Wallace is Not Your Average Joe
By MARK PATTON, NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Joe Wallace's numbers have been down. All of them except his age.
He turned 22 in February, and everyone had expected the veteran outfielder from UCSB to be playing professional baseball by now.
"He's a toolsy guy," said Bill Pintard, a Angels' scout who's been coaching Wallace for the last month with the Santa Barbara Foresters. "He has enough tools to play at the next level."
But while the batting averages have been down — .222 for the Gauchos this spring and .213 for the Foresters so far this summer — Joe Wallace refuses to wallow in them. No Forester has been more upbeat.
In one game, he beat out a drag bunt to stir a rally and then dove for a catch in right field to beat the San Luis Obispo Blues.
In another, he stole home plate off a pitcher's pick-off move to beat the Conejo Oaks.
Difficult plays all, but Wallace explains them simply: He's just enjoying summer like any baseball-slinging kid.
He's 6-foot-5 and 22 years old, but his favorite movie is still "Sandlot."
"A lot of guys say, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to take the summer off and not play ball,' but when they come out to the yard, they're wishing the whole time that they were out there," he said. "I'd feel the same way. If I weren't playing this summer, I think I'd just be miserable.
"There's no better place than on the baseball field, and we all have such a good time out here."
Wallace was the golden boy when he arrived at UCSB last fall, having won the Silver Slugger Award as California's top junior college hitter of 2010. He batted .420 with eight home runs and 15 stolen bases to lead the College of San Mateo to the state championship game.
Nobody hit better during the Gauchos' offseason, intrasquad games, either.
"I saw him in the fall when he first came down here and, professionally speaking, he's very, very intriguing," Pintard said. "He was hitting pretty good and he's really athletic. He can run. He can throw.
"Then he started off (the regular season) slow. I was kind of surprised at that."
So was the big kid from Lafayette.
"I definitely didn't start off too well and just kind of struggled my way through the year," Wallace said. "I just never really got in a groove like I did in the fall."
He tried everything from the technical to the superstitious to find that groove.
Wallace even gave the cold shoulder to his cold bat, turning it over to his roommate, bullpen catcher Kevin Stanley, for safekeeping.
"I had him just hold it for two weeks straight, and I wouldn't touch it unless I was going to go hit," he said. "He said he was working magic on it ... It did work a couple of times, but ultimately it didn't pan out as we'd planned."
The more he struggled to get hits, however, the more he took them away from UCSB's opposition. His great range and glove helped anchor one of the Big West Conference's best defensive outfields. He also threw out three base runners before they eventually stopped running on him.
"The one thing I could hang my hat on was that I was playing the best defense I could," Wallace said. "I thought I was really helping the team with that, which made the tough times at the plate a little easier to get through.
"That's what you have to do when you're struggling. You have to put your head down and keep working."
That's what Pintard has noticed the most about Wallace, who has spent long hours in the batting cage with former Major Leaguer Gary Woods.
"Coach Woods has been tweaking my hands a bit and widening my stance at the plate," Wallace said. "He's trying to get me a little more balanced."
Pintard has noticed the results, even if his batting average has yet to reflect it. Wallace has struck out only six times in 47 at-bats this summer.
"I don't care about his average," Pintard said. "You saw that when the game was on the line (on Wednesday), I put him up there. I don't look at the averages as much as some people do. I look at the hard-hit balls.
"If you put the ball in play, good things can happen, and he's putting the ball in play."
Wallace hopes to follow the same base path as another 22-year-old Gaucho, right fielder Mark Haddow, who bounced back from a disappointing junior season to rank as one of the Big West's leading hitters this year.
Haddow was drafted last month by the Chicago White Sox and is now playing Rookie League ball in Great Falls, Mont.
"Just watching Mark work throughout the whole fall and continue that into the spring is an example that I'd like to piggy-back off," Wallace said.
He also wants to inherit Haddow's leadership role with the Gauchos, a job for which Pintard believes he's amply equipped.
"As good as he is as a player, he's even a greater guy," he said. "He's a great team guy. He's great in the clubhouse. He's got a sense of humor.
"He seems to enjoy the game. He loves coming out here, and that's a great thing."
Wallace loves it even while his line drives keep finding the opponent's glove. The margin between success and failure, he realizes, is a very fine line.
"Sometimes it's centimeters, we're talking," he said. "That's why baseball can be so frustrating ... but it's also what makes it so great."
It's why down can still be up in a game that is Wallace's Wonderland.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: email@example.com