Casual acquaintances Mike Colangelo and Jeff Baker passed each other at least once a day while working out at an area gym. One day, the professional player commented on the high school star's peculiar spread-out batting stance.
"You don't stride, do you?" asked Colangelo, a second-year pro in the Anaheim Angels organization.
"No," replied Baker, braced for constructive ribbing. "Are you going to tell me that's bad?"
"No. I don't do it, either."
The two were instant stance soul mates.
Wowed by the younger player's unflagging work habits, Hylton High School graduate Colangelo, now 22, took a shining to Gar-Field senior Baker, 17, and became a mentor of sorts to him this spring when Baker was dealing with professional scouts and the subsequent draft.
The two have stayed in touch, and this week they crossed paths again -- not at the gym but on the sports pages: Each was involved in a defining baseball moment.
Colangelo, in his big league debut Sunday with the Anaheim Angels, collided at full speed with another outfielder and tore a ligament in his left thumb that will keep him out for at least three weeks.
All-Met Player of the Year Baker spurned a contract offer from the Cleveland Indians worth an estimated $500,000 and has announced he instead will accept his scholarship to Clemson University.
When it comes to baseball, Baker and Colangelo share little in common beyond batting stances. Baker is an infielder; Colangelo an outfielder. The Indians plucked the strapping Baker in the fourth round out of high school; the Angels drafted a mending Colangelo in the 21st round out of George Mason University. Baker has the free ride to NCAA power Clemson as leverage; Colangelo had no such bargaining chip.
But the pair had plenty in common during those offseason workouts. They were just two guys, with natural baseball curiosities, striving to become better players, with the same ultimate goal.
"I'd always see this guy walking through the gym," said Colangelo, who had noticed Baker while working area camps. "I'd come back at night, and I'd see him there. There's no secret why he's so good. Most 18-year-olds handle themselves like 18-year-olds. He handles himself like a junior or senior in college.
"When I was his age, I didn't have nearly the work ethic he has. There are guys who have the tools and with any work ethic could be a running back at Florida State or a point guard at North Carolina. He'll be where I am one day. There's no doubt in my mind."
Baker is just as admiring of Colangelo's brisk ascent to the majors in the face of the flurry of injuries and where he went in the draft.
"Mike could have gone a lot higher than he did," Baker said. "It shows that all you need is an opportunity. The rounds really don't mean anything."
During workouts, the two would scrutinize each other's swing and offer suggestions, sometimes correcting hard-to-detect hitches ingrained in muscle memory.
"We have a mirror relationship," Colangelo said of the sessions with Baker, which at times included minor leaguers Brian McNichol (Gar-Field) and Sammy Serrano (Hylton). "If I do something wrong, he tells me, and if he does something wrong, I tell him."
This spring, Colangelo checked in with the Bakers every few weeks to see how the family was handling the scouting stress.
"I just wanted them to enjoy it and not do what I did," Colangelo said. "You work your whole life to get drafted, and it comes, and I didn't enjoy it."
Colangelo urged Baker always to be honest with the scouts, not to reveal a dollar figure it would take to sign him and not to allow negotiations to drag through the summer. If a scout posed a question Baker wasn't sure how to answer, he could call Colangelo.
"Mike's been wonderful," said Dawn Baker, Jeff's mother. "He's shown such an interest and called from wherever he is. He'd been there; he'd done it; and he knew what it was like. He gave a lot of negatives and positives."
"The most important thing I get from him," Jeff Baker said, "is that I get to see what it takes to be where I want to be."
Up and Down
Called up last weekend from Class AAA Edmonton, Colangelo found himself batting leadoff and playing left field against Arizona in his major league debut Sunday. He singled off Omar Daal in his first at-bat, walked in his second at-bat and threw out a runner at second base from the warning track in left.
Then came the injury. Colangelo now spends much of his time in his Anaheim hotel room, watching television and talking on the phone. He views his collision with center fielder Reggie Williams, a former minor league teammate, as a temporary derailment.
"Getting called up you're on a high high -- the highest I've ever been," said Colangelo, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list. "Getting hurt puts you back down in a big low. But it's not going to end my career, and a couple of weeks isn't much in a career. I just feel like it's not going to be my last [big league] game."
Colangelo, who batted .362 in 26 games in Class AAA, does some moonlighting, but he hasn't exactly held up his end of the bargain in that deal. He writes an occasional online diary for USA Today's Web site about life in the minor leagues. But he was hired to write from a Class AA player's perspective. Colangelo started the season at that level but soon vaulted to Class AAA and then to the majors.
That speedy climb makes the injury all the more difficult, even worse than the broken wrist he suffered in his final collegiate game -- a week before the 1997 draft. Worse than the chipped ankle bone that knocked him out for a month 12 games into his first professional season. Worse than follow-up hand surgery in August.
"It's totally different when you get hurt up here," said Colangelo, who lay on the field for about 15 minutes after the collision and was carted off on a wooden backboard and taken to a hospital. "This is where you want to be. Not just to get here, but to stay here. One game doesn't prove anything. It takes seasons to prove who you are and what you can do."
Colangelo did his proving in just 112 minor league games. He credits his ability to make constant adjustments at the plate, and his playing with a wood bat for much of his youth, for his rapid rise.
Staying in the majors, however, could prove more difficult, even with a team that has lost nine of its last 11 games, and one in desperate need of an offensive spark.
"The time you're out is time you've lost," Colangelo said. "And you can't get that time back."
Time is something Baker, who turns 18 next week, has plenty of. Last night he graduated from high school, and Sunday he will leave for Ohio to play on a traveling team that also will include Potomac catcher Danny Lopaze, a former Little League teammate.
Later this summer, Baker will head to Clemson. Unless maybe the Indians sweeten the offer the Bakers turned down earlier this week, or the family reconsiders the current package. The Bakers, however, consider the negotiations finished.
Even so, Baker could sign any time before college starts. Colangelo, for one, expects the Indians to come calling again before then.
"I have a feeling they might come back and a feeling they won't," Baker said.
"We respect his decision," Indians scout Chuck Ricci said. "But it's a long summer. Hopefully, maybe, he'll change his mind. Looking back on it, we'd make the same pick again. Five different [Cleveland] scouts saw him, and we all had the same opinion. We felt Jeff was not just ready for pro ball with physical ability but with his makeup also. We felt he was 18 going on 23 or 24. How he's handled all this has only confirmed our ideas on how mature he really is."
The Indians did not have a first-round draft choice. They have signed their second-, third- and fifth-round picks -- Will Hartley, a high school catcher from Florida; Eric Johnson, an outfielder out of Western Carolina University; and Curtis Gay, a first baseman from Oklahoma City University.
"It's really a flawed system," Ricci said of the drafting process. "They've had 12 months to think about a college. All this happens so fast, and it's tough for a kid to make a decision in that short of time. Maybe the draft didn't work out as well as he had hoped, and it's tough to get over that disappointment."
Baker said the other top Cleveland prospects signing doesn't make him rethink his decision.
"Each situation is different," he said. "They could sign all their other 49 picks, and that wouldn't bother me."
CAPTION: Jeff Baker, 17, is off to Clemson after declining Indians' $500,000 offer.
CAPTION: After colliding with a fellow Angel, Mike Colangelo lies still as teammates, Manager Terry Collins wait for help.