Monday, February 12, 2007

Percival Delivers New Home Base

Former Angels closer finances and personally builds
baseball clubhouse at UC Riverside, his alma mater.

By Bill Shaikin
Times Staff Writer
February 12, 2007

It was early in the morning, way too early for a college student to stir. The coach was alone in his office, but the noise made it apparent he was not alone in the building.

He wandered into the clubhouse to see what was up. He was stunned. The greatest player in school history was perched atop a ladder, dipping a sponge into a bucket of water and scrubbing the ceiling.

Troy Percival looked down at his old coach. Then the longtime Angels closer and four-time All-Star went back to work, but not before UC Riverside Coach Doug Smith asked why. The Highlanders hoped Percival would build their new clubhouse, but not literally.

"I was going to go hire some guys," Percival told Smith. "I just decided to do it myself."

He imagined, designed, scrubbed, patched, hammered, sawed, painted, wired and installed. He paid for just about everything, with money and with sweat.

The Highlanders can't thank him enough and all he says is, hey, thanks for getting me out of the house.

"I like to work," he said, "and I've been sitting at home for a year. It gave me a chance to get my fingers dirty."

The Riverside baseball field is a second home to Percival. He still lives in Riverside, shows up for alumni games, headlines golf tournaments to raise money for the team. He used to work out with the team to get ready for spring training.

He recorded the last out of the Angels' World Series victory in 2002 and earned his 300th save two years later, then gave way to Francisco Rodriguez and signed a two-year, $12-million contract with the Detroit Tigers. But his elbow gave way, and he made the last pitch of his career July 9, 2005.

So he was in Riverside last year, when Smith shared some good news. The city no longer needed its storage facility at the field, so the Highlanders could move in and renovate.

"The place was a disaster," Smith said. "There were holes in the walls. The carpet needed to be ripped up. The place hadn't seen paint in 20 years."

Smith envisioned a shiny clubhouse, and Percival volunteered to help. Give me a key, he told Smith, and let me see what I can do.

"We figured he would make a donation to help cover the costs," Smith said. "I didn't have any expectation he would pay for the whole thing and do the whole thing."

Team Percival did the job. Percival enlisted his father, Richard, a former painter and his father-in-law, Jerry Close, a onetime woodworker. They designed, assembled and installed 34 lockers — eight feet tall, solid oak, with shelves.

"Major league quality," Smith said. "When I saw the first locker, I was blown away."

Percival toiled on ladders some days, on hands and knees other days, working as many as 12 hours a day by Smith's count, for about three weeks in November and December.

The Highlanders' season started two weeks ago, but the players haven't moved into the clubhouse yet. The stools are on order, and so are the nameplates for the lockers. The couch, the tables and the big-screen television are coming too.

"It'll be nice to see the kids in here, maybe playing cards," Percival said. "They can come in here and do their homework."

In a mischievous tone, he added, "One guy told me they'd put a computer in here, but I don't envision that."

Percival, 37, was a catcher at Riverside from 1987 to 1990, before the Angels drafted him and made him a pitcher. Smith was an assistant then, under 31-year coach Jack Smitheran, and the Highlanders played in Division II.

Now they're in the Big West Conference, competing against powerhouses Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, hoping the new clubhouse might sway a recruit toward Riverside.

"We're in competition with some pretty good programs," Percival said. "We've got to step it up."

Percival's name adorns the outfield wall, one of two Highlanders to have his number retired. Eric Show, the former San Diego Padres' pitcher, is the other.

His name will soon grace a plaque at the clubhouse entrance, in recognition of a donation Smith estimated at "well over $100,000" in labor and materials. Percival could live without the plaque; Smith insisted.

And one locker will be reserved for Percival, so he can drop by and play catch whenever he wants. But even he will have to abide by Smith's rule: No bats in this locker room, since the lockers are so nice.

"The first guy that hits one of these with a bat," Smith said, "is dead."

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