Mike Scioscia, as usual, is holding his ground at Dodger Stadium. Bullpen coach Mark Cresse is teasing Scioscia as he poses for pictures, but the accommodating Dodger catcher is not taking the bait.
"Are they taking pictures for the cover of the menu at Sir George's?" yells Cresse, mentioning a chain of buffet-style restaurants. Scioscia doesn't flinch. Cresse then begins a takeoff on what he sees as an appropriate endorsement for Scioscia.
"When I'm not blocking the plate at Dodger Stadium, I'm filling my plate at Sir George's," mocks Cresse.
By his own admission. Scioscia bats left, throws right and eats both. He met his future wife three years ago after she baked chocolate chip cookies for him. His teammates call him Lumpy, after the chubby character in Leave It to Beaver.
But Scioscia, 26, knows his way around the plate on the field, too. His .409 on-base average is second in the National League to teammate Pedro Guerrero's .429, and he's batting .297, giving him a chance to become the first Dodger catcher in 30 years to hit .300. He has a career-high seven homers and 49 RBIs. As well, he handles a pitching staff that leads the league with a 2.93 ERA.
Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully calls Scioscia "the quiet hero." Even at 6'2", 220 pounds, he doesn't hit a lot of homers. He doesn't stretch doubles into triples. He doesn't testify in Pittsburgh. But every once in a while, maybe 10 or 12 times a season, he plays a starring role for the first-place Dodgers in that most exciting of baseball moments: the play at the plate.
"You have to decide if you're willing to stay in and block the plate or not," Scioscia says. "There is no in-between. You have to stay square with the runner so you're not exposing any of yourself to injury. Then you have to concentrate on catching the throw. On a high throw, you're like a wide receiver going over the middle to catch a pass. On a low throw, you have to stay low and protect yourself a little better."
Mechanics aside, a catcher also needs courage, and courage isn't easily taught. But Scioscia showed as early as high school that he could take a licking and keep on ticking. He was an all-area offensive guard for Springfield (Pa.) High and, naturally, he excelled at blocking.
The tag play became a high-price-tag play during Scioscia's arbitration hearing last winter. His attorney, Richie Phillips, called Dodger scouting director Ben Wade as a witness. Wade testified that Scioscia was better at policing the plate than anyone else he had seen in 30 years of baseball. Scioscia won a $435,000 arbitration decision. No wonder he's called The Human Dead End.
In May 1980, in his second week in the major leagues, Scioscia nailed Pete Rose, who practically decapitated catcher Ray Fosse on a play at the plate in the 1970 All-Star Game. He has had many collisions since, but his reputation was etched in stone—some would say Mike is, too—in a game with the Cardinals last July 21. "Willie McGee was hitting," Scioscia says. "I think it was McGee. [It was.] That whole day is foggy. Jack Clark was on first. McGee hit the ball to centerfield. Mariano Duncan was the relay. As I caught the ball and turned to make the tag, Jack was right there. That's the last thing I remember for a while."
Clark, moving at full speed, hit Scioscia on the face and head with his forearms. Scioscia was knocked unconscious. But he held on to the ball. He was removed from the field on a stretcher and taken to a hospital for overnight observation. "Leave the game?" he says. "I left the world for three minutes."
Scioscia's father, Fred, a retired beer salesman, was at that game. Fred says, "I knew he was O.K. when we were at the hospital and he started ordering food from the restaurant we were supposed to go to." Scioscia pinch-hit the next night.
One month after the Clark collision, Expo pitcher Joe Hesketh tried to run through Scioscia rather than slide around him. "I went to turn and make the tag," Scioscia says, "and he got caught on my shin." Hesketh suffered a broken leg.
"I know myself I don't ever go out and try to hurt anyone," Scioscia says. "I get more lumps and bruises on those plays than runners do."
But he was hurt by Hesketh's injury. "I called Joe the next day to tell him I was sorry it happened," Scioscia says. "I still feel badly because the fact is the guy broke his leg. He's been through arm surgery and was having a good year."
Scioscia's empathy is genuine. He knows the difficulty of coming back from a tough arm injury. In a game against the Padres in 1983, Scioscia sprang from behind the plate and threw out speedster Alan Wiggins at second. Scioscia's shoulder was aflame before the ball even reached the bag. For two months the injury was diagnosed as a torn muscle, and several times Scioscia almost came off the disabled list. Finally an arthrogram pinpointed the real culprit. Scioscia had a small tear in his rotator cuff.
"Torn rotator cuff" is the death rattle of modern baseball. Because Scioscia's rotator cuff was ulcerated only on the bottom layer, rather than all the way through. Dr. Frank Jobe decided not to operate. Scioscia continued a rehabilitation program but stopped throwing. According to his wife, Anne, he despaired once, just before spring training. "It came down to 'Am I going to be all right, or is this going to be it?' " she says.
Scioscia's comeback was remarkable. In 1984 he threw out 39% of the runners attempting to steal against him. He hit .273 and led the Dodgers with a .367 on-base average. He also hit a team-high .328 with runners in scoring position.
Scioscia was born to hit a baseball, according to his father. "He was so big, my god!" says Fred of Mike, who was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1958, a butter-ball at 10 pounds, 12 ounces. "At the time I said, 'Here's my $100,000 bonus baby.' " But dad's initial optimism was severely tested. Recalling his then right-handed hitting son, Fred says, "I said to my wife, 'Flossie, this boy swings like a girl.' "
Then one day at a family picnic, the ever-hungry Mike had a sandwich occupying his right hand, so he picked up a bat with his left and started lashing out at the ball. "Now I swing lefthanded, and people still think I swing like a girl," Scioscia jokes.
Actually, people fell in love with Scioscia's swing. The scouts started coming around in his sophomore year in high school. As a senior, he drew 20 bird dogs a game. The Dodgers chose Scioscia in the first round of the 1976 draft.
If Scioscia was earmarked from birth for a life in baseball, his wife was not. Anne McIlquham and a girlfriend went to a game in Dodger Stadium three years ago and sat under the Diamond Vision scoreboard in leftfield. "The best thing about the game was the Dodger Dogs," says Anne, who was attending her first game in 10 years. "We were too far away to see Mike, but I said to my girlfriend, 'Who's their catcher?' She looked it up in the program and said, 'Scioscia.' I said, 'There's something about him. I've got to meet him.' " So she baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and came back for a Sunday game. Through the intercession of an understanding security guard, Anne was able to meet Mike after the game. "The first thing he did was reach in and start eating the cookies," she says.
If ever there was someone whose heart could be reached through his stomach, it was Scioscia. "Mike can chow," says Dodger Steve Sax. "I think he and Tommy Lasorda went to the same college."
Scioscia himself is a smart cookie. "He's a very innovative catcher," says pitcher Orel Hershiser. "He doesn't get stuck in any one pattern. He's very flexible. He adjusts to what's working that night. He has a knack for knowing what you need. He'll kick me in the butt or calm me down."
His teammates respect Scioscia's intelligence; they named him their player representative this year. During his first few off-seasons, Scioscia took computer-science courses at Widener University and Penn State, and he still plans to earn his degree.
Scioscia is not all seriousness, however. He holds his own in clubhouse banter. Usually, he is teased about his eating. "It's easy to play the game when you have a body like most of these guys," Scioscia says. "The true test, I tell them, is when you can play the game with a body like mine."