There's little question that Orange Coast's Mark Gardner, tall, thin and left-handed, looks like a pitching prospect.
But for the first time in three seasons, he is performing like one.
Gardner, a sophomore, has a 6-1 record for OCC, which is tied for first with Cypress in the Orange Empire Conference baseball race. Gardner has 59 strikeouts and an earned-run average of 2.36 in 64 2/3 innings.
"It just feels like baseball is fun again," said Gardner, 20.
It's also most likely going to be lucrative for Gardner, who has taken a recruiting trip to the University of Houston and San Jose State and has another planned to California. Plus, there is always the possibility of being drafted.
Not bad for a guy who pitched six innings as a senior in high school.
Gardner was a talented athlete growing up in Fountain Valley and a standout on several age-group teams. He made the varsity at Fountain Valley High as a junior but couldn't throw enough strikes to help the team. He blamed the pressure he placed on himself to be perfect with every pitch.
After his senior season in high school, he considered giving up baseball to concentrate even more on academics. He carried nearly a 4.0 grade-point average in high school and has continued it at OCC.
"I was so discouraged after high school," he said. "I began to think that maybe I'm done. Maybe that's as good as I am."
In spring, 1993, Fountain Valley Coach Ron La Ruffa asked former OCC Coach Mike Mayne to work with Gardner. They spent a great deal of time talking, mostly about the mental side of pitching.
"Coach Mayne really helped me get my confidence back," Gardner said. His confidence was further boosted in June, 1993, when he was drafted in the 18th round by the Phillies.
Last season at OCC was an interesting experience for Gardner.
The Pirates finished 11-27, Gardner's first losing team. He struggled along with his teammates, going 1-5 with a 7.66 ERA.
But he got a new perspective.
"It was fun to be part of the team that went out on the field," Gardner said. "I realized that baseball wasn't the biggest thing in the world."
Said Orange Coast Coach John Altobelli: "He always had a good arm. We also knew it was a matter of him getting the confidence to match his ability."
Gardner's confidence started to increase greatly last summer when he spent two months in Burlington, Vt., pitching with great success in the Mountain Collegiate League. He also worked on the grounds crew for Expos' class-A team.
But he still had more tinkering to do before the start of the season. During the fall, OCC pitching coach Mike Grahovac convinced Gardner of the value of getting batters out early in the count to keep his pitch count down. His new approach has made him more relaxed.
"I never really thought of it that way before," said Gardner, who plans to pitch for Fairbanks in the Alaska League this summer. "If I'm throwing harder this year, it's not because I'm trying to. When you do, you seem to tense up and the ball doesn't go any faster."
Break it up: There seem to be more meetings in softball games than any other sport and Friday's game between Rancho Santiago and Cypress was no exception.
But there was one meeting that even Irv Pickler, father of Cypress Coach Brad Pickler, found excessive.
Cypress was ahead, 2-0, an out away from winning when Pickler went to the mound to talk with his team.
"Hey ump," Irv yelled. "Let's play ball. . . See, I don't play favorites."
The umpire headed to the mound and Brad Pickler started for the dugout, telling the umpire on the way: "I'm 40 years old and still getting yelled at by my father."