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Catch a Rising Son

Ryan Luzinski is following in his father Greg's footsteps as he waits for his number to come up in the major league draft
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It is an unlikely place for an afternoon of baseball: the boiler room, a dark and dank hollow below the basketball court at Holy Cross High in Delran, N.J. Usually a place frequented only by the janitors, the room is the setting for batting practice by the Lancers' baseball team on this rainy spring day. Ryan Luzinski stares down the blue machine spinning fastballs at him. The machine delivers its best stuff, to no avail. If it weren't for the net surrounding the batting cage, one could imagine that the bullet that leaves his bat would shoot through the ceiling and the hardwood floor, startling a group of cheerleaders practicing in the gymnasium above. But, of course, the ball slams into the net and falls, its thud muffled by sand covering the floor.

Greg Luzinski, Holy Cross's head coach and the former Phillie and White Sox slugger, looks on, concentrating more on the chaw in his cheek than on the shot his son has just hit. "I don't like to compare his hitting to mine," says Greg, who earned the nickname Bull in his playing days for both his power and his substantial girth. "I think the comparisons bother him a little bit. He's handled the 'Baby Bull' stuff well, but he wants to be himself, an individual. So I always say to him, 'Hey, I wasn't a defensive player; you're a defensive player. You have a stronger arm, and you're much quicker than I ever was.' "

This is the Luzinskis' last season together as coach and player—unless by chance they meet up in the majors. Greg will resign from Holy Cross at the end of the season after seven years as a baseball coach and five as football coach at the small Catholic school, 20 miles northeast of Philadelphia. Now 41, he hopes to return to the majors, perhaps as a hitting instructor. Ryan, a catcher projected to be one of the top five picks in the June 1-3 major league draft, will graduate from Holy Cross on June 6. If the money is right, he'll go straight to the pros; if not, he'll play baseball for the University of Miami Hurricanes.

Ryan will reap the benefit of his father's experience when the time comes for his decision. In 1968 the Phillies drafted Greg, a 17-year-old from Chicago, in the first round. He had to choose then between turning pro or going to the University of Kansas, where he had committed to play football. Five days before the draft, a Phillie scout sent the farm director a 16-millimeter film of Greg, and without having seen the young slugger perform in person, the Phillies were sold. So, with the promise of $60,000 and an Oldsmobile for his father, Greg took the leap. Three years later he was playing in the big leagues.

After 15 years in the majors—11 with the Phillies and four with the White Sox, a career in which he accumulated four All-Star seasons, a .276 batting average, 307 home runs and 1,128 RBIs—Greg retired at age 34. When it wasn't fun anymore, he stopped. It was time to go home to Medford, N.J., and watch his two children, Ryan and daughter Kim, grow up. Ryan, now 18, grew to 6'1" and 220 pounds.

The scouts have been hovering around Holy Cross High since Ryan's sophomore year, and he has received more than 500 letters from colleges interested in recruiting him for his baseball and football skills. As a junior he batted .405 with 39 RBIs and seven home runs; this season, through 33 at bats, he's hitting .545 with 18 RBIs and four home runs. Last summer at the Olympic Festival in Los Angeles, he won a silver medal playing for the East team and impressed scouts with his defense behind the plate as well as his ability to hit the long ball.

Besides being an all-state catcher in both his sophomore and junior years, he was named an all-state linebacker in 1990 and all-state defensive back in '91 and was heavily recruited to play football, as well, for Miami. If Ryan becomes a Hurricane, the football staff will try to persuade him to join the team during his sophomore year, although Ryan insists that he's committed to playing baseball only and has no intention of playing football again.

"There's a big difference between Greg's decision whether to play football or baseball and Ryan's decision," says Ryan's mom, Jean, who has known Greg since she was 16 and has been married to him for the past 23 years. "Greg had a real tough time deciding. Ryan has always known what he wanted to do. He's always wanted to play baseball."

On one wall of Ryan's bedroom there are two photos of a six-year-old with flaxen hair wearing a Phillie uniform, number 19, just like Dad. "This is so funny," says Jean. "Here he is trying so hard to pick up a batting helmet with his bat, just like the ballplayers do. And in this one he's trying to fix his socks. He could never get them just right."

Ryan's walk-in closet could pass for a small equipment room. "He has such a bat fetish," says Jean, pointing at the boxes of 35-inch bats in one corner. A few catcher's mitts rest on a chair nearby. "I think this one was Boonie's," she says, referring to Bob Boone, an All-Star catcher with the Phillies during Greg's years with the team and a close family friend. The TV room in the Luzinski house also doubles as a family hall of fame. The trophy case boasts a 1980 World Series trophy, All-Star rings, MVP awards and Most Popular Player honors, Ryan's first home run ball, his medals earned last summer with the Junior Olympic team, a few racks of autographed bats, as well as a modest collection of shotguns. Father and son spend most of their free time between seasons hunting and fishing.

The family stayed in New Jersey after Greg was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1981. Jean would take Ryan and Kim, now 22, to spring training and then to Chicago in the summer. "Basically, I was brought up in the clubhouse," says Ryan. "I remember, when I was a little kid, riding my Big Wheel around the hallways at Veterans Stadium with my friend Aaron Boone, and when I got older, I went on the road with my father."

There's more than a slight family resemblance between Greg and Ryan. Jean has kept scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and photographs dating back to Greg's minor league days, and Ryan has them nearly committed to memory. "If you look at a picture of my dad when he was 18 years old and then you look at me, we have the same type of haircut, same type of build, same type of face," says Ryan. One habit the two share, to Jean's regret, is chewing tobacco. "My father, he chews like a champ," says Ryan, who confesses he spends more money on dip than on anything else.

Says Jean, "Besides looking alike, they're both so laid-back, so low-key."

As well as so confident, so competitive and so sensitive. In other words, the tough-guy Bull stuff is exactly that. Once in a while this emotion spills onto the playing field, as it did on a frigid Saturday night last December when father and son hugged each other on the 50-yard line and cried. Holy Cross had just won the state football championship, and in his only carry of the game, Ryan had scored the winning touchdown in overtime. "I never thought I would miss football until this game," Ryan said minutes later, with tears sliding down his checks. Greg paused for a moment, spit a wad of chew and said, "This is like winning the World Series."

Even back in December, draft day didn't seem very far away. "I would sit up at night, thinking, Who's going to call, what team will it be, where will I go?" says Ryan. "You know, I have an exam that day in school. In fact, I can't imagine taking exams that whole week. All I know is that, one way or another, I'll be home for that call."

And the scouts are already predicting that the Baby Bull market will be competitive. "He could have gone in the first round last year," says Phillie scout Jack Pastore.

Says Greg, "The scouts are all saying that they'd draft him Number One if he's available, but you don't know until draft day comes."

Since Greg will negotiate Ryan's contract, the two have already outlined their terms. They say that the standards have been set: The Yankees signed Brien Taylor for $1.55 million last year, and the A's offered Todd Van Poppel $1.2 million in 1990. No matter where Ryan is picked in the first round, the Luzinskis argue, he should be treated as the first overall pick of that club and be paid accordingly.

If a club tries to offer, say, $300,000, as the Yankees initially did to Taylor last year, then Ryan will be quite happy at Miami, thank you.

"We're hoping that they don't offer him what he wants, or that it's not what he's looking for or not in a big market," says Miami's Turtle Thomas, the Hurricanes' catching coach and chief recruiter. "We hope we'll have him playing here for three years."

Meanwhile there is still the business of high school to attend to for both Greg and Ryan. Greg arrives at Holy Cross at noon to handle team details while his son is in Algebra II or business class. The former major leaguer cuts the baseball field with his own lawn mower, waters it with the irrigation pipes, folds the uniforms and packs the equipment. Ryan grumbles through his final quarter of high school. The last day that he has to squeeze into the obligatory uniform of gray polyester pants and cardigan sweater can't come soon enough. "They say high school is the best time of your life, but I just want to get this over with," he says. "Once I can finally play ball every day, then those will be the best years of my life."

The baseball world that lies ahead for Ryan and Greg will be very different from the one at Holy Cross. Still there are some things about the game and about this father-son relationship that may never change.

"My father may not have been the biggest All-Star, but he loved to play the game," Ryan says with obvious love and admiration. "He loved to go to the ball-park and hang out in the locker room, and he loved the camaraderie he shared with the other players on the team. He's done everything he's ever wanted to do.

"I don't care if I turn out to be a Hall of Fame catcher like Johnny Bench or a guy like my dad, who had a few good All-Star years. I'd be happy just to get the chance to play. And then to be able to retire, sit back and relax and do what he did, and if I have a son someday, then to coach him. That's what I would consider being successful."

PHOTO

PHIL MASTURZO

Ryan's defensive skills behind the plate have impressed scouts as much as his hitting has.

PHOTO

MANNY MILLAN

When Greg was on deck for the Phillies in '77, Ryan was riding his bike in the stadium.

PHOTO

PHIL MASTURZO

This is Ryan and Greg's last season together unless they can team up again in the bigs.