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Kotchman Keeps Focus

After growing up in clubhouses around his dad, Seminole first baseman knows what awaits

By Chris Wright

SEMINOLE, Fla.–Scott Miller has spent three decades in the game, first as a center fielder in the Mariners organization, then as a college and high school coach. He is not prone to hyperbole. While he can recognize a player’s physical skills, he refuses to fawn over them. He’s old school. And he knows talent might get you drafted, but how a player goes about his craft will determine how long he gets to go about it.

The Seminole High coach’s background is noteworthy if only to provide perspective when he calmly describes what makes the best player he has ever seen so special.

The Warhawks’ Opening Day lineup included three preseason All-Americans, but Casey Kotchman, son of Angels minor league manager and scout Tom Kotchman, rates as Miller’s best player. That’s not surprising. Kotchman, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound first baseman, might be America’s best player, too.

Despite losing most of his junior season to a back injury, Kotchman was rated last offseason as BA’s top high school prospect for the 2001 draft. It was a nice honor, and his family celebrated accordingly. "We tease him all the time and say, ‘You know, Case, when you are listed number one, there is only one place to go,’ " his mother Susan says. "He understands that. We don’t get overly excited about those kinds of things."

At first glance, Kotchman appears no different from most prospects who seemingly were born to play the game. Even Miller admits his powerful lefthanded swing is capable of making any park appear small. But that’s not what makes him special. Not even close.

"I’ve never seen a player with the total makeup this kid has," says Miller, who played American Legion ball with Tom and has known Casey all his life. "From all the little things to the big things, Casey just goes about it the right way. He’s hit balls 430 feet to center field; he’s gone over the lights in right.

"He and Tommy had a private workout at Tropicana Field, and using a wood bat, he put on a show. Out of 30 swings, he probably hit 15 out. I’ve given up so many homers to him in BP that I don’t even watch them anymore. But the most impressive thing is the way he pursues the game."

Pointing toward right field, where the young prospect is pushing the batting tunnel toward home plate, Miller says, "Look at him. He does that every day. I’ve never asked him to get it. He’s a first-rounder. We have freshmen and sophomores who could do it. But he’s always the guy who gets it because he knows we need it in order to hit.

"I’ve seen a lot of kids with talent and not desire–and vice versa–but I’ve never seen one like Casey. He’s got both."

As if it could have been any other way. As if his father, a former professional player and now a manager of professional players at Rookie-level Provo, would’ve stood for anything else. Not running out a ground ball to second base? Unthinkable. Walking to his position after a strikeout? If you’re that tired, come find a seat on the bench.

No, from the first time he walked into a batter’s box, Casey Kotchman understood that it was one thing to embarrass yourself. It was quite another to show disrespect to the game. He learned he might not get a hit in every at-bat, but he would be mentally prepared to do so. That’s the gift the father passed on to his son–the ability to appreciate the battle, accept defeat if need be, but always be ready to fight again.

It started soon after birth. Casey said he was 2 or 3 when he began swinging the big red plastic Flintstones bat his parents bought him. Growing up, he spent the school year in Seminole and the summer traveling with his father’s team in Boise. He did this for nearly 10 years, enduring the all night bus rides, learning the card games, living the lifestyle.

"You get to see how different players go about their business, their pregame routine, doing whatever they have to do to get mentally prepared to go to battle that day," Casey Kotchman says.

Being around pro ballplayers undoubtedly helped his game, too. "He went from a kid who I was throwing underhand to to a kid who was hitting 15, 20, 25 balls out a day in batting practice," Tom Kotchman says.

Casey’s physical development was rapid, but it is not what impressed his mother most. She remembers watching how intensely her son followed every pitch, every game. "When he was a toddler," she says, "Casey would sit on my lap, and people would come up to talk to me and he would raise his hand. He wasn’t rude, but he would say, ‘Please don’t talk to me, I am trying to watch the game.’ He has always been focused. I think he just likes baseball. He always has."

The father–and other baseball people–know the son can play, but a little humility never hurts either.

"Tom has to grade players all the time, and I think he is open and honest with Casey," Susan Kotchman says. "I don’t think he’s ever told Casey that he is great, great, great because you don’t want them to think they are great, great, great and not try anymore. The one thing about Casey is he loves a challenge. He’s always wanted the best grades in class. He wants the most hits. Everything was always to try and be better than what they’re saying."

For the past two seasons, scouts have said Kotchman was among the most talented players in the country, a player with a middle infielder’s savvy and a superstar’s tools. "I explained to him that he was put under the spotlight for a reason," Tom Kotchman says. "Obviously some people who saw you play thought you were decent. But that stuff doesn’t perform for you."

Unfortunately, Kotchman wasn’t able to perform much at all last season, as a stress fracture in his lower back limited him to eight games. The injury occurred while he was warming up to pitch in a game that the opposing team won before Seminole could even use another pitcher.

Kotchman couldn’t swing last year and hasn’t had anything to swing at this season. The best pitches he sees come from his father every Sunday during extended batting practice. "He has more walks than hits," Tom Kotchman says. "They’ve thrown him a 3-0 curveball. Ridiculous."

Casey, who spent the past three summers winning local, state and national tournaments with various USA junior teams, capped his amateur career by leading Seminole to its first state title. The Warhawks beat St. Thomas Aquinas of Fort Lauderdale 5-4 in the final.

He insists being pitched around isn’t a nuisance, but his mother recalls after one three-walk game, Casey came home and went straight to the garage, where he pounded baseballs from his soft-toss machine for more than an hour.

The numbers look respectable, but not what you might expect from a top prospect: 36 hits in 96 at-bats (a .375 average), 27 RBIs, 32 walks. "He’s seen maybe five pitches to drive all season," Miller says. Not coincidentally, Kotchman had five home runs.

"His best asset is his mental preparation," Tom Kotchman says.

Whether working on scooping throws in the dirt or driving balls to the opposite field, Kotchman often is described as a perfectionist, and his mother says he carries that approach to the classroom, where his 3.8 grade-point average has him considering schools such as Northwestern.

But the academic world can wait. Kotchman is expected to be a first-round pick. Signing would mean returning to the world he knew as a child.

"I’ve always wanted to play in the major leagues," Kotchman says, "but I try not to worry about the draft because I have no control over that. I just try to think about the stuff I can control and be ready to contribute.

"I don’t like to waste a lot of time. If I do something, I want to get something out of it. I want to be the best I can be and see what happens. I just want no regrets. Pour everything into today and have no regrets tomorrow."

Chris Wright is a free-lance writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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