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By Rod Thornburg / Special to The Californian
BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Almost five years before Jake Sweaney became a professional baseball player, Garces coach Guy Dees took him aside and asked the incoming freshman a favor.
"He was playing in our summer-school baseball program, and we were playing an 18-year-old team with all incoming freshmen," said Dees, who was then entering his second year as Garces' head coach. "They were beating us pretty bad, and they drew their outfield way in, all the way to the edge of the infield dirt.
"Jake was on deck, and I grabbed him and said, 'Jake, I'm getting tired of these guys disrespecting us. We've got to show them something.'" Literally two pitches later, he hit a home run off our scoreboard.
"You kind of knew at that point he was definitely going to be something special."
Now, Sweaney, who could not be reached for this story despite repeated attempts, is a fourth-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Phillies, a $400,000-bonus baby and a catcher in their minor-league system.
Oh, and he's The Californian's Baseball Player of the Year, just the third player since 1983 to win the award in back-to-back seasons.
"I actually talked to him about it," Dees said. "I said, 'Hey I just want to congratulate you -- it may pale in comparison to getting drafted and going pro, but hey, you're Player of the Year.' And even with all that happened, this was exciting for him."
It was no surprise that Sweaney produced in a big way for Southeast Yosemite League champion Garces. He hit .489 with eight home runs, 14 doubles, 41 runs and 39 RBIs. He also stole 22 bases while playing catcher, the most demanding position on the diamond.
The difference this year was that Sweaney, who committed to play at Oregon during the offseason in case he decided not to sign a pro contract, was playing every day in front of dozens of pro scouts.
"What he showed you was something that maybe you can't coach," Dees said. "Every at-bat, there would be 20-plus scouts that would stand up and put a camera in his face, shooting video and pictures, and Jake never let that get to him. A 17-, 18-year-old kid, you kind of think they're going to melt, but he never did."
Sweaney's eight home runs came in all shapes and sizes, from a line-drive screamer at Clovis West that Dees said might be the hardest ball he's ever seen a high schooler hit to a wind-blown opposite-field home run at home against North that seemed like it came on a bad swing.
"He just had this smooth and quick swing, and the ball would just fly off his bat," Dees said. "There were times you thought, 'Oh, he didn't get that,' and the ball would be out by our batting cages (deep in the outfield)."
Scouts loved Sweaney because of his bat and his speed, yes, but he already flashes one of the best arms in pro baseball. Dees said Sweaney's "pop time" -- the time it takes from when he catches the ball at home plate to throw it to an infielder's glove at second base on a stole-base attempt -- has been clocked between 1.77 and 1.85 seconds. Anything below 1.9 seconds is considered elite, even for professionals.
"Very few teams would even test his arm, and as a result your pitchers had confidence because they know they had a professional arm behind the plate," Dees said. "He dramatically affected the game with his defense."
Sweaney enters the minor leagues as one of the youngest players in pro ball, but the Garces chapter of his baseball career has been completed. From his arrival home run in summer ball as a freshman to his big senior year with a scout-heavy audience, it was something to behold.
"You could be in the game your whole life and never get a chance to see one and coach one like Jake," Dees said. "When you get one before you, it's pretty special. I couldn't be more proud of that kid."