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Pinto beans. Arizona State catcher Paul LoDuca recalls that in his youth his mother, Luci, preferred serving pinto beans over the plate rather than on one. "She'd pitch maybe 100 or 150 to me, one at a time," says LoDuca. "It was cheaper than the batting cages, and it was a great way to improve hand-eye coordination."
In fact, LoDuca became so adept at spraying frijoles around the family's Phoenix backyard—converting it into a veritable Field of Beans—that Luci took to wearing sunglasses for protection. Having mastered his mother's beanball, LoDuca now wreaks havoc on fastballs and sliders. In his first season of major-college baseball, LoDuca, a 5'10", 185-pound junior, has distinguished himself as one of the NCAA's best hitters.
LoDuca's 117 hits and 80 RBIs ranked first and second, respectively, in the nation and helped the Sun Devils to a 42-18 record and a berth in this week's College World Series West Regional tournament. His 37-game hitting streak, which Arizona stopped in the regular-season finale, tied a Pac-10 record—and was one game removed from an earlier, 18-game streak. And for a batter who was weaned on beans, he didn't do badly on taters, belting a dozen this year.
As for LoDuca's .447 batting average, it's the best single-season effort in Sun Devil history, which amounts to more than a hill of—well, you know—when you consider that Reggie Jackson, Bob Horner and Barry Bonds also took their collegiate swings in Tempe. In the last five seasons (two in high school, two at Glendale Community College and this year at Arizona State) LoDuca's lowest batting average was .441. So much for telling a kid not to play with his food.
The LoDuca family, which also includes Paul's father, Paul Sr., and older brothers Frank and Anthony, is bonkers over baseball. Their living room is so jam-packed with baseball artifacts and the boys' trophies that it looks like Coopers-town West. The dog's name is Mookie. Before the LoDucas moved to the Phoenix area from Brooklyn in 1973, Paul Sr. coached a team of 16-to 18-year-olds that included future major leaguers Lee Mazzilli and Pete Falcone.
At the LoDuca family business in nearby Glendale, a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig is prominently displayed, which makes sense because the business is a sportscard and memorabilia shop, Brooklyn Paulie's Sports Emporium. It was born not so much out of mercenary interests as out of necessity. "By my senior year in high school the count was up to about 100,000 cards," says Paul. "There was no place at home left to store them."
Growing up, LoDuca played any position, but his high school coach took one look at his stocky physique and stuck him behind the plate full-time—for better or for worse. Despite batting .470 as a senior at Apollo High, he didn't get a scholarship offer from a major college, perhaps because of his limited skills behind the plate. "I still need a lot of work on my catching," says LoDuca, whose lack of speed also was a drawback.
When LoDuca was named to Baseball America's 1993 Dream Team earlier this month, he was listed as the designated hitter. That may be his best position. Still, one National League scout thinks that to malign LoDuca's defensive play misses the point. "Look," says the scout, "every time he gets another hit, he becomes a better catcher."