In 1990, Kevin Higgins learned their was a catch to possibly playing in the major leagues.
Drafted by the San Diego Padres as an infielder after a collegiate career at Arizona State and Harbor College, the Torrance native was handed catching gear and told to learn the position.
At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Higgins hardly looks the part--neither blocky like a Mike Scioscia, rangy like a Benito Santiago nor powerfully built like a Carlton Fisk or Gary Carter. He lacks the arm of a Johnny Bench.
But something clicked for Higgins as soon as he got behind the plate. Three years later, he is playing for the Padres after being called up from triple-A Las Vegas on May 28. A left-handed batter, Higgins splits time with Bob Geren, playing most games against starting right-handers.
“It’s quite a story, isn’t it,” said Padre catching coach Bruce Bochy, shaking his head. Bochy, a former major league catcher, managed Higgins during his catching baptism in Class-A Riverside.
“He has so much fire in him. He has fun playing the game and it shows.”
But why did Higgins take to catching so readily?
“His head’s into the game,” Bochy said. “He’s a listener. His instincts behind the plate are so good, his lack of experience doesn’t hurt him. He’s an old-school baseball player. He’s got a lot of enthusiasm and he works at it.”
Higgins seems to have been in the right place at the right time: He played the past two seasons at Las Vegas for Jim Riggleman, who was promoted to Padre manager last fall.
The Padres’ cost-cutting measures didn’t hurt him, either. The Padres elected not to re-sign Santiago, an all-star, after last season. They signed former Dodger Scioscia, but he injured a shoulder and will not play this season.
Padre catchers Dan Walters and Geren were struggling and Higgins was batting .359 at Las Vegas when he was promoted.
Higgins, 26, joined the team in St. Louis and doubled in two runs in his first major league at-bat.
“I think I’m here (to stay)--obviously it’s up to me, but it wasn’t like a (temporary) call-up,” he said.
“I feel I’m catching real well right now. I never envisioned myself catching in the big leagues, (except) maybe as the third man. I envisioned myself as a utility man, not starting.”
“My average isn’t there right now, but I feel I’m gonna hit enough to stick around. The big question was the catching, not having as much experience. But I’ll put my game-calling up with anybody right now, even though I haven’t caught a lot.”
Higgins has long had a reputation as a player who understood the game.
“I’ve always been a student of the game, and I’ve had some good teachers,” Higgins said, mentioning Torrance Coach Rick Hood and former Harbor coach Jim O’Brien.
Higgins played nearly every infield and outfield position before catching. He also played third base at Las Vegas and has played right field for the Padres.
“You have value to a club as a catcher and utility player,” Bochy said. “He’s always been known as a good hitter. You add value being able to get behind the plate.”
But why catch when you’ve been an All-American infielder?
“I’ve never been one to question when coaches ask me to do something,” Higgins said. “When they told me, ‘We think it would be best for the organization,’ I went with it and worked at it and it seemed to have paid off.”
Through Thursday’s games, Higgins was batting .250 with five runs batted in.
“He works with the pitchers,” Riggleman said. “He talks to the pitchers. He talks in the dugout in-between innings. He’s into it.”
Pitcher Wally Whitehurst, who has been caught by the likes of Carter, said: “The reason he’s having success is he’ll talk to the pitchers beforehand, do what you want to do, see what pitches you like to throw in certain situations. He moves real well, sets up real well, frames the ball good. You like to see a catcher that’ll talk to you.”
Higgins brings another quality that Riggleman likes.
“He has enthusiasm,” Riggleman said. “That’s something we were lacking. I’ve felt for years this club has lacked that type of a vocal-type player on the field. Hopefully as he’s here longer and gets comfortable that part of his personality will come out more.”
In the spring, Higgins was given little chance of playing with the Padres.
“The first couple days were a little nerve-racking,” he said. “Now it’s just my job--I go down the tunnel (to the field) and play ball.
“It sinks in more off the field. There’s not another league to (aspire) to. I feel real fortunate. I’m one of the very few to be able to experience it. For the first time in my life I’ve got money, I’ve got status. Your whole life changes--everything’s better. The coffee tastes better.
“When I got called up my dad reminded me there’s a lot of people who mowed grass in Little League, a lot of people sacrificed. It wasn’t all me. I’ll never forget that. Those are the roots. I see some people get here and forget, they think they did it all on their own.”
Higgins’ wife, Debra, and daughter, Kylie, have joined him in San Diego. They were living in Boise, Ida.
“This was as much a call-up for my wife as me,” he said. “We started dating in eighth grade in Torrance. She’s put up with a lot to help me get here.”
What does he have to do to make it last?
“He just needs to play like Kevin Higgins can play,” Riggleman said. “He could be here a long time.”