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Chwan Still Battling to Stay on Course Despite Many Hardships

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anaheim’s Brian Chwan nearly died in a car accident in April, 1996, but not only did he live to tell about it, he also went on to play professional baseball.

Chwan, a catcher for the Princeton (W.Va.) Devil Rays, was riding in a car with three Cal State Los Angeles teammates. The car hit an embankment on a freeway exit ramp and flipped.

Chwan, then a sophomore, was in the back seat wearing a seat belt, but he was the most seriously injured. Teammate Bob Harmon pulled Chwan out through the back window, which had broken out. Harmon, who later told Chwan’s parents that he didn’t think Brian was breathing, gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Chwan was breathing when paramedics arrived.

He had a fractured left clavicle, a broken shoulder and cuts on his back. He missed final exams and the last few games of his sophomore season.

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“I don’t remember the accident,” said Chwan, 21, who graduated from Anaheim High. “It was just something I wish had never happened.”

Though Chwan returned to catch every game his junior year and help Cal State L.A. win the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. title, he broke his left index finger sliding back into first base on a pickoff attempt in a game against UC Riverside late in his senior season.

With scouts in the stands that day, he shook off the injury.

“I thought I’d just jammed it,” Chwan said. “I caught the next five innings and it took a pounding. I had to be pulled because I was missing a lot of balls.”

He finished the season as a designated hitter, and the Golden Eagles again won the conference title.

Still three classes short of graduation, he hoped instead to start his baseball career. “I called every scout in the world and told them I was available, but there was no interest,” he said.

“I can’t believe it myself,” Cal State L.A. baseball Coach John Herbold said. “I’ve coached 100 guys [in 15 years] that have been signed, and it’s difficult to figure out. I can’t. It might have been the fact [there were many scouts] who saw him in the game he broke his finger, and they didn’t know it.

“He shouldn’t have played [the rest of that game]. He didn’t tell me it was broken. Another guy might have come out, but he had that hockey mentality.”

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Chwan finished with strong numbers his senior season: He batted .337 with two homers and 20 runs batted in.

He waited for a phone call the week of the draft, but when it didn’t come, he went to a deli owned by some family friends and got a job.

“About two hours after I got home from getting that job, a scout from Tampa Bay called and [they] signed me as a free agent.”

Chwan, who plans on finishing courses in the fall at Cal State L.A., has worked hard at establishing his career, but baseball wasn’t his first love. Chwan, whose parents are from Winnipeg, grew up playing hockey.

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“I learned to skate before I could walk,” said Chwan, who played center for the Junior Mighty Ducks, a midget-level team in Anaheim. “Basically, I grew up in a hockey-natured home. My dad lives hockey 24 hours a day.”

The summer after his freshman year of high school, he attended hockey camp in Minnesota. One coach offered him a scholarship to a prep school in Bangor, Maine.

“I was gung-ho, but my parents thought I was too young,” he said. “So I continued to play in Southern California. I got offers [from junior leagues] but no college offers. I got an offer to play baseball at Cal State L.A., and I jumped at it.”

Herbold saw Chwan play as a senior at Anaheim, and liked what he saw. “If anybody with brains had seen him, they’d have [recruited] him too. . . . He’s a left-handed hitting catcher with a good arm.”

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Chwan is grateful for a chance to play professional baseball, but “I miss hockey every day,” he said. “I play [pick-up games] in the off-season. I was worried because in college I didn’t want to get hurt. But I played as much as possible. In fact, after my car accident, I refractured my clavicle playing hockey.”

There are no lingering effects from the car accident. “I’m healthy, knock wood,” said Chwan, 6 feet 2, 190 pounds.

But it’s a big step from Cal State L.A. to Tampa Bay’s advanced rookie league team. Chwan has caught only two games and has three hits in five at-bats and one run batted in for the Devil Rays (5-6).

“It’s a lot different,” he said. “There are a lot of high draft picks and they throw hard and have a lot of movement on balls.

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“Sometimes in college your mind wanders, but in the pros, there’s no room for that. They’ll take you out. They’ll release you. There’s no room for error. That’s an adjustment. It’s a job now, you have to do it to best of your ability.”


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