In touch with All-Star pupils

Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra will go through his usual antics when he steps in the batter's box at U. S. Cellular Field in Chicago during the All-Star Game, tomorrow night.

Garciaparra will unstrap his batting gloves, tap his shoulders, adjust his wristbands, shake his legs and tug at his pine tar-laced helmet before preparing to take his swings against one of the National League's premier pitchers. But whether it's Kevin Brown, John Smoltz, Jason Schmidt or Eric Gagne don't expect Garciaparra to put down a bunt.

There's a running joke between Garciaparra and University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris, who coached the 5-time All-Star at Georgia Tech from 1991-1993. And Garciaparra just won't let go.

Before leaving Georgia Tech to take the coaching job at Miami, Morris told a then-lanky and physically underdeveloped Garciaparra that in order to have a prosperous professional career he would have to rely on his aggressive instincts and take advantage of his bunting skills. Over a decade later, Garciaparra has established himself as a potential Hall of Fame candidate and still lets Morris know he's trying to master the art of bunting.

"Every time we talk or run into each other Nomar tells me how he's working on his bunting," says Morris, who spent 12 seasons at Georgia Tech before coming to Coral Gables in 1994. "In my wildest dream I never thought Nomar could turn out to be the hitter he has become and developed 30-40 homerun power. He was a toothpick coming out of high school."

But several of Morris' former players at Georgia Tech, including Garciaparra, are all grown up now and on their way to Major League Baseball's showcase event in the Windy City next week.

Along with Garciaparra, Los Angeles Dodgers ace right-hander Kevin Brown was also selected to participate in the game, while Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek is the frontrunner to land the final American League roster spot via an online vote. As of Wednesday afternoon, Varitek was leading the voting.

Brown and Varitek also played at Georgia Tech under Morris.

"It's always gratifying to see guys that played for you go on to the big leagues and develop into stars," says Morris. "All those guys had the work ethic and talent back at Georgia Tech that led you to believe they could be special players. But I kind of thought there would be different routes in a way."

Morris had a good inkling that Garciaparra would be able to stick around once he reached the pro level. But maybe not in the same fashion the former Yellow Jackets standout has made it happen.

"I really never focused on hitting the ball out of the ballpark. I was more of a line drive and gap hitter at Georgia Tech," said Garciaparra. "But as I got stronger and developed a better understanding of pitch selection at the plate the homeruns started to come. I think my last year there it started to come around some (the power). To this day, though I don't go up there looking for a home run."

Garciaparra, who made his Major League debut Aug. 31, 1996, has averaged over 19 home runs in over seven seasons, including a career-high of 35 in 1998. In addition to his gradual power increase late in his career at Georgia Tech and then several seasons into his current tenure with Boston, Garciaparra has also maintained his ability to spray the ball all over the field. He currently leads the American League in triples (12) and ranks in the top-10 in doubles (24).

"The last thing I thought was that Nomar would be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark," says Morris. "That goes to show what I know, right?"

Garciaparra, originally drafted in the fifth-round of the draft by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1991, left Georgia Tech following his junior year in 1994 after being selected 12th overall by the Red Sox. But not before denting the Yellow Jackets' record books.

In 1994, Garciaparra received consensus first-team All-America status after becoming the fourth player in Georgia Tech history to collect over 100 hits in a single season. Garciaparra had 117 hits on the season to go with a .427 batting average, 26 doubles and 16 home runs. He led the Yellow Jackets to the Midwest II Regional championship after batting .500 and driving in 10 runs, including two home runs and two doubles in the tournament.

Garciaparra also made the All-College World Series tournament team after batting .333 with two homers, including an extra-innings homer that eliminated Cal-State Fullerton and put Georgia Tech in the title game.

In 1993, Morris' final season at Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets captured the Atlantic Regional championship and finished with a 47-14 mark. Garciaparra was a first-team All-America and All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection as a sophomore despite battling a pulled hamstring muscle during the early part of the season. Still, Garciaparra managed to extend a streak of 33 consecutive stolen base attempts, a school record that still stands. After graduating from St. John Bosco High in California, Garciaparra was voted as the ACC's Rookie of the Year' after batting .363 with three homers and 51 RBI. He finished his three-year career at the school with .372 batting average and 250 hits, including 58 doubles.

"Coach Morris was and still is big on detail," says Garciaparra. "That's something that will always stick with me. You have to stay prepared in this game whether you are going good or bad. That's just all there is to it."

Garciaparra, mired in a 2-for-26 slump entering Wednesday's game in Toronto, was hitless in five plate appearances in the series-opener against the Blue Jays. But the Red Sox star is still carrying a .319 batting average with 13 homeruns and 60 RBI.

Varitek, who delivered a game winning RBI single against the Blue Jays, is still considered the best player ever to wear a Georgia Tech uniform. Boston's starting catcher left Georgia Tech in 1994 as the school's all-time leader in home runs (57), runs batted in (251), hits (351) and total bases (610), runs scored (261) and doubles (82).

Varitek, who turned down the Minnesota Twins after being drafted in the first-round in 1993, won the Dick Howser Award and Rotary Smith Award as the top collegiate player in the nation after hitting .426 with 17 home runs and 86 RBI. Varitek finished his four-year career at Georgia Tech with a .384 batting average.

"Jason really came into his own as a sophomore," says Morris. "He's one of the best college baseball players I've ever seen."

Varitek is also developing into a quality Major League. With .306 batting average, 16 home runs and 56 RBI at the break, the former Georgia Tech student-athlete rep is well on his way to his most productive season in the bigs. In 1999, Varitek hit 20 home runs with 76 RBI, all career-highs. Varitek is third among all catchers – behind Atlanta's Javy Lopez and New York's Jorge Posada- in home runs this season.

Brown is 10-4 with a 2.30 ERA for the Dodgers and apparently heeled from arm troubles that have plagued him the last several seasons. In 1986, Brown set single season records at Tech with 11 wins and 122 strikeouts. At the time, Brown was a lot thinner but carried around the same intensity he displays as a professional.

"We used to call him Blade because Kevin was so thin," said Morris. "Now he's tan absolute Hulk."

In a coaching career that spans close to three decades Morris has come across a host of big league talent such as Pat Burrell, Jay Payton, Jason Michaels, Alex Cora and Audrey Huff. But none has yet reached the status of Garciaparra, Brown and Varitek.

Predictably, there's only once place Morris will be next Tuesday night- in front of his television set.

"Sure, sure. I'll definitely be watching."

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