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Kotchman ready to prove pedigree

Kotchman ready to prove pedigree

TEMPE, Ariz. -- As Tom Kotchman remembers it, son Casey was 15 or 16 at the time, making his customary summer vacation trip from Seminole, Fla., to Boise, Idaho, to spend time with his father's team of first-year pros in the Angels' farm system.

"He'd travel with the club, take batting practice ... stuff you're not going to get in a [youth] showcase," Tom Kotchman said.

A few years later, Casey would be leading Seminole (Fla.) High School to a national championship as the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Soon after graduation, he signed with the Angels as their first-round pick (13th overall) in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, launching a professional career at 18.

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Catching his stride his third pro season, hitting .350 at Class A Rancho Cucamonga, then .368 and .372 the following season at Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake, Kotchman was one of the game's premier prospects.

After tastes of big league action in 2004 (first hit, Yankee Stadium, against Mariano Rivera) and 2005, Kotchman was felled by mononucleosis in '06 and played only 32 games.

Breaking into the lineup on an everyday basis in 2007, Kotchman hit .296, slugged .467 and reached base at a .372 clip while providing steady, at times brilliant defense.

He was beginning to fulfill the promise that the Angels feel will lead to a highly productive career along the lines of a Keith Hernandez, Wally Joyner, Mark Grace and J.T. Snow, quality hitters with gloves of pure gold.

"Kotch still has upside for the type of hitter he can be," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "A lot of people are drawn to home runs, but Casey has the ability to be an extremely productive hitter without hitting home runs. He has the potential to drive in 100 runs with 15 home runs; he's that kind of hitter.

"And he's going to save games with his glove. He's a special defensive player."

But back to that summer in Idaho...

John McNamara, a respected Major League manager then working for the Angels as a roving instructor, delivered at Tom Kotchman's urging an impromptu address to the Boise team. Baseball was mentioned, certainly, but it was more about finding a quality of life.

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Listening intently, young Casey found something that hit home, something he would embrace as a personal mantra.

"I vividly remember it," Kotchman said. "He said, `You can't buy back time. Get the most out of your day, appreciate where you are and what you're doing -- because you can't buy back time.'

"I've always tried not to get ahead of myself too much. I've tried to get the most out of what I've done, whatever it was. What John McNamara said that day had a big impact on how I looked at things."

A baseball lifer, Tom Kotchman had jumped off the fast track in 1990 at age 35 after managing the Angels' Triple-A affiliate at Edmonton for three seasons. He determined that he was missing too many important events and developments in the lives of Casey and his sister, Christal.

Susan Kotchman would have a more visible husband, and the kids would have a dad who was there, not a million miles away in another country.

To do that, Tom took a scouting position in Florida and a short-season Rookie Ball assignment in Boise, later moving to Provo, Utah, and then to Orem, Utah, towns housing teens in the early stages of professional careers.

"That was so important to me and my sister, having him home with us when we were young," Kotchman said. "I was spoiled, having both parents around, having him with me at home and on the field. He'd played in the Reds' system and knew the game, so I had a great teacher in the home.

"He's still able to throw to me. What he did, taking us over his career, told me that once the cheering stops, all you'll have is your family, your kids. I was privileged and spoiled to have him do what he did."

Dad remains a phone call away. Nobody knows Casey's swing, or his temperament, better.

Last season, Kotchman was on his way to a breakout season, ranking among the top 10 in the AL in average (.333), slugging (.556) and on-base percentage (.411) on June 16 when fate intervened again.

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A throw from Dodgers catcher Russell Martin caught Kotchman flush on the helmet as he was diving back into second base at Dodger Stadium. A gash was opened in his head as Kotchman collapsed with what would be diagnosed as a concussion.

Returning to the lineup nine days later, Kotchman fell into an 0-for-18 funk. A fine line separates success from frustration in this game, and Kotchman had crossed it the moment Martin's throw crashed against his helmet.

His nine homers and 38 RBIs at the All-Star break in 247 at-bats reflected Kotchman's developing power, the one criticism of his game from those who expect big home-run numbers from first basemen.

"I think he was showing what he's capable of doing when he had that concussion," Tom Kotchman said. "Hindsight is 20/10, but maybe he came back a little too soon. With guys throwing the way they are at that level, you have to have all your faculties -- and No. 1 is your eyes and equilibrium. It was interrupted twice last year."

Trying to put everything back together after the concussion, Kotchman was taken down again by a hand injury sustained on a notorious Rivera cut fastball on Aug. 22.

"With any injury, when you have to stop and start again, it makes it difficult," Kotchman said.

He rebounded to hit .299 in September, helping the club in its drive to the AL West title, but the Division Series became a nightmare. Contracting food poisoning after the first two games in Boston, Kotchman watched the season end in a Red Sox sweep from a hospital bed.

"It was definitely frustrating -- especially the way it ended," Kotchman said. "You want to end your year with your teammates, win or lose -- not in a hospital recovering from food poisoning."

Kotchman knows what it's like to be a champion, having won titles as far back as little league in Seminole on teams that included Bobby Wilson, a young Angels catching hopeful.

"I've known him since we were little kids," Wilson said. "Casey knows how to relax at dinner, but when it comes to getting ready in the clubhouse ... he's focused. He knows what he has to do. He's a winner; always has been."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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