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Redington Views Minor Employment as Major Victory : Baseball: Stint with Lake Elsinore puts former Times Orange County player of the year back in professional baseball.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Redington walked into the clubhouse at the Lake Elsinore Diamond for the first time, took a quick look around and knew he was home.

OK, so the locker stalls in the new stadium weren’t finished yet. So there was no hot water in the showers. So his teammates thought he was old enough to be Crash Davis.

Big deal.

He was playing baseball for a living again. It’s good work if you can get it. Redington had been away from the game long enough to remember that.

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Redington once was a can’t-miss prospect, The Times Orange County high school player of the year in 1987, who seemed destined for the major leagues. Everyone said so, and Redington was the firmest believer.

After all, hadn’t he batted .366 with nine home runs and 30 runs batted in as a senior at Esperanza? Hadn’t he homered in Dodger Stadium in the 1986 Southern Section 4-A championship game? Hadn’t he hit .442 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs as a junior?

But that was long before struggling in the minors, before playing for three organizations in three seasons and before the Chicago White Sox released him last year.

He was out of baseball from March 31 to Nov. 18, when the Angels took a chance and signed him. The easiest thing in the world would have been to walk away when the White Sox cut him, but Redington didn’t see it that way.

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He wanted another chance to prove he could still play.

Now that he has it, he’s noticing the little things he used to take for granted.

“I’d been playing baseball my whole life,” said Redington, 25. “Last summer was the first time since I don’t know when that I didn’t play. Usually, you hate the bus rides. Come August you’re ready to go home. You’re saying, ‘Let’s get the season over with.’

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way again. I guess you never know how much you miss something. Even though we’re losing, and we have long bus rides and there’s all the stuff you don’t enjoy, the basic thing is the life is a lot of fun.”

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Lake Elsinore, the Angels’ new Class-A affiliate, isn’t far from Anaheim Stadium and the majors, but make no mistake it’s still the bush leagues.

The Storm has won only two of 16 games and is in last place in the California League’s Southern Division. Most of the players are young, with only a season or two of pro experience. And then there’s the unfinished stadium, beautiful only if you don’t look too closely.

“We couldn’t shower the first few home games,” Redington said. "(Without lockers) we had to take our stuff home every night or it would get stolen. Guys had shirts and hats stolen. It was the first time I’d experienced that. There was a rude awakening.”

Redington laughed. He wouldn’t trade this for anything, except perhaps a ticket to double-A Midland.

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He hopes he’ll be promoted soon, but for now he’s content merely to be playing again. That he’s playing well is an added bonus.

“I feel pretty good, actually,” said Redington, batting .298 with a .389 on-base percentage and four RBIs in 13 games as a first and third baseman.

“They’re working with me. As long as somebody’s trying to help you, that’s a good sign. I still feel the effects of being out a whole season. I’m hitting the ball well right now, but not close to where I want to be. It’ll kick in soon.”

Ken Forsch, the Angels’ director of minor league operations, acknowledged the odds are against Redington ever making the majors.

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“We felt we didn’t want to rush him,” said Forsch, a former pitcher who won 114 games in 16 major league seasons, including five with the Angels.

“We’ll see how he does. He’s got the desire and willingness to work. It’s a question of getting out there and competing and things falling into place for him. The goal is to keep moving up (in the organization) until you peak out.”

The White Sox apparently believed Redington had hit the end of the line last spring. They released him after only one full season, when he batted .231 in 88 games at double-A Birmingham in 1992.

In 1991, he batted .284 at Wichita, the San Diego Padres’ double-A affiliate.

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He spent four seasons before joining the Padre organization bouncing between the Atlanta Braves’ Class-A and double-A affiliates. His most productive season for the Braves was in 1989, when he hit .299 with 17 homers and 52 RBIs in 85 games at Class-A Burlington.

His release last March came as a shock. He thought he would be signed by another team, but when he wasn’t he returned to familiar turf.

While working out at Esperanza, where he had his greatest success, Redington impressed Aztec Coach Mike Curran all over again.

“He never did get a job or do anything that made you think he was out of baseball,” Curran said. “He always seemed like he was just waiting for the chance to get back at it.”

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That was nothing new. According to Curran, Redington always was a confident player.

“Tommy worked hard,” Curran said. “He was a natural bulldog. He’d get it done or talk the team into getting it done.

“He could handle pressure. If he struck out, he wouldn’t pout and moan and bring the rest of the team down. I heard people saying in the minors that he wasn’t a team player. I couldn’t imagine that.”

When the Braves made Redington their third-round pick in the 1987 free-agent draft, the world seemed to be his for the taking. He could have gone to Arizona to play college ball and perhaps later taken a crack at a spot on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

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But he wanted to play professionally and couldn’t wait. The reported $100,000 signing bonus and incentive package the Braves offered only sweetened the deal.

Looking back, Redington believes things happened too fast. By the time he was 20, he’d been to the big club’s spring training camp and was projected as the club’s next third baseman.

“Some of that stuff is hard to handle at 20,” he said. “I was still just a kid.”

Now that he’s 25, the odds are against him, and his teammates think he’s been hanging around forever like the character Kevin Costner played in “Bull Durham.”

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Seattle’s Rich Amaral, who at 31 was the oldest rookie in the majors last season, is now a role model.

“It’s like that old saying, ‘As long as you have that uniform on, you have a chance to play in the big leagues,’ ” Redington said. “I’ll always have that chance as long as I’m playing.

“There’s no pressure. I’m just trying to have fun.”


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