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Rookie Catcher Lieberthal Goes From Box Seats to Phillies’ Box Score

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Lieberthal was standing no more than 75 yards from a spot where he had spent hundreds of evenings as a kid.

But he had come a long way.

Lieberthal, a graduate of Westlake Village Westlake, was on the field at Dodger Stadium at about 4 p.m. Thursday, when Philadelphia Phillie shortstop Kevin Stocker gave him the news.

“You’re in there tonight,” Stocker said.

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Lieberthal, 22, in only his second day in the major leagues, was starting at catcher for the Phillies that night. Not only was it his major league debut, but in a stadium he’d dreamed about since he started coming with his family’s field-level season tickets 15 years ago.

“Nervous?” Stocker asked.

“Not yet,” Lieberthal said.

“Yes you are,” Stocker replied.

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Don’t blame Lieberthal for the butterflies. He was, after all, preparing to start his major league career with dozens of friends and family members watching from the stands.

About six hours later, though, the butterflies were gone and the baseball Lieberthal had lined for his first major league hit was tucked safely inside one of his shoes in his clubhouse cubicle.

Even though the Phillies lost, 4-3, on a three-run double in the bottom of the ninth by Dodger second baseman Delino DeShields, Lieberthal was still smiling in the clubhouse after the game.

“I would have been really excited to get that win,” Lieberthal said, “but now there’s tomorrow and we’ve got a whole new game. Now I’ve gotten (the first game) over with.”

Lieberthal’s debut was the culmination of 50 hours he’ll never forget.

THE JOURNEY

Lieberthal walked into the visitors’ clubhouse in Rochester, N.Y., at about 11 p.m. EDT, on Tuesday, just after he had played a doubleheader for the triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre (Pa.) Red Barons. At that point, the major leagues probably seemed too distant to think about.

As it turns out, though, the Phillies were just a foul-tip away.

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Earlier that night in Philadelphia, Phillie catcher Darren Daulton was hit by two foul-tips, breaking his right collarbone. Dr. Phillip Marone, team physician, said it will be at least six weeks before Daulton will be back.

Scranton Manager Mike Quade called Lieberthal into his office after the game and told him he was on his way to the majors.

Lieberthal called home just after he heard the news, and he told his mother, Anita.

“I thought he was kidding me,” she said, “because we were getting ready to leave on Sunday for Scranton. I had everything done from the last detail. I was even packed.”

But Lieberthal’s father, Dennis, a scout for the Detroit Tigers, was in Santa Maria coaching a scout league game Tuesday night and he couldn’t be reached with news of Mike’s promotion. So a friend of the Lieberthals’ got the idea that Dennis had to know, no matter what.

So he called the Santa Maria Police Dept.

“Two police officers showed up at the field at about 9 and they told me to call home,” Dennis said.

Frightening? A message from the police to call home?

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“Yeah,” Dennis said. “I would say so.”

But Dennis heard the good news when he called home and he finally reached Mike at about 11 p.m. PDT. It was about 2 a.m. in Rochester, where Lieberthal wasn’t sleeping too well.

“I only got about two hours sleep that night,” he said.

He arrived in Philadelphia about 7:45 a.m. Wednesday and went straight to Veterans Stadium because, “I had no place else to go,” he said. “I got there before the clubhouse guys.”

Lieberthal was in a daze through the Phillies-Marlins game that day, he said. He never got in the game and only left the dugout to go down to the bullpen in the seventh inning.

Soon after the game ended, he boarded a flight to Los Angeles, where the Phillies were starting an 11-game trip.

The Phillies’ charter finally arrived in Los Angeles about 10 p.m. PDT. Lieberthal went directly to the hotel and “crashed,” he said.

THE PREGAME

Lieberthal slept late Thursday and went straight to Dodger Stadium, arriving about 1:30 p.m., 5 1/2 hours before the game.

Although Lieberthal had been coming to Dodger games since he was 7, sitting in his family’s field box seats behind home plate, this was his first time on the field. He had one other opportunity, when he was scheduled to be recognized before a Dodger game in 1990 as the Southern Section 5-A player of the year, but he missed that because he had already left town to play minor league baseball.

“He was in a hurry to get (to the majors),” Dennis Lieberthal said.

Lieberthal, who signed for $250,000 the day the Phillies made him the third pick in the draft, played 416 minor league games before major league game No. 1 on Thursday. A career .269 hitter in the minor leagues, Lieberthal is more advanced as a catcher than a hitter.

He was named the best defensive catcher in the double-A Eastern League in 1992 and he threw out 47% of would-be base stealers last year.

Phillie Manager Jim Fregosi, who, as a special assistant to General Manager Lee Thomas, scouted Lieberthal before the Phillies drafted him, said he is impressed with how the 6-foot, 180-pound catcher has come along since he was a skinny high school kid.

“You put him next to most catchers in the majors,” Fregosi said, “and he’s as big or bigger.”

Fregosi decided to put Lieberthal in the lineup Thursday because, he said, it’s important that rookies play as soon as possible after their first call-up, so they can work out the nerves.

But, as Thursday’s game approached, Lieberthal’s stomach was still churning.

“He looks nervous now,” Dennis Lieberthal said from the stands, watching his son interviewed by another reporter about an hour before the game.

As Lieberthal jogged down into the right field corner for his final pregame stretches, the Dodgers honored Fernando Valenzuela, returning to Dodger Stadium with the Phillies. The stadium’s video screen showed highlights of Valenzuela’s career, including his debut in 1981, when Lieberthal was a 9-year-old with a ticket.

THE GAME

Lieberthal was comfortable working with Phillie starter Bobby Munoz on Thursday night because they had worked together in Scranton. He seemed at ease behind the plate.

He gave up only one stolen base in the game, and he didn’t even make a throw on that one. With runners at first and third and two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Brett Butler took off for second base, probably hoping to induce the rookie to throw so the Dodgers could steal home, but Lieberthal didn’t bite.

Lieberthal didn’t have any first-game gaffes that will make funny stories to tell his grandchildren, except for the time he turned to flip the ball to home plate umpire Jerry Layne, who wasn’t looking. The ball dribbled away into foul territory and Lieberthal had to chase it down.

For the most part, catching was no problem for Lieberthal, but he said he was nervous until his first at-bat.

It came in second inning, with two outs and nobody on base against Pedro Astacio. He jumped at the first pitch he saw in the major leagues, hitting a towering popup that Butler caught without moving a step in center field.

“I just missed that one,” Lieberthal said. “That pitch was right there and I just got under it.”

Lieberthal came up again in the fourth, with two outs and Tony Longmire at first base. He took an Astacio fastball for a strike, then lined the next pitch over shortstop Rafael Bournigal’s head into left field, for a single.

“It felt great to get it over with,” Lieberthal said. “I was just really excited.”

As Lieberthal stood at first base, his picture was flashed on the stadium video screen above the graphic: “First major league hit.” Lieberthal admitted he peeked up to look at himself on the screen. He then cracked a smile as the ball was retrieved and sent into the dugout for safekeeping.

The crowd congratulated him with polite applause, including one screaming woman. The voice seemed to be coming from the area where Lieberthal’s mother was sitting.

“That was probably her,” he said.

In his remaining two trips to the plate, Lieberthal fouled out to left field on a 3-1 pitch in the seventh and he laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt in the ninth, setting up the Phillies’ insurance run.

The Phillies could have used a couple more runs, though. DeShields ruined Lieberthal’s debut when he lined a bases-loaded double into the gap in left-center field. Lieberthal stood in front of home plate as three Dodgers crossed the plate, winning the game.

The Phillie clubhouse was quiet after the game. A few reporters wandered in to talk to relief pitcher Doug Jones, who had given up the runs and was staring blankly into space, and a few more approached Lieberthal, who was upset about the loss, but still not too far from a smile.

“I feel a lot better now,” he said. “I was pretty nervous before the game started.”

THE FUTURE

Fregosi said before Thursday’s game that Lieberthal will play about three times a week, with Todd Pratt catching the other games, while Daulton is on the disabled list.

“I’m going to give him the opportunity to play,” Fregosi said. “I’m not going to bury him. I’m going to play him according to how well he does.”

His chances for becoming an everyday major league catcher with the Phillies, though, seem to hinge on Daulton’s health. Daulton, 32, is one of the National League’s best catchers, but he has been plagued by injuries throughout his career and he recently commented that he wouldn’t mind moving to another position to alleviate the stress on his knees.

The next six weeks might be Lieberthal’s chance to audition for the job.

“You don’t like to come up because someone gets hurt,” he said, “but I’ll try to do the best I can while I’m here.”


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