DeWITT IN DeMAND
Blake DeWitt has heard from family members and friends about the commotion his unexpected rise has caused back home.
DeWitt has heard how Dodgers jerseys and caps are being worn around Sikeston, the small farming town in southeast Missouri where he grew up. He knows that when the Dodgers face the St. Louis Cardinals tonight at Dodger Stadium, the town’s 17,000 residents will be able to hear the game not only on the local Cardinals’ radio affiliate, but also its sister country music station that became part of the Dodgers radio network earlier this month.
“He’s turned this whole town upside down,” said C.J. Cruze, the program director for KRHW-AM.
Part of the reason, Sikeston Mayor Mike Marshall said, is that many people in town know him personally or, at the very least, knew of him long ago. As a four-time all-state player in high school, his games were broadcast on Cruze’s station. DeWitt’s father works at the city-owned power plant, his mother is an elementary school teacher, and several members of his extended family own local businesses. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back James Wilder is also a Sikeston native, but, Marshall said, “It didn’t seem to catch on like this.”
Marshall, who declared April “Blake DeWitt Month” in his city, said the summer will be called “The Summer of Blake.” Marshall added that he wants his town to have a parade in DeWitt’s honor when he returns home this winter.
DeWitt, the second of the Dodgers’ two first-round draft picks in 2004, laughed when told about the idea of a parade.
“It means a whole lot to know you have that many people care about you,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”
But not overwhelming.
In fact, the kid from the town that Marshall described as “small enough that you can’t brag about your family or lie about your age” has appeared to Dodgers Manager Joe Torre to be completely unfazed by the chaotic events this spring that led him to become the starting third baseman of a big-market team as a 22-year-old rookie.
“I think that’s a Midwestern demeanor,” third base coach Larry Bowa said.
Bowa said the calm that DeWitt showed when being called up from minor league to major league camp in spring training made him comfortable enough to tell Torre that DeWitt was capable of playing third base in the absence of the injured Nomar Garciaparra, Andy LaRoche and Tony Abreu. Torre saw DeWitt play sparingly this spring because he traveled to China with a split squad for a pair of exhibition games.
In Bowa’s eyes, DeWitt, who had previously never played above double A, was “a little crude defensively” but had a nice left-handed swing.
“I thought he could be all right,” Bowa said. “Little did we know . . . “
Little did they know DeWitt would be hitting .325 with four home runs and 23 runs batted in at this point, becoming a rookie of the year candidate in a season that he started as a short-term stopgap.
“I’ve been very fortunate over the last dozen years, having been in winning situations, and when you do have that experience, you realize what type of player really contributes to that,” Torre said. “He certainly fits that mold. I put him in the class with Mike Lowell, not the best player in the world, certainly a player that will help you win.”
DeWitt was sent down to the minors last month when Garciaparra returned from the disabled list, only to be recalled two days later when Garciaparra was hurt again. He has played well enough that Torre has strongly hinted that when Garciaparra comes back next time he wouldn’t be demoted.
Already, DeWitt has become a roadblock for LaRoche, who was competing with Garciaparra to be the starter at third. LaRoche has recovered from thumb surgery and had played 21 games for triple-A Las Vegas as of Wednesday. (Assistant General Manager Logan White noted that because the Dodgers had a top third base prospect in LaRoche, DeWitt played the 2006 season in Class A at second base.)
“I’m sure he’ll get in a slump or something, but I think he has the right attitude to handle it,” Bowa said. “He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too down. He makes fun of himself.”
Bowa recalled a game at the beginning of this month when DeWitt made two errors in one inning. Upon returning to the dugout, DeWitt told Bowa, “That was a good inning, huh?”
Bowa has also liked how open DeWitt has been to working with him on his fielding.
The demeanor and the work ethic were two aspects that Mitch Webster, the Dodgers’ area scout in Missouri, said he saw in DeWitt when he was in high school.
Watching DeWitt interact with his teammates and speaking to his teachers, Webster said it was easy to see that he was a natural leader. Webster also took note of how DeWitt stayed after every game to take batting practice.
“I saw him do that 40 times, probably,” Webster said.
Hitting every day was a habit DeWitt learned early in life, as his father put a batting cage in the backyard of their home.
“I’m sure he probably regretted it because I wouldn’t leave him alone,” DeWitt said.
The kid was a gamer. A part-time pitcher in high school, he racked up a state-record 27 consecutive victories, even though Webster said he didn’t possess outstanding stuff -- a fastball that sat in the 83-86-mph range to go with “a little cutter and changeup.”
The folks back home were watching or listening to what he did then, and they’ll continue to do so regardless of where he plays.
Cruze said KRHW’s broadcasting deal with the Dodgers is contingent upon DeWitt being on the major league roster and that if DeWitt is sent to triple-A Las Vegas, the station would try to acquire broadcasting rights for that team.
Marshall, who attended high school with DeWitt’s parents and whose daughter is the same age as DeWitt, said he will spend his 30th wedding anniversary on Aug. 5 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis watching the Dodgers face the Cardinals.
“The only thing that would be better is if he was playing for the Cardinals,” Marshall said. “But it could be worse, I guess. He could be playing for the Cubs.”