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Original Issue

Catching On at Last Late-blooming L.A. backstop Paul Lo Duca is a hit behind and at the plate

Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca's mother's name was Luci. Look down
at the white swooshes on Paul's blue Nike cleats. The name is
written there, in black marker. Or check just behind home plate.
Before the first pitch he catches in a game, Lo Duca scratches
her initials--LL--into the dirt.

Paul is a walking, talking, crouching tribute to Luci's life. She
was the one who attended all his Little League games, who threw
him BP and drove him to the batting cages. She was the one who,
with her life running out, insisted that he continue to play. No
matter what.

In 1996, while Paul was playing for the Sun Cities Solar Sox of
the Arizona Fall League, Luci was in a hospital in Phoenix, dying
of ovarian cancer at age 53. When doctors told her that she had
less than a month to live, Luci told Paul, the youngest of her
three sons, "I want you to attend my funeral, and the next day I
want you to play baseball."

Paul honored Luci's wishes. "She knew that was my time to show
the Dodgers what I could do," says Paul, who through Sunday was
hitting .368 with two home runs. "The last thing I wanted to do
was play ball, but I did it for her."

The 29-year-old Lo Duca has made the most of his opportunity, and
now he's attempting to follow such recent star Dodgers receivers
as Mike Piazza, Charles Johnson and Todd Hundley. Not bad for an
undersized player who was undrafted out of high school.

Paul was born in Brooklyn, but when he was a year old, Luci and
her husband, Paul, moved the family to Glendale, Ariz. Young Paul
became a star player there at Apollo High, earning state
co-player of the year honors in 1990. However, at 5'7" and
without a clear position, he was neither drafted nor recruited by
a college. He ended up playing at Glendale Community College,
where he was twice named a junior college All-America. That
earned him a partial scholarship from Arizona State, and in '93
he starred as the Sun Devils' DH, batting .446 with 14 homers and
88 RBIs. That year he was drafted, by the Dodgers--in the 25th
round. "They offered me $3,000," he says. "My dream was to play
professional baseball, but $3,000?"

After some haggling, Lo Duca signed for 20 grand, but his rise
wouldn't be meteoric. He hit .310 in 123 games at Class A
Bakersfield in 1994 but was not moved up. "I thought all that
mattered was my hitting," he says, "but I was a 5'9" first
baseman. Why would they promote me?" He caught a break in 1996,
when Mike Scioscia, a former Dodgers receiver who was working as
a roving catching instructor for L.A., took him under his wing.
The organization turned Lo Duca into a full-time catcher, sending
him back to the Class A Vero Beach Dodgers to work on his
defense. Now, after spending parts of the past three seasons as
an up-then-down L.A. reserve, Lo Duca has made it. A strained
left hamstring limited him to pinch-hitting duties last week, but
he was scheduled to start behind the plate again on Tuesday.
Along with his high batting average, he had thrown out 4 of 7
would-be base stealers.

"Growing up, my dad was a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan," says Paul,
whose father now runs a restaurant in Sedona, Ariz. "When the
team moved to California, he vowed never to root for them again."
Paul smiles broadly. "Now he has no choice."

--Jeff Pearlman