Advertisement

Klesko Is Atlanta’s Long Man : Baseball: Former Westminster High player hits home runs in each of the Braves’ first two games.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You could see jaws dropping around Jack Murphy Stadium Tuesday as Atlanta Braves rookie Ryan Klesko deposited a good portion of his batting-practice pitches into the right-field bleachers, including one that landed 20 rows beyond the fence.

Fans weren’t the only ones in awe. Some of those jaws were property of the Atlanta Braves.

“Hanging around the batting cage, you stop and watch his home runs just to see how far they go,” Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser said. “He hit some here the other day that were in line with the (right-center field) scoreboard. I’d be happy to hit a golf ball that far.”

As Klesko makes his rounds of National League parks--next stop, Dodger Stadium on Friday night--his driving range will likely grow into legend.

Advertisement

Fans will see those tape-measure blasts and compare his raw power to that of Texas’ Juan Gonzalez and Jose Canseco or Oakland’s Mark McGwire. They’ll come to the park early just to see the 6-foot-3, 240-pound left-hander from Westminster High take batting practice.

But as Klesko showed this week, he’s a pretty good hitter after the national anthem, too.

Klesko homered to left-center field in each of the Braves’ first two games against the San Diego Padres, and went four for four with three runs batted in Wednesday night, helping the Braves to three consecutive victories and bringing one 53-year-old woman to tears.

It has been a rough two years for Lorene Klesko, Ryan’s mother. She was packing aerospace parts at a Santa Ana company in December, 1991, when she inhaled a combination of chemicals that burned her entire respiratory system.

Advertisement

Once a robust woman who caught Ryan’s 80-m.p.h. pitches in the back yard, Lorene spent most of 1992 in bed and 1993 battling a series of health problems. She has not returned to work since the accident and was only able to see Ryan play in person once the last two seasons.

“My mom used to work two jobs so I could go to hitting school and pitching lessons,” Klesko said. “She was a really good catcher until one day I threw a curve in the dirt. It hit her on the shin and put her on crutches for a week. After that, she built a pitchback in the yard. I owe a lot to her.”

Payback began this week. Before the Braves’ season opener, Klesko dedicated this season to Lorene, who attended Atlanta’s first two games. As Klesko rounded third on both his home runs, he pointed to his mother behind the third-base dugout.

“It was quite thrilling and very emotional,” Lorene said. “You see Ryan out there and think, ‘Is this for real?’ ”

Advertisement

You don’t have to pinch Klesko, though. The left fielder, who is two months shy of his 23rd birthday, knows this is no dream. He doesn’t gush about how great it is to finally begin a season in the big leagues after an illustrious minor league career or how exciting it is to homer in his first two games.

The fact that he’s batting third in one of baseball’s most potent lineups doesn’t faze him because Klesko believes he belongs there.

“I feel comfortable here--this is where I think I should be,” said Klesko, who takes a .636 average (seven for 11) into tonight’s game against the Padres. “You have to believe in yourself.”

That air of confidence showed Tuesday night. After homering off Wally Whitehurst in the first inning, Whitehurst’s next pitch to Klesko, in the third inning, headed straight for his right hip, no doubt an attempt to intimidate the rookie.

Advertisement

Klesko leaped out of the way to avoid the pitch, got up, tightened his batting gloves, and lined Whitehurst’s next offering up the middle for a single.

“I’ve seen Ryan since he signed (in 1989) and you could tell then he was going to be a hitter,” Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said. “Some guys you sign and you think they’re going to hit and you never know. Ryan? He was a definite. You could see it. It was written all over him. He’s a hitter.”

The only question: When would Klesko be a major league hitter?

Klesko, the Braves’ sixth pick in the 1989 draft, felt he was ready for the big leagues last year. He put together three excellent minor league seasons, progressing from Class A to double A to triple A each year, and he figured Atlanta was the next step.

Advertisement

But with Sid Bream and Brian Hunter platooning at first for the Braves in 1993 and the team not wanting Klesko’s bat to rust on the bench, Klesko began 1993 at Richmond again.

And what a beginning it was. Klesko hit four homers in his first five games, and when Hunter sprained his wrist in April, Klesko was called up to Atlanta, where he hit .273 in 14 games before being optioned back to Richmond in May.

With Atlanta’s offense sagging and the Braves falling further behind San Francisco in the National League West race, Klesko became the central figure in trade rumors involving San Diego Padres first baseman Fred McGriff.

Atlanta did trade for McGriff July 18, three days after Klesko went four for four with two homers in the triple-A All-Star Game. But Klesko, much to the dismay of Padre fans, remained a Brave.

Advertisement

“I was shocked when I wasn’t traded--I really thought I’d be in San Diego,” Klesko said. “But the Braves said they really wanted me and had plans for me, to hang in there and keep swinging.”

While McGriff keyed Atlanta’s second-half surge, in which the Braves overcame an eight-game deficit to win the division, Klesko labored in left field at Richmond.

A four-year varsity pitcher and first baseman at Westminster, Klesko had never played the outfield before. But knowing the move would enhance his major league prospects, Klesko jumped head-first--literally--into the task.

He crashed into fences, dived on artificial turf and continued to knock the ball around with his bat. His triple-A performance (.272, 22 homers, 74 RBIs in 98 games) earned him a promotion to Atlanta in September.

Advertisement

But despite Klesko’s two-run homer in the ninth inning, which sparked a five-run rally that lifted the Braves over the Reds, 7-6, on Sept. 15, Klesko entered the off-season still unsure of his future.

“I thought I was trade bait for a reliever or someone else until Ron got hurt,” Klesko said.

Ron would be Ron Gant, the Braves left fielder who averaged 29 homers and 97 RBIs over the past four seasons before breaking his leg in a dirt-bike accident Feb. 3. Atlanta released Gant in March, saving $4.6 million of his $5.5 million contract and opening a window of opportunity for Klesko.

Klesko smashed his fist right through it. He hit .359 with three homers and 11 RBIs this spring, played well in the outfield and earned a starting job.

Advertisement

Cox said Klesko will platoon with right-handed rookies Mike Kelly and Tony Tarasco in left field, but with the majority of National League pitchers throwing right-handed, Klesko figures to see plenty of action.

“I knew I’d get a break sooner or later,” Klesko said. “I’ve been patient, but after the year I had last year, how could you send a guy back down? I’ve worked hard for this. I feel like my time has come.”

Starting for a team many expect to win the N.L. pennant is a big enough step. But batting third in a lineup that includes McGriff (30 or more homers in each of past six seasons), Terry Pendleton (two-time N.L. most valuable player) and Dave Justice (40 homers, 120 RBIs in 1993) would add some pressure to the situation, right?

Not for the even-keeled Klesko.

Advertisement

“I don’t think he even knows this is pressure,” Cox said. “He’s not cocky but he’s confident, and that’s a very important thing. There’s no doubt he’s here to stay.”

Blauser believes Klesko has the perfect temperament for the situation. He’s a fierce competitor with good work habits who is eager to learn all he can about opposing pitchers. He’s powerful but is not a free swinger prone to a high number of strikeouts.

“I’m no scout, but he definitely has the ability to hit 30 home runs in the major leagues,” Blauser said. “I’m sure there will be times when he’ll struggle, but he has the capacity to make adjustments, and there are enough guys on this team who can help him along.”

Batting in front of McGriff, Pendleton and Justice, Klesko should get his share of good pitches to hit.

Advertisement

“I’m just glad I’m on this team,” Blauser said. “Those four guys in a row are going to give fits to a lot of pitchers.”

Klesko as a Pro

Yr. Team Avg. AB H HR RBI ’89 Bradenton-R .404 57 23 1 16 Sumter-1 .289 90 26 1 12 ’90 Sumter-1 .368 231 85 10 38 Durham-1 .274 292 80 7 47 ’91 Greenville-2 .291 419 122 14 67 ’92 Richmond-3 .251 418 105 17 59 Atlanta .000 14 0 0 1 ’93 Richmond-3 .274 343 94 22 74 Atlanta .353 17 6 2 5

R--Rookie League. 1--Class A.

Advertisement

2--Double A. 3--Triple A.


Advertisement
Advertisement