By LES EAST
Special to The Advocate
Published: Apr 22, 2006
METAIRIE — Brandon Larson is in a comfort zone as he tries to get his professional baseball career back on track as the New Orleans Zephyrs’ third baseman.
He’s an hour’s drive from where he helped lead LSU to the 1997 College World Series title, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in the championship.
Plus, he’s surrounded by brass with the Washington Nationals, the Zephyrs’ parent club, who were with the Cincinnati Reds when they drafted Larson with the 14th pick in the ’97 draft.
Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden, farm director Bob Boone, and Zephyrs manager Tim Foli all worked with Larson with the Reds.
“It’s obviously comfortable for me because I’ve played for all these guys,” said Larson, who was batting .265 with two home runs, five runs batted in and a nine-game hitting streak going into Friday’s game at Round Rock. “Foli was my big-league coach in Cincinnati, so he knows what I bring to the table.
“My main thing is just staying healthy. I’ve had some really bad breaks and some bad injuries since my LSU days and I just want to stay healthy enough long enough for a whole season because I know that I can really help some club out, whether it’s Washington or anybody else, as long as I’m staying healthy.”
Larson’s return to the major leagues might have to come with a different organization because Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ No. 1 pick last year, is the starting third baseman for Washington.
Zimmerman’s role with the Nationals is similar to the one Larson had when he joined the Reds, but injuries started taking a toll on Larson, who will turn 30 next month.
“I’ve had three major surgeries to my body, which has really set me back,” Larson said. “But injuries are just part of baseball and playing a full schedule. It’s a grind for a lot of guys. The older you get the more your body starts breaking down.”
Larson tore up his knee shortly after leaving LSU, requiring a nearly two-year rehabilitation. It wasn’t long after he returned that he suffered a serious shoulder injury diving for a ball.
Last season he found himself in the Rangers’ organization, playing in 34 games at Class AA Frisco before injuring his wrist. He underwent surgery to remove his hamate bone and then found himself looking for a new organization during the off-season.
Larson, who has played parts of four seasons in the big leagues, was left wondering where, or even if, he would get another opportunity.
“There’s always that concern especially with teams; you’re a liability to them when they see that rap sheet, they see the medical history,” he said.
“The best thing about it was Bowden and Boone and these guys were here and they certainly know what a healthy Larson brings to the table.”
The Zephyrs, who open an eight-game homestand and four-game series when they meet Albuquerque tonight at Zephyr Field, have placed Larson in the middle of the batting order, usually fifth, and he’s started every game at third.
“When I was at Cincinnati, we moved Aaron Boone to second base so Brandon Larson could play third base,” Foli said. “It didn’t pan out. Brandon got injured, but we had high expectations for Brandon. I know he’s a quality kid, and I know that when he touches the ball it goes a long way. So I’m excited about putting him in the middle of this lineup and going bombs away.”
Larson doesn’t seem inclined to brood about the direction his career has taken, and even if he were, that notion would have vanished when he and his teammates toured the areas of New Orleans most seriously damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“Baseball really becomes secondary when you see something like that,” he said. “You’re really not thinking about yourself right now. Seeing the damage up close really makes you think about how grateful you are to have the opportunity to come out here and do this. Hopefully we can get the fans something to get excited about again because they really need it.”
First-place New Orleans was 9-5 going into Friday’s game, including a 7-1 record during their season-opening homestand.
Larson said he’s looking forward to seeing familiar faces from his one memorable season at LSU.
“It’s always good to see someone from LSU with a hat on,” Larson said. “Even now, to this day, I see them in the airport and I say, ‘Go Tigers.’ I’m still a big purple and gold fanatic.
“The team we had that year that won it all in ’97, to me probably to this day is still the best team I’ve ever played on. Top to bottom, we had unbelievable talent and unbelievable guys. It was a short one year for me, but it was enough to make memories for a lifetime.”
Larson hopes this season will someday be memorable for a different reason — enjoying an overdue prolonged period of good health that helps him return to the big leagues.
“I’m really trying to make the most of this opportunity,” he said. “This is a big season for me. I’ve been cut on. It’s definitely not something that’s fun, it’s not something I’d wish on anybody, but heck man, I’m still out here, I’m still playing, and I’m still getting paid to play. You can’t ask for anything better.”