Catching On With the Bat : Defensive About His Offensive Capabilities, Cal State Northridge's Sims Sets Out to Shake the Tag of Being One-Dimensional

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is true that he calls a tidy game, mixing pitches and locations like a magician playing a shell game.

It also is true that he deftly picks off things that choose to slide in the dirt, whether they be baserunners or errant breaking balls thrown by Cal State Northridge pitchers.

But listen up. Mike Sims has an announcement to make: No longer does he wish to be referred to as an outstanding defensive catcher. That's using one too many words.

The Northridge sophomore is out to prove he is no mere crouch potato, and he is backing his contention with a .329 batting average.

"You get sick of hearing about defense all the time," Sims said. "You want to contribute to the offense sometimes."

Truth be told, offense has been optional since Sims signed with Northridge two years ago out of Alemany High.

Sims said that Bill Kernen, Northridge's coach, told him: "All you have to do is hit .250 and catch like you know how to." Sims' reply: "I said, 'Uh, .250? I think I'd like to do a little better than that.' "

Last season he didn't. Sims batted .246, but Kernen said that was to be expected. "I don't care who you're talking about, it's hard to go from high school to four-year, major-college baseball and hit," the Matadors' third-year coach said. "There's a whole different animal on the mound than what you saw in high school."

Sims said that part of his problem was that he was thinking too much like a catcher while at bat. "I found out if you (try to guess which pitch the catcher is going to call,) you're going to be in trouble," he said. "You're going to be swinging at balls everywhere and just be a mess."

New-found patience is evident when Sims is batting this season. He is looking for pitches in a particular zone and often finding them.

"I'm trying to be aggressive and I'm trying to turn some heads," Sims said. "I want to show people that I am what I think I am."

Which is, simply, the nation's best collegiate catcher. "I have some goals for myself," Sims said. "I think I am one of the best catchers in the nation right now, but I want to go beyond that. I want to be the best."

He faces an uphill battle in his quest to gain such recognition, but Sims is used to being overlooked.

As a senior at Alemany he largely was overshadowed by four other catchers in the same graduating class: Gregg Zaun of St. Francis High, who signed with Baltimore; John Dempsey of Crespi, who signed with the Cardinals; Bobby Hughes of Notre Dame, who earned a scholarship to Loyola Marymount; and Casey Burrill of Hart, who quickly became a starter at USC.

Major-college powers such as USC and Loyola talked to Sims too. For a while. "They weren't too confident on my hitting," Sims said. "They gave up on me."

Kernen did not. The hitting, he figured, would come with hard work, and Sims seemed willing to work. Kernen also liked Sims' arm, the way Sims handled pitchers and the way he performed in the classroom--he had a 3.93 grade-point average.

"There are a lot of dumb hitters, but there aren't many dumb catchers and there aren't many dumb pitchers that are successful, either," Kernen said. "You need a guy who can think back there. We wanted a guy who could run the show defensively."

So much for the old adage that a catcher's mask, chest protector and shin guards are "the tools of ignorance."

What Sims did not already know about catching, he was required to learn quickly. As a freshman last season he played in 59 of 61 games and called signals for every pitcher except senior Vale Lopez.

"We used to put tape on his wrist with the scouting report on it so he could refer to it during the game," Kernen said. "This year we haven't done that at all. He knows what to do."

Certainly the Northridge pitchers seem to think so. Sims estimates that his calls get shaken off an average of only four or five times a game.

Craig Clayton, the Matadors' No. 2 starter, has found following directions particularly rewarding of late. Three weeks ago when Clayton blanked Cal State Fullerton, 7-0, on three hits, he changed Sims' calls only twice. Last week, when he shut down the University of San Diego, 14-1, on a complete-game two-hitter, Clayton didn't shake Sims off at all.

"There are some guys you throw to that you have complete confidence in," Clayton said. "Mike is one of those guys."

That confidence transcends pitch selection and also effects pitch location.

"You get in certain situations where you're actually supposed to throw a pitch in the dirt," Clayton explained, "but if you don't have complete confidence throwing it there you've got a problem. With Mike, you're comfortable with it. You know he's going to be there to block it."

Sims developed into a catcher while at Alemany. As a freshman, he tried out at second base, but Coach Jim Ozella quickly moved him behind the plate. Sims says he remembers making a nice diving play at second base, but the coach was not impressed.

"You could say I saw him play second base and knew he'd be a good catcher," Ozella quipped.

Sims played junior varsity as a freshman, then moved up to the Alemany varsity where he started for the next three seasons. Sims batted better than .300 each season, but Ozella remembers him as "a good but not outstanding high school hitter."

And one who became a lot better in the clutch. "When the game is on the line, I'd want no one else up there," Ozella said. "Five out of 10 times he's going to win those battles."

Ozella recalls Sims hitting only two home runs in his high school career, but one of them won a big game. Alemany, which was battling for first place, was in a tie game with St. Francis when Sims led off the bottom of the seventh inning by hitting the first pitch for a home run.

It should have been no surprise, then, that Sims batted .385 for Northridge during the playoffs last season, helping the Matadors reach the NCAA Division II title game.

Whether he can stay above the .300 mark this season may depend on the durability of his left wrist, which is periodically bothered by tendinitis.

Sims injured the wrist blocking a ball in the dirt two weeks ago against San Jose State and aggravated it in his first at-bat against the University of San Diego a week ago. He had to leave that after three innings and he sat out Northridge's game Tuesday against UC Santa Barbara.

With Northridge due to play six games in six days in a tournament at Fresno State starting Monday, Sims expects to be ready, but Kernen isn't so sure. The wrist still is tender when Sims swings a bat, and unless there is dramatic improvement, he may be saved for special defensive situations.

Another possibility is that Sims will play and try to work for a walk or bunt each time at bat.

After all, Sims is, according to Kernen, "on a little bit of a mission."

"He thinks he's the best guy of all those guys (he graduated with)," Kernen said. "Right now, he's picking them off one by one."

Kernen stands behind his original comment, that Sims would be invaluable to the Matadors even if he batted .250, but he expects Sims to continue to improve as a hitter.

"He's probably never going to be a big power hitter, but he's going to get his bat on the ball and he's going to give you great defense," Kernen said.

"The thing is, he works at it. He's going to be as good as he can get, whatever that is."

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