After nine years in minors, Podsednik savoring big-league opportunity
CHICAGO -- The little town of West, Texas, prides itself on being the state's center of Czech heritage, maker of some of the best pastries around and the home of Scott Podsednik.
And that was well before he hit a game-ending home run Sunday night that put the Chicago White Sox within two victories of their first World Series title since 1917, and the Hall of Fame asked for his bat.
"He was a hometown hero long before everyone knew about him," said Joyce Schroeder, secretary to the superintendent of the West Independent School District. "They've seen him go through the good times and the bad."
In only his third season, Podsednik is having the kind of year most players only dream about. He made his first All-Star team, finished second in the majors with 59 steals and now is the White Sox's offensive catalyst in the World Series.
But his success was a long time coming. Drafted by the Texas Rangers out of high school, Podsednik spent nine years in the minor leagues, crisscrossing the country in search of an opportunity.
"Yeah, there were a couple of times when I was really considering if I was cut out to play major league baseball," Podsednik said. "It was a long road, long grind. What kept me going was a feeling that I had, that if I could just stay healthy and find an opportunity, I wasn't going to let it go.
"It's all about timing," he added. "It's all about being at the right place at the right time."
Podsednik will never be mistaken for a power hitter, even with that homer off of Brad Lidge, one of the best closers in the game. He went the entire regular season -- 507 at-bats -- without a home run, and he's never hit more than 12 in a year.
At 6 feet and 190 pounds, he's built for speed instead. He lettered in track in high school, and had scholarship offers to run hurdles and the 200 meters at Texas, Texas A&M and TCU.
While that speed makes him the ideal leadoff hitter, it takes more than quickness to bat at the top of the order.
"His type of game is not something that's going to come easily," White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said. "A lot of speed guys have trouble learning skills well enough to be hitting first in the major leagues."
So Podsednik worked. Worked on his game, worked to stay healthy and worked, period. Minor leaguers don't make a lot of money, and Podsednik supplemented his income with offseason baseball camps and hitting lessons. He also was a substitute teacher back in West, a city of 2,500 about 75 miles south of Dallas.
"All the little kids used to be excited to have him as a substitute teacher," Schroeder said.
Podsednik taught grade school and high school. He usually taught physical education classes, but he'd fill in wherever he was needed.
"I was able to fill in and kind of be a body for the missing teachers," he said.
Finally, in 2003, Podsednik got his break. The Milwaukee Brewers had claimed him off of waivers from Seattle the previous October, and manager Ned Yost figured Podsednik would land in Triple-A. But when Geoff Jenkins started the year on the disabled list, the Brewers needed another outfielder and Podsednik made the opening day roster.
He wound up becoming the fourth rookie to hit .300, steal 40 bases and score 100 runs, joining Jimmy Barrett (1900), Shoeless Joe Jackson (1911) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001). He led NL rookies in nine offensive categories and reached base safely in 47 straight games, the second-longest streak of the season. He quickly became a fan favorite in Milwaukee, and he finished second to Dontrelle Willis in voting for NL rookie of the year.
Podsednik had another impressive year last season, leading the majors with 70 steals and hitting a career-high 12 home runs.
When the White Sox traded slugger Carlos Lee to the Brewers for Podsednik last December, though, many in Chicago wondered what Williams was thinking. But Williams was rebuilding his team around speed and fundamentals, and Podsednik was exactly the guy he wanted.
"There are very few prototypical leadoff hitters in the game, whether it be at the major league level or minor league level," Williams said. "And we needed him."
Said Aaron Rowand, "When he gets on, he causes problems for the defense, steals a base here and there. It's huge for us."
Podsednik stole 52 bases in the first four months of the season, and was the fan choice for the final spot on the All-Star team. Slowed by a strained left adductor that landed him on the disabled list for two weeks in August, he had only seven steals in the second half.
But he hit .328 over the last 29 games of the regular season, and has played a key role in the playoffs. He's hitting .300 with two homers and six RBIss, and has five steals.
"It all seems surreal," Podsednik said. "It was a long, tough road, but I learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way. I struggled and hit a lot of obstacles in the road, but I think those times only made me a stronger person."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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