The motivation within Tony Tarasco: Newest Oriole is driven by a past that includes a gang -- and a close friend killed by police. HTC

March 15, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Scouts are conspicuous in spring training, seated behind home plate, radar guns folded across their laps, the conversation focused on one baseball topic or another. A subject ripe for discussion yesterday was the Orioles' most recent acquisition, outfielder Tony Tarasco.

For Tarasco, the Montreal Expos received Sherman Obando, a good hitter who hasn't demonstrated the ability to play defense, and several scouts wondered this: Why? Why would Montreal trade a player with Tarasco's ability for a limited talent like Obando?

"Tarasco can hit, hit with power, run, throw and play defense," said one scout, "and for all that, they gave up Sherman Obando, who didn't really fit into their plans anyway. Not bad."

Particularly if Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone is correct in his assessment of Tarasco, if the inner strength Malone sees in the young outfielder drives Tarasco to being a better player. Malone, the former general manager of the Expos, acquired Tarasco for Montreal last April, and he was instrumental in the Orioles' trade Wednesday.

Tarasco started at DH in the Orioles' exhibition vs. Florida yesterday, going 0-for-3.

"Considering the situation Tony's coming out of," Malone said, "for him to make a success out of his life like he has, he's got to be a very committed and very driven individual.

"He's overcome a lot in his life, and I admire him for that. . . . I think there's a toughness there in him. More than a physical toughness a mental toughness."

Tarasco, 25, grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., on the fringes of South Central Los Angeles, and, for a time, he was a member of a gang. But his friends, he says, saw the potential in him for a

better life, playing baseball.

"I got into trouble when I was younger," Tarasco told the Montreal Gazette last year, "but nothing really serious. Santa Monica's like everywhere else: Nice city, some bad areas. We lived in a pretty rough neighborhood, close to South Central. I was luckier than most, I guess.

"My dad was at home, and the guys looked out for me. I'd go down to the park or just want to hang out on the corner with them at night, and they were always: 'Hey, shouldn't you be in the batting cage now? Get out of here.' "

Four years ago, one of his best friends, Chris Pickett, was killed by police. Tarasco has a tattoo on his forearm of a ballplayer

smashing a baseball, and the initials CP are drawn onto home plate. Chris Pickett. When Tarasco walks up to home plate for each at-bat, he leans down and, with a finger, scrawls the letters CP in the dirt.

"They said that he was a robbery suspect," Tarasco told the Gazette. "We all tried to make it public. We all pointed out the questions that needed answering, like why the K-9 officer that shot Chris didn't let his dog out of the car, like why he fired so many bullets to bring him down.

"They told us he shot 15 times at a guy who was half a block away; this was no bang-bang-bang shooting. But this was the time of Rodney King and nobody wanted to listen to another story about the LAPD. They covered it up. They covered it up very, very well."

At the time of the shooting, Tarasco was in Florida, in spring training with the Atlanta Braves. His friends had done him a favor by encouraging him to play baseball, for in 1993, Tarasco would break into the majors for the first time, playing 24 games.

The next year, Braves manager Bobby Cox often used him as a defensive replacement, and Tarasco played 87 games, getting 132 at-bats.

After the strike ended last spring, the Expos determined they would have to slash their payroll, and Malone was forced to trade stars Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland and Ken Hill. Grissom went to Atlanta, for Tarasco and two others.

Tarasco made an immediate impact in Montreal, hitting homers and stealing bases. Entering July, Tarasco was hitting .287 with eight homers.

He also had made a strong impression in his new home, often volunteering for community service. His Triple-A manager, Grady Little, had said Tarasco was "a positive influence, a person who has something to say," and this proved to be the case in Montreal.

"He did a terrific job representing the club in the community," Malone said.

As the All-Star break approached, however, Tarasco slumped at the plate, hitting .239 in July and .151 in August. "He became very withdrawn and isolated," Malone said, "and I talked to him about that. I saw a change in him."

Tarasco rebounded slightly, hitting .249 in September. "I was struggling," Tarasco said. "But I battled back, and I'm proud of myself for that."

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