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Power trip

Anderson blossoms into top Sox prospect

His parents, Diane Goettlicher (left) and George Anderson (right), always have been big supporters of Lars Anderson, but they never pushed him. His parents, Diane Goettlicher (left) and George Anderson (right), always have been big supporters of Lars Anderson, but they never pushed him. (JAN STURMANN/FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 6, 2009
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FAIR OAKS, Calif. - "What kind of music are you into?" Lars Anderson asks.

His listener hesitates.

"Not into music?" he says. "I'm going to throw [something] at you."

He's kidding, of course. But it's unthinkable that this person sitting across the living room might not be as captivated by music as he is.

The answer comes. Classic rock. There is audible relief.

"All right," he says. "That's what I'm saying."

The conversation turns to novels, and the English major discovers that one of her favorites - David James Duncan's "The Brothers K" - also is a favorite of Anderson, the 21-year-old who reconsid ered a commitment to the University of California for the lure of an $825,000 signing bonus from the Red Sox three years ago.

There's something different here.

"He's able to hold a conversation and he's inquisitive and interested in learning things outside of baseball, which, for me, was such a breath of fresh air," says Gabe Kapler, the former Sox outfielder who was Anderson's manager at Single A Greenville in 2007. "Lars just being where he is developmentally . . . he's already ahead of the curve. He's going to be a very intriguing person to follow off the baseball field."

On the field, too. The first baseman has progressed from an overlooked high school talent to an 18th-round draft pick (because of signability issues) in 2006, to a rising star with developing power and strike zone discipline, to a Baseball America cover boy and the top prospect in the Boston organization.

He's started to realize this. His parents have started to realize this. The anonymity has begun to lift. Recognition has come, and the glimpses of life at the big league level have appeared more frequently as he readies to make his debut in major league camp in Fort Myers, Fla., in 10 days.

"It's kind of amusing," his father, George, says. He is asked to elaborate.

"Well," he says, "you get to see the phenomena of celebrity where none existed before. So what's different? That's kind of what's amusing about it. Like all of a sudden, there's this incredible interest."

Early signs
George, tall and gangly, gets out of his chair in the living room to put on a demonstration. Egged on by his wife, who suggests he tell the "sock story," George is more than willing to oblige, motions and all. He recalls the miniature Lars, 2 years old, or maybe 18 months. George would throw rolled-up socks to his son, who would promptly swing.

Then there was the time he rolled his son a little ball.

"I go, 'Here, Lars, catch,' " George says, and assumes a perfect infielder's posture, imitating the 2-year-old Lars ready to receive the grounder. "I swear to God. It was amazing."

Diane Goettlicher, Lars's mother, corroborates the story, confirms Lars's fascination with baseball nearly from birth.

"He's the baby, so when he was born, I made a promise that I would always play with him whenever he wanted, whether it be Thomas the Tank Engine or who cares [what]," George says of the son nine years younger than his next-oldest sibling. "If he wants to play, I'll play. So just by coincidence, he was downloaded with baseball. His first word was 'ball.' If you look through the family album of photographs, every photograph of him, he's got a ball in his hand, a little toy red football or little bouncy ball."

That's where it all comes from, his high school coach Joe Potulny says. It's not from coaches or from travel teams or from any other outside form of instruction. It's from George, who says he never pushed his son to go out and practice, let alone pursue baseball as a career, and it's from Lars himself.

There's a batting cage in the backyard, and George's rubber arm, and one concept that has been with Lars. As he says, without so much as a blink, "It just always seemed foolish to swing at a pitch that wasn't a strike. 'Cause they're hard to hit."

"He really understands the strike zone well, and he recognizes balls and strikes early," Kapler says. "Look, I saw him play in Greenville. That is low A ball, long-season experience, so from that standpoint, he was way ahead of the game because he was already recognizing balls and strikes and had a plan, an approach at the plate that was advanced. He had planned on not swinging at breaking balls until he had two strikes on him.

"At that level, I think he understood that would set him apart."

Of course, understanding and doing aren't always compatible. But Lars has been so patient that the Red Sox asked him last spring to be more aggressive. They asked him to attack the first pitch at times, to stay out of two-strike counts to keep his at-bats out of the hands of the umpires, especially in the minor leagues.

"He's been a lot more aggressive with the first pitch," director of player development Mike Hazen says. "He's been a lot more aggressive early in the count when they try to sneak that one fastball by him. That's paid big dividends for him."

Tough times
Anderson nearly explodes out of his chair when he hears what his mother has done. No matter that the e-mail was sent two years ago. There is still a twinge of embarrassment, a sense that he might not be able to live this down, yet he hardly disputes the underlying reason for the e-mail.

One of his few failings is how he deals with failure. Ask what he needs to work on most, and Anderson won't point to anything physical. He says he needs to have a short memory, so a slump like the one in Greenville in 2007 won't affect him now the way it did then. It got so bad, as Anderson spiraled into a skid of "like 10 for 100," that his mother e-mailed his manager, something Lars hasn't been told until this moment.

"That's so heartbreaking," he says of the slump. "You get to the field, you have a bad game. Go back home, you're like, 'All right, it's going to be all right tomorrow. I'm going to get there. Tomorrow I'm going to get two hits.' You go to the field, you're like, 'I'm going to get two hits. Feeling good. Feeling good.' Then 0 for 4, two strikeouts. That's such a letdown."

So, no, this rise has not been without its dips.

"I can remember in Greenville, you coming up to me after a game with this look of desperation," George says to Lars. "I'd never seen it before. Eyes are wide open. He's like, 'I can't hit. I don't know what I'm doing. I can't hit an inside pitch. I can't hit an outside pitch. I can't hit. I think I'm going to quit.' "

Lars cuts in. "I wasn't serious," he says.

Not long after that, Lars met with Bob Tewksbury, a Sox sports psychologist. Then he had a breakout series in Hagerstown, and his average finished at a respectable .288, prompting a promotion to high A Lancaster.

There haven't been many slumps since. Anderson hit .317 with 13 home runs and 50 RBIs in 77 games at Lancaster last season, then hit .316 with five home runs and 30 RBIs in 41 games with Double A Portland. He has become one of the best first base prospects in baseball, and the top positional prospect with the Sox.

On a team with diminishing power, Anderson represents power potential. He could be special. Or at least that's what everyone says. Anderson, though, knows Double A is not the big leagues, and expectations will not help him hit a breaking ball.

"The thing that drives me nuts is there's so many assumptions, not really made a lot within the organization, but people who are interested in the Red Sox or whoever," Anderson says. "For a guy like myself, there's all these assumptions that we'll do this and do that from friends, family, fans, critics, whatever. Barely any of the stuff that they've projected has happened or maybe even will happen, so it's like there's so much focus on the future. It kind of wears on you after a while."

The big leap
The ground is marshy, the rain coming as a much-needed balm to this Northern California town. It looks like a sinkhole, like a place to be avoided when playing soccer, which is the intended use for this stretch of grass not much more than 90 feet from the house where Anderson grew up.

That might be the observation of the uninitiated. For Lars and George, it's home plate.

It was where the "dads vs. lads" games occurred, including a couple of other kids from the neighborhood. The rules: Steals, always. Strikeouts, never. And the first fly ball caught was a big deal.

That seems like so long ago, as the big leagues appear ever closer. Not only was Anderson invited to his first major league spring training, but Hazen has said in recent days that he should be prepared in case the Red Sox need him this season.

Goettlicher is preparing in her own way. She plans to walk the Pacific Coast Trail this summer, at least from Mexico to Oregon. But when she gets to that point, a couple of months into the journey, Goettlicher has an out - just in case her son gets that call. Otherwise, she'll be finishing up the 2,700-mile trail into Canada.

But first comes spring training.

"Scared out of my mind," Lars says. "No, there's definitely some anxiety, like a huge unknown. I have a feeling it will turn out pretty well. I think I'll have fun and learn a lot. There's such a wealth of knowledge there. I'm looking forward to it, but I definitely have some anxiety over it. I always do before spring training, always anxious.

"It's a big thing. You always want to impress people right away, even if you've known them for 10 years. You get back there and you're like, 'I want to impress these guys. I want to play well.' You put that pressure on yourself, I think it's natural to feel some anxiety over it."

Fortunately for the family, they've known this was destined to happen for a dozen years. When Lars was playing baseball at age 9, another father, who had professional baseball experience, came up to George and told him his son was going to play professional ball. Now here he stands, just a couple of steps from the major leagues.

Still, there are things he hasn't done. Like catch a fly ball in those dads vs. lads games at Bannister Park.

"I'm still working on it," he says.

"Keep working, Lars," his mother says. "You'll get it."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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