THE Seasoning OF Salkeld : Saugus Phenom Right on Schedule for Trip to Majors

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Professional baseball has not held many surprises for Roger Salkeld.

Although just 19, the big right-hander from Saugus High already has completed overpowering stints in a rookie league dominated by former college players and an instructional league full of some of baseball's top prospects.

Chosen by the Seattle Mariners with the third pick overall in the 1989 draft, Salkeld is ascending as expected toward the Kingdome and the major leagues.

This season, he is pitching for the San Bernardino Spirit, the Mariners' affiliate in the Class-A California League.

Sitting in the bullpen last week before a game against the Bakersfield Dodgers, Salkeld cast his Mariner blue eyes upon the diamond and spoke matter-of-factly about his station.

"The playing conditions got better and the competition got better, that's about what I expected," Salkeld said of his promotion to the California League. "I haven't been real surprised by anything that's happened since I signed. You show up and you play. You're here to have fun and move up as fast as you can."

Salkeld, 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, has been moving through the Mariners' system about as quickly as one of his 90-m.p.h. fastballs closes in on a batter.

Last July, after concluding a high school career in which he was 30-7 with 404 strikeouts in 266 1/3 innings, Salkeld signed a contract that included a cash bonus of $225,000.

His first stop was Bellingham, Wash., in the Northwest League where he started six games. He finished 2-2 with a 1.29 earned-run average and 55 strikeouts in 42 innings.

The Mariners were not surprised.

"Well, any time you take a guy No. 1 and give him the money we gave him, we expect good things," said Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners' vice president of scouting and player development.

After an impressive performance in an Arizona instructional league last fall, Salkeld is 4-4 with a 3.93 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings this season. Despite being sidelined almost all of April because of an ankle injury, Salkeld was selected to play in the California League All-Star game that was held June 19.

"I've got better command of pitches this year," Salkeld said. "I've got a better breaking ball and better changeup.

"My fastball right now isn't as good as it was last year, but I'm slowly getting it back."

Salkeld is happy to be working out the kinks in baseball-mad San Bernardino, to which his parents Bill and Elaine can drive from Saugus to see him pitch.

"It's a great place to play," Salkeld said. "You get support every night."

Indeed, not even 100-degree heat and occasional throat-choking smog deter Spirit fans who regularly pack Fiscalini Field and have made the 4-year-old San Bernardino operation one of the most successful Class-A franchises in the minor leagues.

Welcome to Spirit Land read billboards that dot the area around the 3,600-seat stadium. The franchise, owned in part by actor Mark Harmon, has flourished since it was moved from Ventura and has gained as much notoriety for its stadium cuisine as for the performance of its players.

Just beyond the bleachers along the right-field line sits Cafe Spirit, an outdoor dining area resplendent with white chairs and colorful umbrellas.

Fans catch the Spirit while munching on barbecued steaks, chicken and ribs. Reservations are required and the 170-seat cafe is sold out more than 90% of the time.

Down the left-field line are more tables and umbrellas, an all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet, a bar serving beer and wine, and a pool table.

Salkeld has been a source of entertainment for Spirit fans hungering for the kind of excitement that Ken Griffey Jr. provided when he played in San Bernardino in 1988.

Griffey's name and number (24) are posted on the center-field fence with those of former Baltimore Orioles second baseman Rich Dauer, a San Bernardino native who managed the Spirit in its inaugural season.

Salkeld's name and the number 22 also might grace the fence one day.

Regular visitors to the stadium's E section already have deigned him worthy of consideration. Every time Salkeld starts, they bring cards emblazoned with capital Ks and wave them wildly whenever Salkeld notches a strikeout.

"The crowds are bigger and more people who know baseball seem to come out when Roger pitches," said Dean Edmonds, a stadium employee.

Salkeld's best outings this season include an appearance against San Jose in which he allowed one run and four hits in seven innings. In a start against Visalia he gave up a run and four hits in six innings and had 10 strikeouts.

For all of his popularity, however, Salkeld has not been totally free from problems this season.

The ankle injury that forced him to miss much of spring training and the first month of the season was sustained not while Salkeld worked on his curve but on his turnaround jump shot while playing basketball.

"His agent called us the day before he was supposed to report (for spring training) and he said Roger had been to the doctor and was on crutches. As you can imagine, that made us very happy," Jongewaard recalled, tongue in cheek.

After rehabilitating the ankle and rejoining the Spirit, Salkeld suffered through a slow start. He had four consecutive no-decisions, lost two games in a row and had to leave another after two innings when a blister developed on his finger.

And as the second half of the season began two weeks ago, Salkeld was still battling to regain the control he displayed last season when he walked 10 batters in 42 innings. This season, he has issued 44 walks in 75 2/3 innings.

"I have a ways to go before I feel really comfortable on the mound," Salkeld said. "I'm struggling a little throwing strikes and have a few more walks than I'd like to have.

"I think it's just mental. When I have to make pitches, I'll make them and when I don't have to I usually don't. I have to concentrate from start to end."

Spirit Manager Keith Bodie attributes some of Salkeld's struggles to the level of competition in the California League.

"He's never had trouble throwing strikes because people probably used to swing at everything he threw," Bodie said. "He's facing better hitters and they're not swinging at some of the same pitches."

Bodie said Salkeld is certain to overcome his control problems as he improves his mechanics.

"It's kind of like when you're a kid and the teacher asks you to rub your belly and your head at the same time in different directions," Bodie said. "It's difficult to work on mechanical things and throw strikes at the same time.

"It's a process that takes time."

Salkeld said he is in no hurry to reach the major leagues.

"I just take it day by day," he said. "I've always been that way."

The Mariners say they will not rush Salkeld to the big leagues before he is ready.

But they also think the day is not far when Salkeld will be pitching against the Oakland A's instead of the Modesto A's.

"Next year, with another instructional league and another spring training, he'll easily pitch double-A, maybe triple-A," Jongewaard said. "It just depends on him, really, and maybe not his arm but his maturity.

"If he seems like he can handle it, he might be in the big leagues."

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