Off-season? Paul Lo Duca was familiar with the concept, but after nine years of pro ball he'd never experienced it. Off-seasons were for established big leaguers, not for guys like Lo Duca who hadn't fully escaped the minors. There was no off-season from working out like a madman, trying to develop the power that everyone in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization said he didn't have. There was no off-season from worrying if he'd get enough at bats in spring training to make the big club. There was no off-season from checking the newspapers and watching the cable sports shows, hoping for news of a trade that would leave some team in need of a catcher. The off-season meant playing in the Arizona Fall League with other hopefuls and attending the Dodgers' voluntary winter workouts, which for guys like him weren't voluntary at all. Off-season? Lo Duca couldn't afford to have one.
That was before he shocked baseball last year with 25 home runs, 90 RBIs and a .320 average, arguably the most unexpected performance in the majors in 2001. Lo Duca was such a hustling, hard-nosed bolt from the blue in his first complete season in the big leagues that even Dodgers fans who were still pining for Mike Piazza came to love him. "People identify with Paul because they know it didn't come easily for him," says Los Angeles manager Jim Tracy. "He more than paid his dues with all that time in the minors, and the success he had last year is something he earned."
There's one other thing Lo Duca earned with his outstanding year—an off-season. Instead of another winter of worry, he spent his free months before reporting to spring training on Feb. 14 in a manner befitting his new job security. He attended an all-star softball benefit near Palm Springs, at which his autograph was as much in demand as those of Piazza, Jason Giambi, Luis Gonzalez and Jim Edmonds. He hung out at the Brooklyn Caf�, the Sedona, Ariz., restaurant owned by his father, Paul Sr., and accepted so many congratulatory slaps on the back that he could have used a flak jacket. "It's been a different experience," Paul says. "This is the most relaxed that I have ever been this time of year. I've never been able to get ready for spring training without looking at it as an audition, without wondering whether I'm going to be a big leaguer or not."
That doesn't mean Lo Duca, who will turn 30 on April 12, didn't pick up a bat during the off-season. "The guy works like crazy," says Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros. "Extra hitting, extra lifting. He wants to prove that last year was no fluke. He knows that now that he's made it, this is no time to start taking it easy."
Lo Duca has worked overtime to develop his baseball skills since he was a boy, when his mother, Luci, donned oversized sunglasses to protect her eyes and pitched pinto beans to Paul and his older brothers, Anthony and Frank, in the backyard of their Phoenix home. The idea was that, if they could hit the tiny beans, hitting a much larger baseball would be a snap.
Better hand-eye coordination wasn't all Paul picked up from Luci. He also inherited her fiery temperament. She was so intense during Paul's days at Arizona State that she often sat in an empty part of the stands to keep from unloading her wrath on anyone who would get on her son. Once, when an Arizona fan sitting near her heckled Paul, she landed a punch to the side of the guy's head. The fan spent the rest of the game in stunned silence.
Luci never got to watch Paul play at Dodger Stadium. She died of ovarian cancer in 1996, nearly two years before he reached the majors. In her memory Paul writes her initials on various parts of his uniform, including his shoes, glove and cap. When he takes his position behind the plate before a game, the first thing he does is mark LL in the dirt, followed by a cross. "My only regret is that she didn't get to see me in the big leagues," he says.
Luci would have loved to have been with Paul on a chilly morning last month when he arrived at Dodger Stadium. He parked near a 20-foot-tall image of himself on a banner hanging on the outside of the park, alongside those of other Dodgers stars like Karros and Shawn Green—quite an honor for a player who in spring training last year had been asked by a team p.r. staffer how to spell his name. As some of the organization's marginal players worked out, Lo Duca sat in the dugout in sweats, sipping coffee and watching. "I've been where those guys are," he said, "trying to work hard and learn from the coaches, and hoping somebody notices you. Sometimes you think it's never going to happen, and then boom! it does."
After setting records for single-season batting average (.446) and hits (129) during his one year at Arizona State, Lo Duca was drafted in the 25th round by the Dodgers in 1993. Though he proved he could hit minor league pitching—excluding an injury-plagued '95 season, he never batted less than .305—he couldn't convince Los Angeles that he was a major leaguer. The raps on him varied: undersized (he's closer to 5'7" than to his listed height of 5'10"), can't hit for power (last season was the first time he cracked double figures in homers), only fair defensively, and that temper handed down from Luci. "The last one was definitely true," Paul says. "I was a snapper. I'd get into it with umpires all the time in the minors. If something didn't go right, I'd lose it. My manager in Triple A in '98, Glenn Hoffman [now a Dodgers coach], called me into his office once and told me I was going to have to calm down if I was ever going to get to the big leagues for good."
Lo Duca brought his temper under control on his own, but he needed help to hone his defense. The assistance came from Mike Scioscia, the former L.A. catcher who was a roving instructor in the Dodgers system and Lo Duca's coach in the Arizona Fall League in 1997. Scioscia not only taught Lo Duca how to block the plate and sharpen his throwing but also challenged him to improve his mental approach. He would ask Lo Duca after a game to recount every pitch Lo Duca had called. Before long Lo Duca was surprising himself with his ability to do so. "He had the talent, and he was a willing student," says Scioscia, now the manager of the Anaheim Angels. "He was the kind of kid who you knew could make it if he could get the right break."