PEORIA, Ariz. – Casey Kotchman thinks he was about 7 years old when he heard something said in a clubhouse that changed his life.
“When I was 7 or 8, my dad coached a team in Boise, and I’d ride the bus, be in the clubhouse with him,” the first-year Seattle Mariners first baseman said. “I remember John McNamara came to talk to the players once, and he said something – ‘You can’t buy back time’ – that struck such a chord with me, I wrote it down. I’ve never forgotten it.”
Now 27, Kotchman has spent parts of the past five years in the big leagues. Once considered the best prospect in the Angels’ system, Kotchman will suit up in 2010 with his fourth team.
He’s not a man who spends a lot of time looking back.
“You garner what you can from the past, but it has little correlation with the future,” Kotchman said. “You can’t get time back.
“How good you are depends on what you do, not what you say or think. When the games start, you find out. It’s whatever you do right now that matters. That’s what kind of player you are.”
Kotchman’s resume leads with spectacular defense – among first basemen with at least 3,500 chances, he has the highest fielding percentage (.998) in major league history. One year in Anaheim, he batted .296. The next season, he hit .287 before being traded to Atlanta for Mark Teixeira.
So what kind of player is he?
“He wants to be great, but he wants to be great for his team,” Chone Figgins said. “He gives himself up a lot. Casey’s helped me defensively. He notices things, like your glove position when you field the ball.
“He’d tell me I wasn’t getting the glove down in the right position, and it made a huge difference for me. I love the guy. He’s like me: he works hard, he’s quiet. I like hanging out with him.”
As a kid, Kotchman remembers playing catch in his front yard with his mother, Susan, and going everywhere he could with his father, Tom, who coached, then scouted for the Angels.
Though he bats and throws left-handed, Kotchman played shortstop until his midteens, and he still has the mind-set of a middle infielder.
“He attacks balls,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “He’s got range, great hands, and he’s not afraid to throw the ball, either. Great defender.”
When the Mariners got Kotchman from Boston in a trade this winter, what Zduriencik, his staff and the Mariners coaching staff saw was a player with a lifetime batting average of .269 who had a high ceiling.
“Our job is to get the best from him,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “And we don’t think he’s played his best yet at all.”
Kotchman feels that support, and he has thoroughly enjoyed his first week in the Seattle clubhouse.
“These guys have fun, like a team should in the clubhouse, and then they work hard when they’re on the field,” Kotchman said. “I look across at No. 24 (Ken Griffey Jr.), and he’s the compilation of what the game should be. The energy he brings, it rubs off on everybody.”
Kotchman credits his defensive athleticism to those early days playing catch with his folks.
“My dad would hit me ground balls, my mom would play catch with me, and I loved diving for balls in my front yard,” Kotchman said. “I still love defense. Your bat’s not there every day, but your glove can and should be. You can win and lose a game with your glove.
“The best play to make for me is to save a throwing error for a teammate. I know what it’s like to make a bad throw, how you feel the minute you let it go. If I can make a pick over there, pick him up, that makes a difference to him, a difference to the pitcher, maybe the game.”
When the Mariners traded for Kotchman, he was doing what he always does in the offseason – working on his skills with his father. His parents now live in Florida, and in the winter, Kotchman joins them.
“Every offseason, my dad will take a fungo and hit one-hoppers to me at first base, hitting them from third base, shortstop, second base. I get eaten up at times, but it keeps you in practice,” Kotchman said.
“In the offseason, I live with my folks in Florida. My dad’s 55 and still throws me batting practice, hits me fungos. My dad is a big part of my love for the game. I grew up around his teams, watching baseball, stealing seeds and gum, listening.”
Does he cry at the crucial moment in “Field of Dreams”?
“Of course,” Kotchman said.
Wakamatsu and a few of his coaches know Kotchman from his minor league days, when he played 332 games and hit a collective .324.
“I know he can hit. I’ve seen him do it,” Wakamatsu said. “I think he can hit for a little more power, I know he can drive in runs. He’s going to save us runs in the field and produce them at the plate.
“Our fans are going to appreciate this guy.”