From the moment Gerald Laird took his final swing in 1997, he became a marked man for 1998.
The La Quinta catcher, then a junior, was proclaimed the best baseball player in the county. He had enjoyed a 1997 season (.505, 14 home runs, 46 RBIs) that would be difficult to match in the best of times, and in 1998 every game he played would be scrutinized and analyzed by college and professional scouts alike--even though Laird had committed early to Arizona State.
And there was Laird's personal obsession--to finish his career as a section champion.
The championship eluded Laird when La Quinta fell to Ocean View, 9-3, in the Division IV final Saturday. Regardless, Laird was the force in county baseball--again.
He had another incandescent season--.630 (68/108), with eight home runs and 46 RBIs. He hit safely in 30 of La Quinta's 32 games, even though opponents rarely threw him a good pitch to hit.
So Laird repeats as The Times Orange County player of the year, ahead of such outstanding candidates as Ocean View's Pete Montrenes, Aliso Niguel's Drew Parkin, and Servite's Brian Wolfe.
"We didn't get a championship. But I'm happy with my career at La Quinta," Laird said. "I could not have asked for anything better."
As he has done often, Laird credited teammates such as fellow Times all-county selection shortstop Bobby Crosby and first baseman Adriel Gomez for his season. They sandwiched Laird in the La Quinta lineup, and hit well enough to protect him.
"I was surrounded by two great hitters," Laird said. "They walk me, I steal or something, and Adriel hits me in. Or Bobby gets on and gives me chance to drive him in. All year they came up with big plays.
"This was never the Gerald Laird story; it was the La Quinta Aztecs. It takes nine players to win and everyone had to do their part."
No matter, Laird--whom Oakland selected in the second round of last week's amateur draft--did more than prove he was worth the hype. He established himself as the county's dominant baseball player in the 1990s.
* He became the first county hitter to average .600 for a full season. His final average surpassed the county standard--set two years ago by Heritage Christian's Paul Caffrey (.597)--by 33 points.
* He ends his La Quinta career having set six county records. He is the single-season record holder in average and hits (68). He is the career record holder in hits (210), runs (169), home runs (29) and doubles (54).
* His career records for hits, doubles and runs are state records. His 1998 season totals for doubles (22) and hits equaled state records.
"People had high expectations for me," Laird said. "But I tried not to listen. I just wanted to play my game and have fun. I felt I did that. I wanted to win. And if records came with it, that was fine."
Said La Quinta Coach Dave Demarest: "It's too bad most people only know him through his stats. Because he's also a great kid.
"In 1998 he had to be a teenager who dealt with adults more than the average teenager does. Everybody wanted a piece of his time, and some were only looking for a chink in his armor.
"He had to be careful. But you hear nothing but good things about him."
Demarest may be a little biased. Since getting Laird as a sophomore (he transferred from Rancho Alamitos) and realizing his potential, Demarest was fully enamored.
"He's a five-tool player. He can run, hit, hit for power, throw and catch," Demarest said.
La Quinta won the Garden Grove League all three seasons Laird played. (The Aztecs have won six straight league titles.). But before this season, the Aztecs were unable to get past the playoff quarterfinals the past two seasons.
Laird wanted a different ending in 1998.
He began the season hot, going 11 for 16 in the North Orange County Tournament, and never cooled off. His average was .629 after March, .635 after April and peaked at .647 at the end of May.
All the while calling games for Garcia (12-2) and Steve Lee (13-0) and absorbing the usual aches and bruises that come with catching.
"You have to be a disciplined player to separate your offense from your defense. And catching is the hardest position to do that," notes Servite Coach Tom Tereschuk.
"To hit .600 is spectacular, no matter what level you play. And I don't think we'll have to wait 10 years to appreciate what he did. Most players and coaches realize what caliber of athlete Gerald Laird is. And I'm sure he will get better as he matures and learns more about the game."
Laird's speed is the least talked about aspect of his game. But he made it an unexpected weapon. His 42 steals tied him for the county lead with Calvary Chapel's Chad Sterbens and were two shy of the single-season record set by Westminster's Alex Vasquez in 1996.
Just another way to improve his game and add to the team.
Laird still has to decide whether to continue his education in the classroom or the minor leagues. "I will take time to make any decision because it's the biggest decision in my life," Laird said. "[The pros or college] are different directions, but I want the decision I come up with to be in my best interest."
But he no longer has to worry about living up to his promise.
He did that in 1998.