Stooped To Conquer After having been buried in the bushes for eight years, Paul Lo Duca caught fire in his first full season as a Dodger. Now he wants to prove he's no fluke

March 04, 2002

Off-season? Paul Lo Duca was familiar with the concept, but
after nine years of pro ball he'd never experienced it.
Off-seasons were for established big leaguers, not for guys like
Lo Duca who hadn't fully escaped the minors. There was no
off-season from working out like a madman, trying to develop the
power that everyone in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization said
he didn't have. There was no off-season from worrying if he'd
get enough at bats in spring training to make the big club.
There was no off-season from checking the newspapers and
watching the cable sports shows, hoping for news of a trade that
would leave some team in need of a catcher. The off-season meant
playing in the Arizona Fall League with other hopefuls and
attending the Dodgers' voluntary winter workouts, which for guys
like him weren't voluntary at all. Off-season? Lo Duca couldn't
afford to have one.

That was before he shocked baseball last year with 25 home runs,
90 RBIs and a .320 average, arguably the most unexpected
performance in the majors in 2001. Lo Duca was such a hustling,
hard-nosed bolt from the blue in his first complete season in
the big leagues that even Dodgers fans who were still pining for
Mike Piazza came to love him. "People identify with Paul because
they know it didn't come easily for him," says Los Angeles
manager Jim Tracy. "He more than paid his dues with all that
time in the minors, and the success he had last year is
something he earned."

There's one other thing Lo Duca earned with his outstanding
year--an off-season. Instead of another winter of worry, he
spent his free months before reporting to spring training on
Feb. 14 in a manner befitting his new job security. He attended
an all-star softball benefit near Palm Springs, at which his
autograph was as much in demand as those of Piazza, Jason
Giambi, Luis Gonzalez and Jim Edmonds. He hung out at the
Brooklyn Cafe, the Sedona, Ariz., restaurant owned by his
father, Paul Sr., and accepted so many congratulatory slaps on
the back that he could have used a flak jacket. "It's been a
different experience," Paul says. "This is the most relaxed that
I have ever been this time of year. I've never been able to get
ready for spring training without looking at it as an audition,
without wondering whether I'm going to be a big leaguer or not."

That doesn't mean Lo Duca, who will turn 30 on April 12, didn't
pick up a bat during the off-season. "The guy works like crazy,"
says Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros. "Extra hitting, extra
lifting. He wants to prove that last year was no fluke. He knows
that now that he's made it, this is no time to start taking it
easy."

Lo Duca has worked overtime to develop his baseball skills since
he was a boy, when his mother, Luci, donned oversized sunglasses
to protect her eyes and pitched pinto beans to Paul and his older
brothers, Anthony and Frank, in the backyard of their Phoenix
home. The idea was that, if they could hit the tiny beans,
hitting a much larger baseball would be a snap.

Better hand-eye coordination wasn't all Paul picked up from Luci.
He also inherited her fiery temperament. She was so intense
during Paul's days at Arizona State that she often sat in an
empty part of the stands to keep from unloading her wrath on
anyone who would get on her son. Once, when an Arizona fan
sitting near her heckled Paul, she landed a punch to the side of
the guy's head. The fan spent the rest of the game in stunned
silence.

Luci never got to watch Paul play at Dodger Stadium. She died of
ovarian cancer in 1996, nearly two years before he reached the
majors. In her memory Paul writes her initials on various parts
of his uniform, including his shoes, glove and cap. When he
takes his position behind the plate before a game, the first
thing he does is mark LL in the dirt, followed by a cross. "My
only regret is that she didn't get to see me in the big
leagues," he says.

Luci would have loved to have been with Paul on a chilly morning
last month when he arrived at Dodger Stadium. He parked near a
20-foot-tall image of himself on a banner hanging on the outside
of the park, alongside those of other Dodgers stars like Karros
and Shawn Green--quite an honor for a player who in spring
training last year had been asked by a team p.r. staffer how to
spell his name. As some of the organization's marginal players
worked out, Lo Duca sat in the dugout in sweats, sipping coffee
and watching. "I've been where those guys are," he said, "trying
to work hard and learn from the coaches, and hoping somebody
notices you. Sometimes you think it's never going to happen, and
then boom! it does."

After setting records for single-season batting average (.446)
and hits (129) during his one year at Arizona State, Lo Duca was
drafted in the 25th round by the Dodgers in 1993. Though he
proved he could hit minor league pitching--excluding an
injury-plagued '95 season, he never batted less than .305--he
couldn't convince Los Angeles that he was a major leaguer. The
raps on him varied: undersized (he's closer to 5'7" than to his
listed height of 5'10"), can't hit for power (last season was
the first time he cracked double figures in homers), only fair
defensively, and that temper handed down from Luci. "The last
one was definitely true," Paul says. "I was a snapper. I'd get
into it with umpires all the time in the minors. If something
didn't go right, I'd lose it. My manager in Triple A in '98,
Glenn Hoffman [now a Dodgers coach], called me into his office
once and told me I was going to have to calm down if I was ever
going to get to the big leagues for good."

Lo Duca brought his temper under control on his own, but he
needed help to hone his defense. The assistance came from Mike
Scioscia, the former L.A. catcher who was a roving instructor in
the Dodgers system and Lo Duca's coach in the Arizona Fall
League in 1997. Scioscia not only taught Lo Duca how to block
the plate and sharpen his throwing but also challenged him to
improve his mental approach. He would ask Lo Duca after a game
to recount every pitch Lo Duca had called. Before long Lo Duca
was surprising himself with his ability to do so. "He had the
talent, and he was a willing student," says Scioscia, now the
manager of the Anaheim Angels. "He was the kind of kid who you
knew could make it if he could get the right break."

For a long time it seemed that break would never come. Piazza, a
Hall of Famer in the making, was entrenched as the Los Angeles
catcher until he was traded in 1998 for, among others, Charles
Johnson, one of the best defensive catchers in the game. "I was
in Triple A, and my roommate woke me up about 2 a.m. and said,
'Merry Christmas, Piazza just got traded,'" Lo Duca says. "I
started to get excited, but when I heard that the Dodgers picked
up Charles Johnson in the deal, I went back to bed because I
knew I wasn't going anywhere." Another multiplayer swap after
the '98 season made Todd Hundley the L.A. backstop.

The low point came in the spring of 2000, when Lo Duca, who had
spent parts of the previous two seasons with the Dodgers,
arrived at spring training hoping to win the job as Hundley's
backup. Instead, manager Davey Johnson went with veteran Chad
Kreuter. When Lo Duca returned to Triple A Albuquerque, he found
he wasn't even the No. 1 catcher there. He was stuck behind
promising prospect Angel Pena. "The first 10 games I barely
played," says Lo Duca. "It was obvious that Davey and someone
else in the organization thought I had no future."

However, any ideas Paul had of retiring were more than offset by
the inspiration he had gotten from Luci four years earlier, when
he visited her in the hospital only days before she died. Paul
had been invited to play in the Fall League for the first time
but planned to take several weeks off to be with his family
after his mother's death. Luci had other ideas. "I want you to
come to the funeral, then I want you to play the next day," he
says she told him. "This is your biggest break. This is the one
that will get you to the big leagues." A few days later Lo Duca
attended services for Luci and, the following day, caught nine
innings.

So in early 2000 Lo Duca knew his mother would have urged him not
to quit, the same counsel that his wife, Sonja, and his father
were giving him. He resolved that once he got a chance to play,
there would be no getting him out of the lineup. Lo Duca tore up
the Pacific Coast League, hitting .351. Then after the 2000
season Hundley became a free agent and signed with the Chicago
Cubs, and Tracy, who had been the Dodgers' bench coach, replaced
Davey Johnson. At the start of spring training Tracy told Lo Duca
that he was the Dodgers' No. 1 catcher until further notice.

Lo Duca got off to a hot start in April, and even a hamstring and
rib cage injury that kept him out of the lineup for nearly a
month didn't cool him off. Shortly after his return in May, he
had six hits, including a three-run homer, in an 11-10 win over
the Colorado Rockies. "I guess if I had to pick a moment when I
felt that I had really made it, that I knew I didn't have to
worry about getting sent down anymore, that was it," he says.

Despite his power numbers last year Lo Duca remains primarily a
contact hitter with a quick, compact swing that makes him
difficult to strike out. He fanned only 30 times in 460 at bats
in 2001, and his on-base percentage of .374 was higher than that
of any other Dodgers regular except Gary Sheffield. That's one
reason that Tracy didn't hesitate to use Lo Duca in the leadoff
slot last season. "He's the kind of hitter that pitchers hate to
face, because he doesn't have any holes in his swing and puts the
ball in play," says New York Mets lefty Shawn Estes. "He doesn't
overswing, yet he can still muscle up and take you out of the
ballpark, and that's a tough combination."

Lo Duca says he didn't alter his weightlifting routine or his
diet before last season, so he has no easy explanation for his
sudden power surge. "I've heard real home run hitters say that
relaxation is one of the keys," he says. "After I got settled in
last year, I was more relaxed than ever because I wasn't trying
to impress anyone or earn a job. I just let my ability take
over, and the ball started jumping off my bat. I'm not saying
I'll hit 25 home runs every year, but hopefully I won't have the
rap that I can't hit for power anymore."

His next task is to prove that 2001 wasn't an aberration. "At
the start of last year the question was, Can he do it?" Lo Duca
says. "Then it became, Can he keep it up? Now it's, Can he do it
again? I'm using that as my motivation. I don't want to have one
good year in the big leagues. I want to have 10 good years. I
want to get out there right now and prove myself all over again."

Lo Duca had finally earned himself an off-season, and now he
couldn't wait for it to end.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN VAN HOOK B/W PHOTO: JOHN DOMINIS/TIMEPIX COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO "I don't want to have one good year," says Paul (here with wife Sonja). "I want to have 10 good years."

Cornucopia of Catchers

Beginning in Brooklyn in the 1940s with Roy Campanella (above)
and continuing into the 21st century in Los Angeles with Paul Lo
Duca, the Dodgers have been uncommonly successful at developing
catchers. Here are stats for five receivers, all of whom became
All-Stars, in the first season that each played more than 100
major league games.

PLAYER YEAR GAMES AVG. HR RBI SLUGGING PCT.

Roy Campanella 1949 130 .287 22 82 .498
John Roseboro 1958 114 .271 14 43 .456
Mike Scioscia 1982 129 .219 5 38 .296
Mike Piazza 1993 149 .318 35 112 .561
Paul Lo Duca 2001 125 .320 25 90 .543

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)