The Play's the Thing for Estancia's French

Some batters step up to the plate with trepidation, their minds caught in a bout of self doubt. Others have a swagger in their stance; they know they'll bash the ball as if it were a pinata.

With Colby French, Estancia's center fielder/pitcher, it's a bit different. But what else would you expect from an 18-year-old who idolizes both Donny Osmond and Billy the Kid.

You see, French is not only one of the best players on the Eagles' baseball team--he's batting .360 and is 3-1 with three saves--he's also the school's thespian extraordinaire. He is often recognized as one of the finest high school actors in Southern California.

But back to the batter's box.

See, young Mr. French is so taken with theater arts he sometimes has trouble keeping his mind on the game. One minute he's standing in center field, the next he's become George Washington or Harrison Ford or, yes, the King of Puppy Love, Donny Osmond.

A fly ball to center usually breaks the spell.

But when he goes up to bat, French is sometimes overwhelmed by song. Not some appropriate number such as the theme from "Rocky," or "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," or even that dopey little ditty we had to hear over and over after Kirk Gibson hit his dramatic home run in the 1988 World Series. ("One Moment in Time" was fine. Two was too much).

No, the music French hears is whatever song he has been singing in drama practice.

"It's the worst," French says. "You get a song in your head and you can't stop. You have to tell yourself to shut up."

Imagine: French, a 6-foot, 165-pound senior, walks to the plate, rolls his head and shoulders, taps his cleats with the bat, spits at the ground and then . . .

. . . breaks into a song from "South Pacific."

Hit it, maestro!

We got sunlight on the sand,

We got moonlight on the sea,

We got mangoes and bananas you can pick right off the tree,

We got volleyball and Ping-Pong and a lot of dandy games

What ain't we got? We ain't got dames !

OK, so French doesn't actually sing as he swings, but the temptation, he says, is always there. But hey, what can he say? He has acting in his blood and is not about to get a transfusion.

Somewhere in the universe, French has a star named after him. (His parents bought the rights to name a star after him as a Christmas present eight years ago). That's fitting for one of the most popular students at Estancia. Although he takes his craft seriously, he doesn't mind admiting to a bit of foolishness. Such as his passion for purple, or his habit of wearing toy six-shooters in his room so he can blast the poster of Donatello (of Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtle fame) on his wall every so often.

French was born in New York, but wasn't interested in theater as a child. Instead, he grew up obsessed with baseball.

He even made a deal with God.

"Tell you what, God," he prayed. "If you get me to the majors, I promise to practice every single day and every single night, no matter what."

So for years he practiced. Practiced his swing. Practiced his sliding. His base running. His catching. His throwing. His imaginary home run trot. He did all this every evening after his mother tucked him into bed and kissed him good night.

Then one night, he just couldn't practice anymore. He was exhausted. He was supposed to be working on a book report, but instead, his mother caught him standing in his room, with his imaginary mitt in his imaginary baseball field. He stood there, imagining what God would do to him now that he had broken his promise.

He cried himself to sleep.

"I knew I couldn't do it anymore, and if I didn't practice, I knew I wouldn't make it to the majors," French said.

He didn't quit baseball, though once he became involved with drama as a freshman, there were times he thought he should.

During baseball season, French wakes up before dawn to get to school by 6 for morning workouts--batting practice plus 10 220-yard sprints on the track. He goes home to shower, goes to class, practices baseball from 2 to 5, then goes to rehearsal from 6 to 10:30.

Homework? "What's that?" says French, who has a 3.5 grade-point average.

Estancia's thespian group, of which French is the president, competes in three drama festivals a year at local colleges in addition to staging a full-scale production each semester. Add baseball games, and his 16 hour-per-week job at a Costa Mesa Italian takeout restaurant, and French is scrambling.

He says it's worth it. Acting is his love, and though he's a modest fellow, he says he enjoys drama in part because he has received far more recognition in that field than in baseball. His drama instructor, Barbara Van Holt, says French has won nearly every award given at the high school level, including a best supporting actor at the MACY Awards, considered the Academy Awards of high school drama in Southern California.

"He's one of the best physical actors I've ever worked with," Van Holt said. "He's just golden. Right now he's playing a man who's almost mentally retarded. He'll just do a movement or something just comes out of him and you just go, 'Wow . ' "

French has wowed crowds with a variety of roles, from a boy impersonating a girl ("Baby With the Bathwater") to a serial killer who disguised himself as Miss America ("Coming Attractions"). In "South Pacific," he donned a grass skirt and a coconut-shell bikini top for a song that brought the house down.

"In all my plays, I'm the guy wearing the dress," he deadpans.

And even though he says he doesn't like Shakespeare--"I never understood it," he jokes--he beat out 50 other performers for best monologue with a selection from "A Comedy of Errors" at a Chapman College competition.

In the fall, French will attend UC Irvine on a partial drama scholarship. He says he has considered trying to walk on with the baseball team, but figures it's probably best to leave baseball to his high school memories.

"I enjoy baseball because it's the ultimate team sport, but individual performance is still important," French says. "And that's the way drama is. It's up to you, but up to the other people on the stage, too."

The curtain goes up for Estancia at 3:15 p.m. Friday, when the Eagles play host to Norwalk in the first round of the Southern Section 3-A playoffs.

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