by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & oy Hobbs is alive and well and playing baseball at Washington State. On second thought, comparing Jared Prince to Hobbs is unfair to Prince. After all, Prince is starring at the plate, on the mound and in right field, and Hobbs could no longer pitch by the time Robert Redford played the fictional baseball star in The Natural.
Prince, a freshman out of Poulsbo's North Kitsap High School, is putting together the greatest combined season of hitting, pitching and fielding seen in these parts since Cougar first baseman-pitcher John Olerud was named college player of the year in 1988.
Heading into Friday's Pac-10 opener at 17th-ranked Stanford (11-7), Prince leads the surprising young Cougars (18-6) with a .449 batting average and 26 RBIs in 22 games. On the mound, he's 3-0 with a 0.00 earned run average, 14 strikeouts and zero walks in 18 innings. In the field, he has no errors in 41 chances, and he made a spectacular diving catch to preserve a perfect game.
Alas, the perfect game ended in a two-hitter, making the game and Prince similar in that they're only close to being perfect.
"I've never seen a true freshman do anything like he's doing," WSU coach Donnie Marbut says.
"I've really fallen in love with baseball," Prince says.
Ain't love grand? Fickle, too. After all, Prince says he never would have come to WSU, never mind played college baseball, if he had been successful in his quest to land a football scholarship at Washington or another big-time college football program.
"I'm glad I came here ... right now, I'm a baseball player. Things could change," Prince said.
Prince was a standout football quarterback, basketball guard and forward and baseball pitcher and infielder at North Kitsap. He set successive school batting records of .512, .523 and .525, but Marbut said he was far more attracted to Prince's 90-mph-plus fastball than his hitting.
"I never in a million years thought he could hit," Marbut admits.
"I really thought I was going to hit," Prince says in his soft-spoken, confident manner. "But in, like, our first batting practice last fall, Coach Marbut was pitching to me, and he yelled to me, 'We brought you here to pitch. If you don't start hitting, we're not going to let you hit.'"
Long hours in the cage with recruiting coordinator and hitting coach Travis Jewett straightened out Prince's hitting mechanics. The 6-foot-3, 198-pound Prince has 11 doubles but just one home run; he figures to develop more power as he continues to learn about his swing, since last summer was the first time he dedicated himself full-time to baseball.
"His work ethic is absolutely incredible," Marbut says. "He's turned himself into a hitter."
"I'm just trying to get better each day and each week, improve on the positives and learn from my mistakes," Prince says.
Marbut would have made a huge mistake if he had stopped his diligent pursuit of Prince, whose football leanings scared off many recruits. Washington eventually offered him a baseball ride and a chance to walk-on in football, but Marbut won him over.
"He got me because of how hard he works," Prince says. "You can see it with the kind of talent he's bringing in; how hard he works, and how hard the coaching staff works."
Marbut is similarly impressed with Prince, and not just on the baseball field.
"If I had a son, I'd want him to be like Jared Prince," Marbut says.
Prince is the star attraction of a breakthrough recruiting class that makes up a large part of the most promising WSU baseball team in years. Marbut is the first to admit he arranged a soft non-conference schedule for his young squad, but the Cougars are obviously much improved from the 2005 team that went 21-37 (including a humbling 1-23 in the Pac-10) in Marbut's first year at the helm.
"Our youth is our strength, but our weakness is also our youth," says Marbut, who claims next year's freshman class (led by two top draft prospects, Bellevue High shortstop Stephen Englund and Southridge High pitcher Chad Arnold) looks even more promising than the current frosh.
Marbut is quick to praise Jewett and pitching coach Gregg Swenson, both of whom Marbut was able to lure from Washington, and volunteer assistant Matt Dorey. The Cougars posted a mile-high earned run average of 6.17 last year (8.57 in the Pac-10), but the staff ERA is currently 3.32.
"Gregg Swenson has done a phenomenal job with the pitchers," Marbut says.
"We've got a ways to go, but the guys the coaching staff have brought in are a lot more talented," senior left fielder Jay Miller says. "Each [new] class of players is a lot more dedicated to the program. It makes me glad I was around to see it start to change."