2007-01-04 / Sports
Lieberthal returns to his roots
Westlake High grad back in SoCal to play for the Dodgers
After calling Philadelphia his major league home for 13 seasons, catcher Mike Lieberthal’s new home park will be Dodger Stadium, much closer to Westlake High where he blossomed during the 198790 seasons for the Warriors.
Lieberthal received a $1.15 million contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers on Dec. 6, with a club option for the following season.
Born in Glendale on Jan. 18, 1972, Lieberthal, who bats and throws righthanded, grew up attending games at Dodger Stadium with his family, including his father, Dennis Lieberthal, who was once a scout for the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers.
Mike Lieberthal was drafted by the Phillies in the first round (third pick) of the 1990 amateur draft and signed his first professional contract on June 4, 1990.
He made his major league debut at Dodger Stadium on June 30, 1994, when he was 22.
As a major leaguer Lieberthal has a .275 career batting average with 150 home runs, 609 RBI and is the Phillies’ all-time leader with 1,174 games caught. In addition, he’s Philadelphia’s leader in home runs and RBI for a catcher.
Lieberthal said he signed with Los Angeles in the offseason because he wants to win.
“The Dodgers have a pretty good chance to win this year,” he said. “The Phillies, all the years I’ve been there, we never made the playoffs. At this point of my career, really, the main thing is just winning, getting into the playoffs and winning a championship.”
From the Dodgers’ standpoint Lieberthal’s key value as a player will be to serve as a backup to Russell Martin, a standout rookie last year.
Regarding that aspect of his presence on the team, the Westlake grad said he’d be there to do “anything I can do to help Russell Martin.”
“I just know him by playing against him,” Lieberthal said. “I hear he’s a great guy to work with; he’s a young kid who hopefully I can help. I’ve been in the league for a while. I know a lot of the hitters in the league. I can help him in that respect.”
Lieberthal is grateful for the coaching he received along the way to the majors and said that a large part of that was at Westlake.
“The guys I played with I still stay in touch with,” he said. “We had a good coaching staff.
“Rich Herrera, head coach, and his brother, Larry Herrera, also coached. Great guys. I had a good coach before that—Dennis Judd. He was a good guy and gave me an opportunity to start (on the varsity) in my freshman year. Everything was so positive about baseball at Westlake at that time.
“I was fortunate. Our team in high school was really good. My senior year we were ranked in the nation, and we lost in the semifinals,” Lieberthal said.
Lieberthal’s 1990 Warrior team was 28-2 overall, 14-0 in the Marmonte League and won its first league baseball championship. USA Today ranked Westlake No.1 in the nation before it was upset by Huntington Beach in the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division V-A playoffs.
While at Westlake, Lieberthal established himself as a leader with three single-season records that still stand: total bases (94), home runs (14), and second alltime to Mike Nickeas with 43 RBI.
Nickeas is a catcher in the New York Mets’ minor league system.
Lieberthal still holds career records at Westlake for at-bats (289), runs (79), hits (105), home runs (30), and he’s second in RBI (79) to Nickeas’ 105.
After graduating from WHS, Lieberthal spent three and a half seasons in the minors. The transition from high school to professional baseball wasn’t easy, he said.
“It’s hard because you can’t really prepare yourself because everything’s so much different,” Lieberthal said. “From the first year I lived with a family for a couple months. In rookie ball a lot of families take players in, so that was different. Being in a small town, Martinsville, Va., it’s a totally different environment.
“The second year in South Carolina was the same deal as in Virginia. It was a small town and I lived with a family. When you play, you are facing players who are the best in the nation at that time at that age group, playing with wood bats, which I had not done. Bus rides— you have bus rides, you have new friends. It’s an experience that’s hard to prepare for.”
His pace out of high school to the majors was a little quicker than he thought it would be when he left Westlake.
“It’s tough to make it up within three or four years,” he said. “You really have to climb the ladder fast. It’s not that I tore it up in my first couple of years in the minors, but when you are drafted high you move up every year, and that’s what I did.”
When he was called up to the majors, Lieberthal had a career minor league batting average of .270 with 13 home runs.
“Being in the situations with the Phillies, they needed catching,” he said. “Darren Daulton at the time was struggling. Daulton got hurt ’94 and ’95. My first two years I came up for half the season. It was a little bit quicker call than probably normal.”
Among other awards, Sporting News bestowed the National League Comeback Player of the Year award on Lieberthal in 2002 after he was sidelined in 2001.
Playing in his 34th game of 2001, Lieberthal was picked off at first base by then Arizona Diamondbacks’ left-hander Brian Anderson.
“I really tore everything in my knee,” he said. “My ACL and MCL and cartilage. I had to have that repaired. I took the whole halfseason and offseason to get back. It bounced back pretty good.”
Lieberthal was named to the National League All-Star team in 1999 and 2000.
“In ’99, before the season started, to make the All-Star team was not even really a thought,” he said. “I was just fortunate. I had a great first half. (Mike) Piazza was always the sworn-in starter for all those years.
“To be in a position to be his backup, it was a great year. I started off strong and ended strong that year. It was an experience to play with all the greatest players in the game for that one day.”
Lieberthal said earning a Rawlings Golden Glove Award in 1999 brought him the most professional pleasure. Managers and coaches from each Major League team, who are not able to select their own players, do the voting.
“It’s the one award that I cherish the most because of defense,” he said. “You take a lot of pride as a catcher. To at least get one of those awards shows that you have some skills back there.”
As he prepares for the new season with a new team, Lieberthal has a schedule that includes yoga two or three times a week. He also has a trainer who comes to his house four times a week.
“Besides that, I just try to throw every other day to keep my arm in shape,” he said. “I started swinging the bat probably January 1st. A couple of guys in the area—Matt Franco (a former major leaguer who’s also played Japan) and Kevin Howard (playing in the New York Yankees’ minor league system) who went to Westlake—I work out with those two guys.”
Lieberthal said it’s important to stay on top of his game, and to do that there’s a lot of work that most people don’t see.
“Off the field you are practicing most of the time just to prepare yourself in a nine-inning game,” Lieberthal said. “I’ve always worked hard. You have to work hard in the offseason so you do stay healthy once you enter the season.”
With spring training a month and a half away, Lieberthal looks forward to several good spring and summer seasons with the Dodgers.
“Hopefully I can stay here in L.A.,” he said. “It’s really up to your health. Hopefully I’ll do well here in L.A. and be here for a few years. You never know how long. Obviously, it’s health and if you produce. I’m just looking to win a championship and enjoying myself.”