He's Keeping the Hammer Down : CS Fullerton's Chris Powell Is Playing the Game Full Speed Ahead

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 might possess one or the other.

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

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 freshman.

"The back of his head is flat, it has no contour," Horton said. "It was like a hammerhead 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."

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, Philadelphia Phillie Lenny Dykstra.

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

Twice, Powell dived into first base safely after bunting between the mound and the right side of the infield. Twice, he dived into second with stolen bases. Four times, Powell dived into home with runs.

Powell's thighs and 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 on Friday in a first-round game at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.

Not only did Powell's all-out style earn him all-region honors, it had an inspirational effect on the rest of the Titans once they got to Baton Rouge.

"All of a sudden, (leadoff 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 everyone's aggression level up a notch."

It hasn't been this way all season for Powell, a senior from Edison High in Huntington Beach. 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, played little in 17 others and didn't play at all in 13. But after getting several pinch-hits, one a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth that gave the Titans a 2-1 victory over Fresno State on April 3, Powell began platooning with Frank Herman in center field.

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

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

"Augie (Garrido, Fullerton's 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', from a group of individuals concerned primarily with themselves to a team with a mission.

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

Fed up with bickering about playing time--"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 he 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 helps in these tense tournament times. With his quirky, almost childlike sense of humor, Powell might be as much wing nut as he is hammer.

He'll stuff batting gloves into the ear holes of his helmet and pretend he's a rabbit, or wear his socks over his spikes in practice.

And he's fond of saying 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,' " second baseman Steve Sisco said. "There's no way to describe his personality."

Said Horton: "The first time I realized he was different was when we were at Cerritos and he was playing with these little army men with my kids. He's like a kid in a man's body."

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."

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