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PRO BASEBALL / JEFF WONG : Grand End to Fick’s Slump

It was like giving a starving man food or a thirsty man water.

Chris Fick, with one hit in his first 33 professional at-bats, dramatically snapped his slump with a grand slam over Lake Elsinore’s monstrous 36-foot-high right-field wall last Sunday.

“Man, it was tough,” said Fick, 24, who plays for the Class-A San Bernardino Spirit.

“At first, the balls weren’t dropping in. I tried not to get down, but the game of baseball has its ups and downs. I tried to stay on an even keel.”

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Said Manager Greg Mahlberg: “By Day 15 the old head was hanging. I had to pick him up a little bit, but he’s doing a lot better now.”

So far, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound left fielder who played at Newbury Park High and Cal Lutheran is batting .136 with seven runs batted in and the one home run in 16 games for the Spirit, an independent team.

After a month of California League pitching and an adjustment in his stance, Fick is finally beginning to feel comfortable.

“Coming from Cal Lutheran where the fastest you saw was 80 to 83 (m.p.h.), I was going up against guys throwing 89, 90 in the Cal League,” he said. “But I’ve been making contact.”

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Primarily because of his advanced age Fick, 24, was not selected in this year’s amateur draft.

He was signed as a free agent by the Cardinals on July 8 by a scout named Chuck Fick, Chris’ brother.

“There was no nepotism there,” Chris Fick said. “There’s nothing like that between us.”

Fick worked out in front of St. Louis scouting director Marty Maier before the draft in May, but his age prompted concerns.

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“Being 24 killed me,” Chris said. “I went to that tryout in May. . . . I did well out of the 20-some guys there, but (age) was a factor. But (Chuck) really didn’t have any say in it. The Spirit had a left fielder go down, and the opportunity was there.”

Following his graduation from Newbury Park in 1988, Fick underwent surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

He spent three years as an assistant coach at Westlake High while taking classes at local junior colleges, then enrolled at Cal Lutheran in the fall of 1992.

“You only live once,” said Fick, who realized he missed playing.

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“It’s an honor to get a chance to play college baseball.”

Rich Hill, then the Cal Lutheran coach, put him on the junior varsity team. Four home runs and five games later, he was promoted to the varsity. He hit 14 home runs, drove in 52 runs and batted .367 in 1994.

At Cal Lutheran, Fick thought he knew everything there was to know about hitting, but the humbling start at San Bernardino proved him wrong. Now, he arrives at Fiscalini Field two hours before his teammates to take extra batting practice.

“I’ve learned a lot about hitting in the last three weeks,” he said. “I guess I’ve just got to pay my dues.”

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Add San Bernardino: Pitchers Brian Harrison (Ventura College) and Steve Maye are also members of the Spirit. Maye, who played at Harbor College, was an assistant coach under his brother Dan at Royal High until joining the Spirit this spring.

In 26 appearances, Maye is 2-5 with a 4.02 earned run average. He has pitched 100 2/3 innings with 83 strikeouts and 34 walks. Primarily a reliever, he also has started eight games.

“The good thing about him is he’s really resilient,” Mahlberg said. “He’s bounced back from some rough outings and has done OK.”

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Harrison is 5-1 with a 3.86 ERA in 23 appearances. He has 65 strikeouts and 29 walks in 58 1/3 innings.

“He’s done a super job for us all year,” Mahlberg said.

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Filling in: Steve Soliz, a 13th-round draft pick from Cal State L.A. in 1993 who played at Rio Mesa High, was promoted July 21 from Class-A Kinston to the Indians’ affiliate at Canton-Akron in the double-A Eastern League.

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He was moved up after Canton-Akron’s starting catcher, Ryan Martindale, suffered a leg injury. Soliz has filled in as a reserve while Martindale recovers.

Soliz has three hits in 15 at-bats (.200) and has scored one run for Canton-Akron.

“I’m doing all right now,” Soliz said from a hotel room in Albany, N.Y. “The guys here are bigger, stronger, have more experience. It’s going to take an adjustment on my part, but I think I’ll be able to make it.”

While at Kinston in the Carolina League, he hit .264 with three home runs and 19 RBIs in 51 games. He played in the Carolina League all-star game July 20 for the Southern Division at Wilmington, Del.

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“I enjoyed a little success down there,” Soliz said. “The season started out kind of slow for me, but you keep your head up and work hard and you’ll get your chance.”

Soliz, while excited about playing in double A, knows that he will be there only as long as Martindale is hurt, but he says he’s trying to make the best of the time there.

“I’d imagine it’s temporary,” he said. “Whatever it is, it’s good experience for me to be here.”

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Mr. Reliable: During his career, J.P. Roberge (St. Francis) stood out by not standing out.

His trademark was consistency, a trait that kept him out of the limelight.

He batted over .300 in each of his three seasons at USC, but was always overshadowed by teammates.

During his freshman year, it was Bobby Hughes, a second-round draft pick by the Brewers and a catcher with the Class-A Stockton Ports. When Roberge was a sophomore, it was the freshman pair of Geoff Jenkins and Gabe Alvarez, the team’s top hitters. The next season, freshman Randy Flores, the team’s No. 1 pitcher, grabbed the spotlight.

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It’s been the same story in the professional ranks. Roberge left USC following his junior season after he was drafted in the 18th round by the Dodgers.

The first baseman is again hovering around the .300 mark (.299) with one home run and 22 RBIs in 39 games for the Dodgers’ Great Falls affiliate in the rookie Pioneer League.

“There’s only one guy who’s played more games than him,” Great Falls General Manager Tom Seidler said.

“He’s been one of our most consistently solid players, so for us he’s doing great.”

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Tale of two pitchers: Bobby Ayala and Derron Spiller both graduated from Rio Mesa High in 1988, but have taken divergent paths in their careers.

Spiller was the celebrated one in the 1988 amateur draft. He was selected in the 34th round by the St. Louis Cardinals. Ayala, the dark horse, was not drafted.

Six years later, Ayala has made it to the big leagues as a closer for the Seattle Mariners, while Spiller is with the Cardinals’ Class-A affiliate at St. Petersburg in the Florida State League.

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After spending most of his career as a starter Spiller, 24, has been converted into a reliever this season.

“I don’t mind relieving at all,” Spiller said. “I might get a chance to pitch every day. I’m a middle- to set-up man and when they use me in that role, I’ve shown that I’ve been real effective.”

Spiller is 4-1 with a 3.45 ERA in 47 innings. He has 33 strikeouts and 27 walks.

St. Petersburg is overloaded with pitchers--six starters and eight relievers--and Spiller has found it difficult to get work.

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“At the beginning of the year it was real good,” he said. “I was used against left-handers, but we’ve got six starters, eight relievers and two guys on the DL not even hurt.

“It’s tough on the coaches because they’re trying to get everybody’s innings in. It’s tough to get everybody work. It comes sporadically.

“I just want to finish this season strong and we’ll see how the off-season goes.”


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