hard to project Greg Pirkl as a major league player, not hard at all.”