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MIKE SCIOSCIA IS The Glue in Blue : The Dodger Catcher Has Been ‘Irreplaceable’ for More Than a Decade, but He Never Forgets Philadelphia or Family

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Dodger history books tell the story of what happened when Mike Scioscia came to the plate against Dwight Gooden in the ninth inning of Game 4 in the 1988 National League championship series against the New York Mets.

Richie Phillips, Scioscia’s agent, tells a different story.

Phillips says he cannot tell it without crying. He is later proved right.

“I was sitting behind home plate with my wife when Mike comes up to bat with a runner on base and the Dodgers down two runs,” Phillips recalled recently. “All of a sudden, my wife turns to me.”

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Phillips explained that his wife, Ellen, was a good friend of Scioscia’s mother, Florence.

The two women had each battled cancer. Ellen Phillips survived her fight, but Florence Scioscia had died in November of 1983.

“My wife said, ‘Mike is going to hit a home run,’ ” Phillips said quietly. “I said to her, ‘He doesn’t need a home run, just a single.’

“And she says again, ‘I know it, Mike is going to hit a home run.’ ”

Phillips paused, momentarily sobbed, then continued.

“She says, ‘I know he is going to hit a home run because of his mom,’ ” Phillips recalled. “And I said, ‘His mom?’

“And she said, ‘Yeah. I was just praying to her. And she told me he was going to hit a home run.’ ”

On the next pitch, Scioscia hit the home run. It tied the game and led to a 5-4, extra-inning win that led to an eventual league and World Series championship.

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Things have often been like that with Scioscia, who in 11 Dodger seasons has transformed himself from an ordinary catcher to an undisputed team leader thanks to inspiration drawn from the strangest places.

When he takes the field for his 47th game this summer, he will become the all-time leading Dodger in games caught. He will be on top of a list containing such players as Roy Campanella, John Roseboro and Steve Yeager.

How has he done it?

He doesn’t have a particularly good arm. He is

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not particularly fast.

Darryl Strawberry hit more home runs in the past two years than Scioscia has hit in his career. And Scioscia has made the All-Star team only twice, or nine times fewer than his likely backup Gary Carter.

“When you evaluate him, you can really only describe Mike one way,” teammate Orel Hershiser said. “ Irreplaceable .”

That might seem like a strong word, but it is no stronger than Scioscia when he stands in front of home plate and blocks speeding 220-pound men attempting to score. His blocks give the Dodgers as many as five victories a season.

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“We go crazy when Scioscia collides with somebody,” reliever Tim Crews said. “From the way some guys shout, it sounds like we’re a football team.”

Irreplaceable might be a strong word, but it is no stronger than Scioscia’s voice on the mound in the middle of a pressure game when he both calms and inspires the pitcher at the same time.

“The guy comes out there, raises his hand, says, ‘Johnny, let’s go, let’s go, pitch to me,”’ John Wetteland said. “He redirects my attention from myself to him and the game. He brings me back to earth pretty quick.”

Irreplaceable might be a strong word, but it is no stronger than Scioscia’s memory. His knowledge of the league’s hitters and Dodger pitchers is considered one of the organization’s most valuable assets.

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After a game, Scioscia can recall every pitch thrown by the Dodgers in the game, including location and velocity. He can remember the big-game pitches for years.

“Orel tied the 58-inning scoreless inning record on a sinkerball away to Keith Moreland (of San Diego),” Scioscia said of that Sept. 28 night in 1988. “I remember because we had thrown him a breaking ball in the dirt on two-and-two.”

Irreplaceable might be a strong word, but it is no stronger than Scioscia’s ties with his modest Philadelphia-area roots. His refusal to stray from the way of life cultivated in that two-story stone house that was his residence for 25 years has made him the most respected and beloved Dodger.

“Mike is still a good ol’ south-end kid from Philly,” said his older sister, Gail. “Only thing different is, he doesn’t walk down the street with his pockets hanging out of his pants anymore.”

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It figures that his late mother would somehow be involved in a story about his biggest hit. Family members say he closely resembles her. He considers that a compliment.

“You won’t find a tougher lady,” Scioscia said.

Florence Scioscia had to be tough to teach first grade for nearly 40 years. She worked at Sabold Elementary School near their house in Morton, a suburb 15 minutes west of Philadelphia.

With her husband, Fred, who worked for a local beer distributor, she raised two sons and a daughter to value humbleness and hard work.

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Education was pushed. Cursing and complaints were not allowed. Discipline was loud, and swift.

“It was your basic volatile Sicilian household,” said Fred, Mike’s older brother.

Florence followed these rules until the end. She taught school until she grew sick, then battled cancer for a year and a half before dying a few days before receiving her first pension check.

Even though Scioscia is the youngest in the family, he set up her funeral arrangements. He later helped start a scholarship fund in her name for students at Scioscia’s high school.

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“Imagine that, working all of your life and then dying before you can really enjoy it all,” Scioscia said. “Sometimes you wonder about the fairness of life.”

But the Scioscias were taught not to wonder too long about such things.

“My mother was strong willed, she could accept anything,” Gail said. “We were taught to do the same thing. Accept the hand we were dealt.”

And so Scioscia, at age 32, has become a visible product of this background.

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Nobody on the team plays with a stronger will. He has ignored the nicks of foul balls and the collisions with outfielders to average 134 games in each of the past six seasons.

“I see him in the shower after games with bruises the size of footballs,” said Mark Cresse, the Dodgers’ bullpen coach. “Some players, that would keep them out for 15 days. It doesn’t keep Scioscia out for 15 minutes.”

Nobody on the team plays with less politics. Scioscia treats rookies and veterans and clubhouse attendants with the same quiet respect.

This morning, 90 minutes before the major leaguers are required to be dressed, Cresse will conduct the annual catcher’s pop-up contest. It is a hokey affair in which the young catchers throughout the organization compete for prizes by catching high pop-ups.

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But Scioscia is always there. Not only does he compete, several years ago he made a grand entrance wearing a turban, with a clubhouse attendant carrying his glove on a pillow.

“I can’t tell you what that does for the morale of the kids,” Cresse said.

When asked about his personality, Scioscia shrugged as he always does when asked about himself.

“I don’t think I am anything special, I know I don’t do anything special,” he said. “I don’t think I am one guy who you can say is a leader. This team has a lot of leaders. I’m just a guy doing my job.”

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Just a guy. Scioscia says that a lot.

His friends believe it, as Scioscia returns to his neighborhood each time the Dodgers play in Philadelphia.

He sleeps in a spare room at the home of his aunt, Rose Buffington. He eats her pasta or a cheese steak from a local deli before games. He stays up late to chat with her afterward.

“It will be 1 in the morning, but we are all waiting up for him,” Buffington said. “My niece might come from up the street. I’ve got a sister-in-law living around the corner. There are cousins next door. When he is home, it’s always a big celebration.

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“Late at night I always say, ‘Mike, you played great.’ And he always says, ‘Oh, Aunt Dee, I didn’t do enough.’ ”

During the afternoons he may be found playing Wiffleball at Decimal Stadium, a friend’s back yard that was built up to resemble a major league field, complete with a dugout and a scoreboard. Decimal was the name of his friend’s deceased dog.

One place Scioscia is certain to be found is Sabold Elementary. Every year, he passes out awards to the winners of a spelling bee that is held in his mother’s memories.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Scioscia said. “Not for anything.”

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Going home also results in some painful memories for Scioscia. His father no longer lives there, and he suffered two strokes and moved to Normal, Ill., to be with Scioscia’s brother and sister.

“I wanted to do so much for him, and now that I can, I can’t,” Scioscia said of his father, who is no longer able to travel. “That takes some of the fun out of it.”

However, even though he has settled in the Los Angeles area with his wife, Anne, and two-year-old son Matthew, Scioscia is never too far from home.

A couple of years ago, his father, brother and sister surprised him on his doorstep for Thanksgiving.

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They immediately sat down to a game of Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, a family tradition.

“He may call a great game on the field,” said brother Fred, “but he is more known around the family for being the worst in Jeopardy.”

Family members traditionally visit him during spring training.

“And any time he is in Chicago or St. Louis, he just assumed we will drive up to see him,” Gail said. “No questions asked. It’s like, when are you coming?”

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Scioscia was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1958, which might have been an omen. He loves to eat. His weight is the source of many clubhouse jokes, and the cause of concern among Dodger officials who always worry about his durability.

Since probable backup Carter has not been an everyday player since 1988, they are particularly worried about Scioscia this season.

“I know they would like for me to be a little thinner, but I play better this way,” said Scioscia, who carries 233 pounds on a 6-foot-2 frame, 13 pounds above his listed weight in the media guide. “I feel strong at this weight.”

Last year that strength helped him reach career highs in home runs, 12, and runs batted in, 66. Not that he looks at his statistics.

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“I don’t look at how I do, I only look at if I helped the team win,” he said, repeating one of his favorite phrases. “I’m not the story, the team is the story.”

Said Hershiser: “He always says things like that. They sound good. But the guys on the team, we know better.”


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