Hammer's Time : Hustling Powell Sparks Titan Surge in Baseball Playoffs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Powell's nickname, "Hammer," has nothing to do with an affinity for funky dance steps or an ability to smash line drives around baseball fields, even though the Cal State Fullerton center fielder may possess one or the other.

It has plenty to do with the shape of his head, which, his teammates and coaches insist, is a most peculiar noggin.

George Horton, Fullerton's associate head coach, first noticed it four years ago when he was the coach at Cerritos College and Powell was a Falcon freshman.

"The back of his head is flat, it has no contour," Horton said. "It was like a hammer-head shark, so I started calling him 'Hammer.' Everyone thinks it's because of the way he swings the bat, but it has nothing to do with that."

For a more anatomically correct description of Powell's skull, we go to Titan second baseman and future craniology specialist Steve Sisco: "He really doesn't have much of an occipital lobe. That's the little bump in the back of your head. I learned that in Anatomy 260."

Whatever its origins, it's fair to say the nickname "Hammer" is a perfect match for Powell, who plays the game much like a gritty outfielder known as "Nails," down-and-dirty Philadelphia Phillie Lenny Dykstra.

The only person busier than Powell at last weekend's NCAA South I Region tournament in Baton Rouge, La., may have been the guy who had to do his laundry.

Twice, Powell slid head-first into first base after well-placed push bunts between the mound and right side of the infield. Twice, he slid head-first into second with stolen bases. Four times, Powell slid home head-first with runs.

The areas above Powell's knees are covered with bruises, scabs and scratches.

"But believe me, when you're playing, you don't feel it," Powell said.

No pain, big gain.

Powell's hustle helped the left-handed hitter bat .538 (seven for 13) and score seven runs in four tournament victories, as the Titans (42-15) won the South I Region and gained a berth in the College World Series. They play Florida State at 4:30 p.m. Friday in a first-round game at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium.

Not only did Powell's all-out style earn him all-region honors, it had an inspirational effect on the rest of the Titans, who all seemed to set their watches to Hammer time once they hit Baton Rouge.

"All of a sudden, (lead-off batter) Jeremy Carr is diving into first and (third baseman) Phil Nevin is diving into home," Horton said. "Now everyone's doing it. They see Chris doing it and say to themselves, 'Why can't I?' He's been a spark and has picked up everyone's aggression level a notch."

It hasn't been this way all season for Powell, a senior from Edison High School. With an abundance of talented outfielders, the Titans tried Powell at first base, but he couldn't handle the new position.

He started only six of Fullerton's first 36 games, saw limited action in 17 others and didn't even play in 13 games. But after several pinch-hits, including a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth that gave the Titans a 2-1 victory over Fresno State April 3, Powell began platooning with Frank Herman in center field.

He had multiple hits in five of Fullerton's last 17 games and batted .400 in Big West Conference play. He moved to the second spot in the order and has teamed with speedy leadoff batter Carr to give the Titans a formidable 1-2 punch.

"His problem in the past was that his negative periods were very negative," Horton said. "Out of the blue he'd have a tendency to not run out a ball, not hustle or make a mental mistake.

"Augie (Garrido, Fullerton coach) has done a good job convincing him what type of player he has to be for this team. Instead of us asking him to bunt, he does it on his own. Instead of us telling him to hustle, he does it on his own. He's brought a new dimension to the offense."

Powell's transformation in many ways mirrors that of the Titans' metamorphosis from a group of individuals concerned primarily with themselves to a team on a mission.

The Tuesday after the Titans' final regular-season game, players headed for their field expecting to practice. What they got was a 1 1/2-hour lecture from Garrido on the evils of individuality.

Fed up with bickering over who should be playing--"We had 25 guys making the lineup card," Garrido said--the coach told them they weren't going anywhere if they didn't play as a team. Then Garrido canceled practice and sent them home.

"We were ticked off, really mad, because it was true," Powell said. "No one wanted to really say anything, but Augie put his foot down. The next day we had our own meeting without the coaches and got everything out in the open.

"We set rules: No complaining about playing time, no throwing bats or helmets, hustle every ball out. That's when things turned around. We have a sense of closeness now."

And thanks in large part to Powell, a sense of looseness, which is needed in these tense tournament times. With his quirky, almost childish sense of humor, Powell may be as much wing nut as he is hammer.

He's the kind of guy who will stuff batting gloves in the ear holes of his helmet and pretend he's a rabbit or wear his socks on the outside of his cleats in practice.

And he's always saying these goofy things--his teammates call them "Hammerisms"--to break the tension.

"If you're just standing around, he'll come up and say, 'You gonna help me or just stand there like a slab of meat with mittens,' " Sisco said. "There's no way to describe his personality."

To Powell, it's the only way to play a kid's game.

"I like to play relaxed and do things differently than the normal person," Powell said. "I try to rub that on others so we don't play tight. You have to have fun."

The Titans are laughing all the way to Omaha.

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