A Diamond in the Rough Sparkles : After struggling in L.A., Damon Bihm gained maturity and found success in Alabama. The outfielder also hits the books now.
Baseball player Damon Bihm walked around life with two strikes on him.
A year ago, he had no job and he was struggling to stay on the Los Angeles City College baseball team.
And to make matters worse, his mother threatened to throw him out of the house. “She told me either to be a man and live my own life, or go to school and get an education,” Bihm said. “The main thing was: She wanted me to stop playing baseball.”
But the seeds had been planted for Bihm’s dream. And he left with his duffel bag and bat in hand.
As Mother’s Day approached last year, Bihm wanted to give his mother a present.
“Buy her a rose,” major-league scout Phil Pote advised his protege.
Bihm did one better: He rose to be a man.
Bihm, 21, is a starting right fielder and one of the leading hitters for Talladega College, a private black college about 35 minutes from Birmingham, Ala. And Bihm is also a B-average student majoring in clinical psychology.
“He exemplifies a teen-ager who has overcome obstacles, temptations, pressures and disappointments,” said Pote, a former Fremont High baseball coach and current Seattle Mariners scout. “If you asked someone two or three years ago if they thought Damon Bihm with his ups and downs would go to college, they would say no.
“It was a pretty safe bet he wouldn’t make it.”
What frustrated many was that Bihm was bright enough to do well in school. He loves to read, especially comic books, and has an extensive vocabulary. But education took a backseat to baseball, which he began playing at 14.
“Damon is a very articulate, strong-minded, strong-willed kid,” said his mother, Marjorie. “I never had trouble with Damon hanging out with the wrong kids or doing drugs. It’s just his mind was always on baseball.”
In 1988, Pote discovered Bihm sitting in the stands of a Los Angeles High baseball game. He asked the then-high school sophomore why he wasn’t playing for the Romans.
After a three-hour conversation, Pote decided to take Bihm under his wing.
“I’ve worked with youngsters for close to 40 years,” Pote said. “He looked like he had the potential to be an athlete. He is also a pretty sharp kid. Articulate. Personable. He can be a very charming conversationalist.
“I think what impresses me the most is that I tell him something and he comes back three or four months later and repeats exactly what I said.”
After playing one season with Los Angeles, Bihm transferred his senior year to University, a perennial Westside power. He played 11 games under Coach Frank Cruz before he was declared academically ineligible.
“He was a guy who didn’t have much direction,” said Cruz, now an assistant coach at USC. “He had a Darryl Strawberry-looking body. He had a decent swing but an average arm and not much experience.”
The Mariners, upon Pote’s suggestion, used a low-round pick to take Bihm in the 1991 June amateur draft. Bihm wanted to sign a minor-league contract but Pote, whose discoveries include Chet Lemon, urged him to play at the community college level.
Bihm bounced from Compton to El Camino colleges before landing at Los Angeles City. He struggled to play for LACC Coach Dan Cowgil and eventually was kicked off the team for arguing with a teammate. Bihm said it was a setup.
“He was ill-prepared athletically to compete in a structured program,” Pote said. “Not because of ability or potential.”
Bihm also had trouble keeping a part-time job because he often missed work to attend practices and games.
Marjorie Bihm, a single parent, grew frustrated with her son and told him to either get a full-time job or move out. “I tried to set goals in order to teach him how to take care of himself,” she said. “It was a tough-love situation. You love him, but you have to show him he can’t always have his way.”
After moving in with different friends, Bihm found a permanent home with his godparents.
“A teen-age minority finding a job in Los Angeles is no day at the beach,” Pote said. “He was faced with a crisis situation. It was fortunate his godparents stepped in.”
While Bihm earned his associate of arts degree at Los Angeles City, Pote began searching for a four-year school for Bihm to complete his education. He contacted Florida Marlins scout John Young who put Bihm in touch with Talladega Coach Mark Salter.
“I never guessed in a million years that I would be here,” said Bihm, who received an athletic scholarship to the school. “The fact that my mother was stern and said it was ‘my way or the highway’ taught me to grow up.”
Despite being homesick, Bihm has developed close friendships with his teammates. He lives in an apartment complex and shares a telephone with 11 teammates.
During long bus trips through the South, Bihm has found time to reflect on his life in Los Angeles and his relationship with his mother. He is ready to come home. “I’ve gone through a maturation. I’ve become more responsible and learned to be a man.”
In his first season at Talladega, Bihm has a .309 batting average with three home runs, four triples and 10 doubles, and 30 runs batted in. The Tornadoes are competing in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics Southern States District 27 playoffs.
“From a hitting standpoint he’s considered to have one of the best swings in the Southeast region,” Salter said. “He’s got a nice stress-free swing. He takes the same cut every time and he really puts some juice on the ball.
“He’s a little short in the throwing area. If he enhances that part, he could easily be a big leaguer.”
Bihm said he owes his success to Pote.
“If I had a son, I would name him after Phil Pote,” Bihm said. “If it wasn’t for him I would probably be in jail or dead. When all else failed and everyone else gave up on me, he took care of me. I have his picture on my wall that I look at for inspiration.
“My motto in life is: Don’t expect anything, but accept everything.
“If I can do it, anyone can do it.”