Great Expectations : Fullerton's Powell Has Had Disappointing Season, but Major League Scouts Are Still Interested

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Speed is the silver spoon of sports. Some are born with it. Others spend their entire athletic careers wishing they had been.

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In baseball, it rockets you safely to first on an infield roller down the line, and carries you to second on a steal with a pop-up slide. Finally, you glide home on a base hit that knifes up the middle. But you come home standing up, not skidding on your stomach with a face full of dirt.

Dante Powell has that gift, along with others.

"I feel blessed to have the speed and the baseball instincts I have," he said.

Major league scouts have talked about that natural athletic ability since he was playing at Long Beach Millikan High School. He was a supplemental selection by Toronto between the first and second rounds in the 1991 draft, but he turned down a $425,000 contract to play at Cal State Fullerton.

That talk continued unabated when he moved on to the Titans and hit .307 as a freshman and .335 as a sophomore. Honors of all kinds piled up, and he played for Team USA last summer in the World Games. Everything pointed to even bigger things this season. There was the preseason All-American recognition and, with it, even higher expectations.

It has been a burden to him.

"Everyone has their own expectations for him," Titan Coach Augie Garrido said. "The news media, pro scouts, fans, teammates, you name it. And those expectations can all be distractions for him. He's intelligent, sensitive and aware, and when he feels he's letting other people down, it bothers him."

The fact is, however, that his performance this season has not been what Powell and his most supportive fans had hoped it would be. And when the Big West Conference all-star team was announced this week, Powell was not chosen to either the first or second teams. His name on the honorable mention list, where you would least expect to find the name of a player long regarded as a first-round draft choice.

As Fullerton begins play today in the NCAA Midwest I regional, Powell is hitting .289 with 48 runs batted in, a good total for a leadoff hitter. He also has eight home runs in 54 games. He has stolen 40 bases in 47 attempts. That's a solid performance . . . if you are someone other than Dante Powell.

But those are the numbers, and Powell wishes they were better. "I came into this season with high expectations for myself, as well," he said. "I was hoping to hit in the high threes. I started out hot and finished the season just so-so. But I've been trying to just focus on playing baseball and having some fun doing it. I think that's what I need to do right now."

Garrido has been telling him most of the season to do just that.

"He deserves to be able to go out and play baseball and have fun at it like any other player his age," Garrido said. "Everyone has known all along that he has all the physical tools, and that's been the burden to him. They've compared him to people like Barry Bonds and Devon White.

"What he hasn't done this season is dominate college baseball with his batting average, but he has done a lot of other things. I think he's improved considerably in the three years he's been with us. He's more mature. He throws better, and he makes better decisions. And I think that development process will continue. He's also helped the team all season with his leadership."

Powell says moving from third to the leadoff spot in the batting order has been an adjustment. "It's a different mentality when you're batting first," Powell said. "When you're hitting third, you're in a position to drive in runs, but when you're batting first, you're trying to get on base to set up some things."

Garrido believed Powell clearly was "the best person on the team to bat leadoff" this season. Garrido moved second baseman Jeff Ferguson into the third slot and Ferguson has responded with a .388 average. He recently was chosen Big West co-player of the year.

"It was fine with me," Powell said. "I felt I was doing it for the team and I haven't had any problems with it. The coaches experimented with it in fall practice and they liked it. Jeff has been doing a tremendous job driving in runs in the third. If I had to sacrifice a little to make the team stronger, then that's all right. I think the scouts all know what's going on."

The pro scouts will be heard from when the the major league draft begins June 2. Despite a season that has been below par for Powell, scouts still appear to admire those star qualities that radiate in his play. He is 6 feet 2, 185 pounds, a right-handed hitter, and he has been timed from the batter's box to first base in 4.1 seconds.

The question remains, however, about what the impact of this season will be.

"The problem for anyone with Dante's ability is that if you don't reach the expectations, it doesn't seem like what you've done is enough," Angel scout Rick Ingalls said. "But he's had a very good career there and he's a big part of that team. I feel he'll probably still go somewhere in the first round."

Scouts also say simple numbers don't always tell the full story on a player when it comes to evaluating his major league potential.

"We have to look at what a player may be capable of, as well as what he does in any one season," Yankee scout Bill Schmidt said. "His athletic ability is what is so attractive about Dante. I've been watching him play since high school. You have to think he's one of the best pure athletes out there, although I do feel he's going to have to hit the ball better than he did this season to be successful in professional baseball."

Garrido compares Powell's skills favorably with several of his former players who are playing pro baseball.

"Tim Wallach, for example, had all the tools for the position he plays and Dante is the same," he said. "It's just a different position, one that requires a lot more running speed, and he has that."

Powell says he's not worried about the approaching draft.

"I'll go wherever I go," he said with a smile. "But that's just the start. A position in the draft is not going to make or break you. It's still what you do later on the field that will count. I've heard that some scouts have said they think I've lost some enthusiasm for the game, but that's not true at all. When I hear that, I get frustrated and upset, and I have to fight that off."

Powell says he definitely plans to sign after this season. "I guess the only way I wouldn't would be if I was drafted in the 10th or 11th round or something like that," he said.

But now Powell is eager to start his "second season" in the NCAA playoffs. He hopes it will produce more spectacular results for him, but he says he's more concerned with team goals of advancing to the College World Series and then winning it.

How Powell does in the playoffs could be a key factor for the Titans.

"This will be a fresh start for him," Garrido said. "The team will respond to his actions because they know what his potential is, too."

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