Feb 27, 2002
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer
VERO BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Just the thought of going from a reserve in the minor leagues to a lifetime of security in a span of two years drove Paul Lo Duca to tears.
Lo Duca, who hit .320 with 25 homers and 90 RBIs last year in his first full big-league season, agreed Tuesday to a $7.25 million, three-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Lo Duca said that on Monday night, knowing the contract was close to being finalized, he and his wife, Sonia, started crying.
"I couldn't believe this was happening to me," he said. "You dream it, it happens. I always thought I could get to this point.
"I told her, `I'm close to signing.' We both started crying. I think I broke down first. It's a chance for me and my wife to take care of our families, give them something, too."
The 29-year-old Lo Duca said he's never bought a house, something that figures to change shortly.
Lo Duca was given the starting catcher's job by first-year manager Jim Tracy last spring and made the most of his opportunity.
Lo Duca earned $230,000 last year, when he played in 125 games. His final totals would have been higher had he not been sidelined for a month with a strained left hamstring and strained stomach muscle.
The versatile Lo Duca also played first base, left field and right field.
"The only disappointment was not getting to the playoffs, we were so close," he said. "I worked even harder this offseason. I don't want to have to spend time out of the lineup because I got hurt again."
Just two years ago, for a period of time while he was playing for Triple-A Albuquerque, Lo Duca was the backup to Angel Pena at catcher.
"I was close to just going home," Lo Duca recalled. "I wasn't playing, I wasn't going anywhere, I was close to saying, `See ya.' Now, I want to be here forever.
"I've got to show people I can do it again. The Dodgers have helped me out. It's my turn to pay them back, it's my duty for the next three years to show them they didn't make a mistake."
Before last season, Lo Duca had played in 76 big-league games, batting .241 with five homers and 20 RBIs.
He would have been eligible for salary arbitration after this season.
"He embodies everything you're looking for in a guy to make this kind of commitment to," said Dodgers general manager Dan Evans.
Lo Duca said the key for him was simply getting a chance to play.
"I haven't done anything different," he said. "What I did got noticed at a different level. I've just been thinking about all the people who helped me out along the way and kept my head up."
Perhaps the main thing that kept Lo Duca from getting a shot was his unimpressive physical stature - he's 5-foot-8 and weighs about 185 pounds. And nothing he had done indicated he could hit for power in the majors.
Lo Duca more than .300 in every year but one in all or part of eight minor league seasons, but never hit more than eight homers in a season before last year.
Lo Duca admitted he surprised himself with the 25 homers.
"He represents what you look for in a player you're going to go to work with day in and day out," Tracy said. "He cares about the team. The only thing he was missing on his resume was opportunity."
Lo Duca struck out only 30 times in 460 official at-bats - the lowest strikeout total for anyone hitting 25 or more homers since Yogi Berra fanned 29 times in 1956. Lo Duca also threw out 31 of 79 runners trying to steal.
Lo Duca promised complacency will never set in.
"All those years in the minors, they'll humble you in a hurry," he said. "I spent too many years down there. I don't ever want to go back."