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MINORS LEAGUES : Mann Waits as Pitchers Make It Big

Much has been written about Steve Avery, Tommy Greene, Derek Lilliquist and Kent Mercker, four pitchers who were first-round picks of the Atlanta Braves. They’ve appeared on covers of Baseball America magazine. Collectors buy their rookie baseball cards in lots.

But the Braves also have another top prospect in their system, one who has been the catcher for most of these pitching phenoms.

Kelly Mann of Redondo Beach quietly has waited his turn in the minor leagues without much fanfare while his battery-mates have received early promotions to the bigs.

But that doesn’t bother Mann, who plays for the Braves’ triple-A team in Richmond, Va. He knows he’ll get his chance.

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“It takes longer to shine if you’re not a pitcher,” said Mann, who has caught each Brave pitching prospect except Avery. “They have a great ability to pitch in the major leagues. They get pushed through the system because they were first-round picks and the Braves need pitching.

“But I’m willing to wait.”

The wait might be a short one. Mann has proved to be one of the best defensive catchers in the minors, according to Iowa Cubs Coach Jim Essian.

His hitting is the question mark. Entering this week, Mann had a .182 batting average at Richmond with two home runs and 15 runs batted in.

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“I think Kelly is an excellent catcher, a big-league catcher,” Essian said. “Defensively, he’s capable of playing in the major leagues right now. It’s just a matter of how well he hits.”

Essian coached Mann last season when the right-handed hitting catcher played for the Chicago Cubs’ double-A affiliate in Charlotte, N.C.

Mann credits Essian, who caught 12 seasons in the majors, for teaching him the mental approach to catching, such as pitch selection and remaining alert for nine innings.

“I think the most important thing he told me was to hustle all the time behind the plate,” Mann said. “I set the pace for the rest of the club. If I’m slow getting loose balls, the rest of team is going to be lazy in the field, too.”

Essian didn’t need to teach Mann how to throw out a baserunner, though.

Since the Cubs selected him in the 20th round of the 1985 June draft, Mann has been among the leaders in most catching categories.

In his second season, Mann led the New York-Penn League (Class A) in double plays by a catcher with seven.

At Peoria, he led the Midwest League (Class A) by throwing out 43% of would-be base stealers in 1987.

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In 1988, Baseball America selected Mann as the Carolina League’s seventh-best prospect, top defensive receiver and the catcher with the best arm.

Last season, Mann threw out 53 of 96 runners (55%) and shared Southern League (double-A) all-star honors with Greenville’s Jimmy Kremers. By mid-season, Mann and Kremers became teammates.

The Cubs, who already had three young catchers with major-league experience, dealt Mann, along with another minor leaguer, to the Braves for veteran reliever Paul Assenmacher.

“That’s was the best thing that happened to my career,” Mann said. “It would have been a struggle to make the Cubs.”

Mann was assigned to the Braves’ double-A team in Greenville, N.C. This season, he earned a promotion to Richmond (triple-A) after getting five home runs and 12 RBIs in a one-week stretch and being named Southern League Player of the Week.

Since being called up, his hitting has fallen off. Mann, who will turn 23 on Aug. 17, said he has time to improve this facet of his game.

The Braves have four catchers at the big league level--Greg Olson, who had was named to the National League All-Star team after an impressive first half; Ernie Whitt, who has been on the disabled list; Francisco Cabrera, and Kremers.

Olson and Whitt, however, are both over 30. Cabrera recently was moved to first base and Kremers bats left-handed

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“I have to play hard with my abilities,” Mann said. “I can’t worry about who’s in front of me.

“I’m sure the Braves want younger (catchers) to grow with their young pitching staff,” he said confidently. “And if I don’t make it with one team, I’ll play with another.”

Recognition: While he hasn’t received much publicity as a baseball player, Mann has a few television credits as an actor. He has performed as a catcher in Chief Auto Parts and Honeywell computer commercials. He also has done a photo spread for Puma shoes.

“Every time I need money during the off-season, I go on calls for commercials,” said Mann, who has never taken an acting lesson. “I always get the part I audition for.”

Notebook jinx: Since being featured in this notebook two weeks ago, outfielder Brad Bierley of the Iowa Cubs had three hits in 17 at-bats, which pushed his batting average below .300. Bierley ended the slump Wednesday with three hits against Indianapolis.

Still, Bierley has impressed his coach.

“I think Brad has been the steadiest player on our club,” Essian said. “I would like to see Chicago call him up by September. I think he can help a major-league team as a fourth or fifth outfielder.”


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