Recently, Angels skipper Mike Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times, "What we've seen we've definitely liked. If he wasn't doing the job defensively, this would be a moot point. But he is and that's giving him an opportunity to get a little more playing time."
He was talking about Huntington Beach's own Hank Conger, who is finding himself starting behind home plate more and more.
I spoke with Conger in 2008. Then, the up-and-coming catcher was about to return to Arizona for some rehab work before heading off to play either with the Cedar Rapids Kernels or with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. He had just arrived home after experiencing his first major-league training camp, and he recounted it for me with the zeal and enthusiasm not just of a young player — but as a fan, as well.
But that was then. Napoli is now in Texas. And Conger is sharing the starting role with Mathis. He has arrived in earnest, and he's a hit with the fans just as he is with his manager. But he's still pinching himself.
Speaking with me last week just before heading down to take batting practice before a game against the Oakland Athletics, Conger reflected on this early season.
"I had no idea if I'd even be playing up here coming out of spring this season," he said. "You just never know at the end of spring training. So to be getting my chances like this is just amazing. The whole thing has been surreal. I mean, I used to always come watch opening day at the stadium. This year, I'm out there starting. I was pinching myself."
In '08, Conger also talked about how much he respected No. 16, Garret Anderson. Now that he's wearing Anderson's old jersey number, Conger again can hardly express himself.
"It almost doesn't seem right," he laughed. "This isn't my jersey. It's Garret's."
Conger, who came out of the Ocean View Little League system, makes time in the off-season to run clinics and offer advice to young players. He also goes back to visit Huntington Beach High School. And during his games, he's getting used to hearing old friends call to him from the stands.
"I'll be on deck and hear something yelled that only a close pal would know," he said. "That's fun. I still live in Huntington Beach, so my commute is just what it was when I came to the stadium as a fan. I think [Angels first baseman] Mark Trumbo is the only guy with a shorter hometown commute. He's in Anaheim and went to school in Villa Park."
As far as showing his teammates what he likes to do in the area, Conger said he's been focused on turning them on to good Pho restaurants in Garden Grove's Koreatown. That, and his mom's home cooking.
"Being able to play for my favorite team is like a dream," he said. "It's what you think of as a kid. And I'm out there. And it's awesome."
You might remember a column I did on a local baseball card shop, the OC Dugout. I'd like you to know that from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. May 21, they will have three Angels doing a signing: Tyler Chatwood, Jordan Walden and Peter Bourjos. Call (714) 318-1605 for more details.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.