Finally, Greg Pirkl was showing the Seattle Mariners why they drafted him in the second round five years ago. Pirkl, The Times' Orange County player of the year in 1988 while at Los Alamitos High, owned the Pacific Coast League the first three months of the '93 season. At the All-Star break, he led the league in runs batted in, was third in home runs and was batting more than .300.
But when the Mariners called up Marc Newfield, another power-hitting prospect who is Pirkl's friend and also an Orange County native, Pirkl wondered if anyone in the Mariner organization had bothered to notice his "career year."
"When I didn't get called up, I thought it was going to be a long year for me," he said. "I decided it might not happen.
"When they called up Marc, it was a shock. I was a little upset, but I just tried to trust whoever was in charge."
The disappointment left Pirkl bitter and sent him into a slump.
"I went into a three- or four-game funk," he said. "My wife pulled me aside and said, 'This is not you.' I was acting real weird."
Haili, Pirkl's wife, said her husband was turning into a zombie.
"He was really struggling with himself," she said from the couple's home in Scottsdale, Ariz. "He didn't sleep much at all. He was so pleased for Marc. On the other hand, he was thinking, 'What more can I do? Why don't they just trade me?' "
So before her husband totally flipped out and ruined his season, or possibly his career, Haili decided to have a talk with him.
"I just told him to hang in there," she said. "I said, 'It's just a game, and you're so lucky just to be here.' "
Whatever she said, it worked. Within a few weeks, Pirkl was in a Mariner uniform after first baseman Tino Martinez was injured. And within two games, he was hitting his first major league home run off Angel left-hander Mark Langston on national television.
"It was a 2-1 fastball," Pirkl said from his hotel room in Detroit. "I had a pretty good idea it was gone, but now that I was in the majors I wasn't sure of anything."
Pirkl simply knew he didn't want to embarrass himself on ESPN. "I said to myself, 'Hit the ball hard somewhere. Don't make an idiot out of yourself.' "
The night before, in his major league debut, Pirkl collected his first two major league hits off Chuck Finley.
Haili, eight months pregnant with twins, was in Seattle for both of her husband's big hits. "I was on that first plane out of (Phoenix)," she said. "I had my bags packed at 4 in the morning."
When Pirkl's home run landed in the seats, Haili said she had a hard time containing herself.
"I was screaming so loud that I couldn't even talk," she said. "I was so happy for him. I wanted to run down and meet him at home plate."
The cheers have died down since then for Pirkl, who is in an 0 for 13 slump, hitting .200 (four for 20) with one homer and four RBIs. He has not played since last Wednesday. Mariner Manager Lou Piniella is platooning Pirkl, who bats right-handed, with Dave Magadan at first base.
Mariner farm director Jim Beattie sees a bright future for Pirkl, who turned 23 this month.
"In my mind, I see Pirkl as a Cecil Fielder type of guy," Beattie said. "He's big and strong and he has tremendous power. Greg can be a guy who hits .270 with 25 to 30 home runs a year."
Pirkl laughed when he heard the Fielder comparison.
"I don't think there's any comparison," he said. "I've only been here a couple weeks. I'm far from establishing myself as a big league player. I could be sent down any day. There's always that chance."
When making the comparison, Beattie emphasized that Fielder and Pirkl are not that different physically.
"He's very heavy," Beattie said. "In his bio, it says he weighs 225. I don't think he's seen 225 in a long time. That 225 was one leg."
Pirkl acknowledges that he's not exactly svelte, but said he's much trimmer than he was in spring training, when he weighed 263.
"This is Jim's way of getting on me about my weight," said Pirkl, who is 6 feet 5. "They sent me to a nutritionist and my triple-A (Calgary) manager busted my butt."
Pirkl said he's down to 245, noting that the Mariners have asked him to lose about 10 more pounds before next season.
"If I put up the numbers I did in triple A, it won't matter how much I weigh," he said.
Pirkl's numbers looked good when he was recalled. He was hitting .300 with 20 home runs and 88 RBIs. But he already has learned that triple A and the majors are worlds apart.
"The outfielders are so fast, they run down everything," he said. "The bus actually drives you to the airport, and the meals are tremendous."
And to think Pirkl, who was playing in his sixth minor league season, once took playing in the major leagues for granted.
"I was a high draft pick, and I thought I was headed for instant success," he said. "But when you're that young, things tend to seem too easy. But then reality set in and I said, 'This is tough.' "
Outfielder Brian Turang, Pirkl's new roommate, reminds Pirkl every day how fortunate he is to be in the majors. Turang, who attended Loyola Marymount, was chosen in 1989 by the Mariners in the 51st round.
"This is something I've wanted my entire life," Pirkl said. "I'm living my dream. I compare it to winning the lottery."