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BASEBALL / STEVE HENSON : A High-Priced Insurance Policy

Mike Lieberthal opened the season with the Philadelphia Phillies, but it hardly seemed that way. The former Westlake High catcher had a grand total of one at-bat before being sent to triple-A Scranton, Pa., when rosters were reduced Monday from 28 to 25.

“Guys were joking that I was the highest-paid major leaguer per at-bat,” Lieberthal said.

Grin and bear it.

Or just plain grin. Playing every day is Lieberthal’s preference, so the demotion was both expected and desired. As long as Darren Daulton is the Phillies’ catcher, Lieberthal, 23, will struggle to gain playing time in the major leagues.

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Unless, of course, he is traded. Phillie manager Jim Fregosi told Lieberthal last week that several teams have inquired about him, but that right now the Phillies want to keep him.

Being an insurance policy is a role even the affable Lieberthal can take for only so long.

“I would like to play for Philadelphia because that’s the team I’ve been with as a pro, but for me, it doesn’t matter as long as it is up there in the major leagues,” said Lieberthal, who batted .266 in 79 major league at-bats last season when Daulton was on the disabled list.

Meanwhile, he can do nothing more than show up for work. Lieberthal had a hit and two runs scored in his first game at Scranton.

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“I’m here to catch every day, get my at-bats in and run the pitching staff,” he said. “I want to keep impressing scouts at every game here, keep impressing other teams.”

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Jim Vatcher is an undeniable Star; in fact has been most of the ‘90s, and he is blistering triple-A pitching. Yet a promotion to the big leagues has not even entered his mind.

“I’m just excited to be playing somewhere,” said Vatcher, 29, who is in his ninth professional season. “I’m not concerned at all about being called up.”

With one week left in spring training, Vatcher was unemployed. Finally, he received a call from the Las Vegas Stars, a Padre affiliate with whom he had enjoyed stellar seasons from ’91-'93.

The right fielder took immediate advantage of the opportunity, beginning the season with a 14-game hitting streak. He is batting .326 in 135 at-bats.

“I know a lot of the fans here and they are real supportive of me,” said Vatcher, who was drafted out of Cal State Northridge in 1987.

It marked the second season in a row Vatcher found himself scrambling for a job. Last year, he called several teams before “practically begging” the Mets’ triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Va. He was signed and turned in a decent season, batting .234 with 10 home runs and 48 runs batted in, but the only overtures he received before this season were from teams wanting replacement players.

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Vatcher, who has 109 major league at-bats in three short stints with the Braves and Padres, declined.

“I made a lot of money because of the union,” he said. “Between licensing money and the minimum salary going up, I made a lot. There was no way I was going to cross.”

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As every Colorado Rockie pitcher knows, numbers can deceive. That’s also the case in assorted minor league parks, where short porches, sharp winds or high altitude can cause earned-run averages to rise like hot summer air.

John Snyder, a former Westlake High right-hander, knows this well. He pitches for the Angels’ double-A affiliate in Midland, Tex., where last season the starting pitchers posted earned-run averages of 5.58, 6.94, 4.69, 4.63 and 3.55.

After eight starts, Snyder’s numbers make even those look good: 2-3 with an ERA of 7.51, having allowed 60 hits in 44 innings.

“I’m taking some lumps right now but I’m learning,” he said. “My problem has been giving up the big inning.”

Snyder had a lot of big innings of his own during the second half of last season at Class-A Lake Elsinore. After a 1-9 start, he finished with a staff-best 10-11 record and 4.47 ERA.

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“My arm is strong and I feel like I’ll get better as this season goes along, just like last year,” he said.

Should the improvement come, Snyder will continue to move up the ladder. He was promoted after each of his first three years.

“The Angels are a great organization for a right-handed pitcher to be in,” said Snyder, who noted that the major league starting rotation is stocked with left-handers. “I need to keep pushing.”

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Lieberthal, Vatcher and Snyder share a thread in Woodland Hills-based sports therapist Alan Jaeger, who provides mental training to a growing group of baseball players.

Jaeger, who played at Granada Hills High, Pierce College and Cal State Northridge in the 1980s, combines yoga-style stretching exercises, meditation and visualization techniques in a program that players say aids their ability to focus.

“I talk to Alan on the phone before and after just about every start,” Snyder said. “He has been a big boost to my career.”

Other Jaeger clients include Colorado Rockie right-hander Steve Reed and minor leaguers Erik Hiljus, Kirk Hagge, Bryan Corey, Matt Whisenant, Nate Dishington and David Lamb.


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