On Becoming a Complete Player

VERO BEACH, Fla.- For a young hitting prospect it's normal that power is the last item in his arsenal to arrive. He can pile up big numbers in most departments but driving a ball out of the yard demands knowledge and strength that are sometimes slow to arrive. Which is what makes Andy LaRoche a unique player.

In his first real season as a pro , LaRoche went deep 23 times- 13 at Columbus, 10 after being moved up to Vero Beach. But ask him what he thought of the year and he replies , " I was kinda disappointed. I was just getting my average up at Columbus (.283) when I was moved up and it fell at Vero (.233). That's what I'm working on."

And so, Dan Radison , new to the organization as the Vero batting coach, has been working with him on achieving that goal. " We concentrate on his staying closed, " Dan explains. " The pitch will dictate where the ball is hit. If his mechanics are correct , he can hit the pitch away and that's where they've been pitching him. If he stays on that pitch, they'll have to come to him more. "

That he's learning the lesson well was illustrated the other night when Andy went 4-for-4. He's a right-handed batter but every hit was to right-center including one shot well over the distant fence at Vero's Holman Stadium. As of right now, he's hitting .341 with the power totals up there as well- five home runs, six doubles, and a triple, good for 15 RBI in 19 games.

LaRoche is a serious student who understands the game well , having been brought up in it . His dad (Dave) was an All-Star pitcher in his day and his brother (Adam) is the first baseman for the Atlanta Braves. His bat is quick and when he stays back, he rips the ball with even his groundouts struck with force. He's also a more than competent third baseman with a rocket launcher for an arm.

It cost the Dodgers $1 million to get him to sign in late summer 2003 after he had become one of the most regarded players in the Cap-e Cod League. That's normally peopled by players from high-profile collegiate programs so when he hit .326 there fresh from a Texas junior college , it was even more noticeable.

Succeeding in such an environment not only bolstered his confidence but greatly increased the Dodgers' desire to have him. They had taken him way down in the 39th round of the draft but his stature had increased so much that they felt if he went on to Rice University as then scheduled, he'd be a first-rounder in 2004. The commsioner's office wasn't happy with the money he was given since it was far more than his slot in the draft warranted. But the Dodgers insisted and they haven't had a moment's regret.

He opened the season hitting in the fourth hole as the power guy. Now, he's batting third- the place reserved for the most complete hitter on the team. His growth as a hitter has been noteworthy so much so that Vero fans, who are used to seeing their premier players move upward during the season, are bracing to lose LaRoche to AA Jacksonville just as happened with Joel Guzman at mid-season last year.

Oh, every now and then, he'll fall into old bad habits like going for the first pitch too often or flailing wildly at one that is well away from his zone. But, like a smoker with the patch, he's conquering that more and more. And as he does, he stamps himself as one of the coming hitters in the game.