Brian Dopirak smiles at first, then he laughs, and then he is straight faced, completely. He spells his name.
"Now say it...wrong."
Pear, that's the part everyone gets wrong, and the way Brian Dopirak has been crushing the ball in the Cubs organization it really is everyone. He's the talk of the Cubs system. The first baseman hit .307 with 39 homers and 120 RBI for the Lansing Lugnuts last season. Needless to say with those numbers there are lot of people saying Dopirak's name.
Problem is they are saying it wrong.
But there is a problem, Derrek Lee. The veteran first baseman is a wizard around the bag and has consistently produced at the plate. What happens to a young stud when he's behind a veteran stud? You learn from the master.
"Last year he talked to me a lot and really helped me out. I was always asking him questions, about the pitchers, the league, and especially how those guys work, just anything I could, and he was great. Always helped me out. He's just an outstanding guy. I just wanted to know everything I could think to ask."
Dopirak says that one of the many things Lee really stressed was having respect for the game, and the fans of that game. It shows. Dopirak signs autographs after infield, before the game. There aren't that many people at the stadium for AFL games, but he signs every single autograph that is asked for. He could beg off, but he doesn't, he just keeps signing.
Then he goes on the field. He's gotten off to something of a slow start down here in the AFL, but a lot of players would love to have the kind of 'slow start' Dopirak has had. In 13 games with the Solar Sox Dopirak is hitting .280 with two homers and eight RBI. Any particular reason the numbers are down?
"I working on a couple of things, mostly just seeing more pitches. Dopirak has always been aggressive at the plate, ripping at the first good thing he sees, but again, it was something Lee taught him that inspired this adjustment. "One of the things Derrek said to me was that when you are a good hitter it's harder to get pitchers to throw you strikes. The strike zone is smaller at that level, and so you can really pick and choose more. So the coaches down here have been working with me on taking more pitches. Being more selective and just seeing the ball. It's a little weird for me, because I've always been a first ball/fastball hitter, but I think it's going well. I've probably seen more pitches down here than I did the last two months of the season."
The stats bear that out. In 50 at bats Dopirak has seen at least five pitches 37 times. Still, the drop in power numbers has to worry the youngster.
"No, it really doesn't, I know I can hit home runs, I know I have power. I'm changing things, and when you change things there's an adjustment period. The Cubs know what I'm working on, and they know that in the long run it will make me a better hitter. This is consistently the best pitching I've faced. Everybody down here is either a closer or an ace. It's an honor to be down here with all these studs. I'm having a lot of fun, and I'm getting better, that's what this league is all about."
Having fun is something that comes natural to Dopirak. He seems to always be smiling. He laughs when the person interviewing him tells a story of other players having fun at the reporter's expense. "Yeah, when these guys see you out here everybody wants to be the one getting interviewed. They all want to be the guy you are paying attention to, so they'll do things to get your attention. I'm no different. Baseball is a game. We are all lucky to get paid to play a game. If you don't enjoy yourself when you are out here with a bunch of great players then something's wrong."
Dopirak heads into the batting cage then, smiling the whole time. He hits a batting practice home run, a monster shot. He looks around, see the reporter, "You saw that right?" The reporter nods affirmative, "Good." He takes a few more swings and then heads right to the edge of the field, where there are ten or twelve people calling his name, pens in hand. He signs every autograph, smiling and joking the whole time.
Phillies in the desert: Dan Giese had a tough week, but ended it on a better note. Giese threw 1 2/3 innings on Saturday, giving up two hits, but striking out two. He also didn't allow a run. Giese looked stronger than in his last couple of outings, which helped balloon his ERA. Saturday's outing dropped it slightly, bringing it back to 5.17 on the AFL season… Keith Bucktrot appears to be fully recovered from injuries that hampered his season at AA Reading. Bucktrot has whiffed 19 hitters in 22 innings, while walking just seven. On the season, Bucktrot is 0-1, 3.27 for the Phoenix Desert Dogs… Ryan Howard had a tough day Saturday and picked up just one hit. For him, that's a bad day this fall. Howard is hitting .380 on the season, good enough for fifth in the league. Howard's Phoenix teammate Omar Quintanilla (Oakland) leads the league with a .418 average. Howard has slipped in the homerun race, with just three, while league leader Conor Jackson (Arizona) now has seven. In RBI, Howard is third in the league with 22, but he leads the league in hits (38), Doubles (14) and extra base hits (18)… Buzz Hannahan has been splitting his time between first and third this season, meaning that it's tough for him to find playing time. Howard has him blocked at first and Kansas City prospect Mark Teahen has him blocked at third. Hannahan has played in 15 games and is hitting .269… Like Bucktrot, Chris Roberson is simply looking to prove himself healthy. After breaking his leg during the season, Roberson is in the AFL and playing on a regular basis. He's shown no signs of lingering problems, other than his stolen base percentage is at a bleak 44% (4-for-9). Part of that problem is simply learning how and when to steal bases. During the regular season, Roberson was successful in just 57% (16-for-28) of his attempts. Roberson is hitting .254 in 18 games… Carlos Ruiz isn't seeing much playing time in the desert. Ruiz has just 24 at bats, but is hitting .292 for Phoenix. Ruiz has actually played more games behind the plate than any of the other catchers on the team and it's been tough finding time for Jeremy Brown (Oak), John Baker (Oak), Michael Napoli (Ana) and Ruiz. Napoli has also seen some time at first base.
Editor's Note: James Renwick is the managing editor of FutureBacks.com and is covering the Arizona Fall League for Scout.com.