Is Barna’s big season enough
May 2, 2003
Only 18 baserunners have tried to steal against Lambuth University catcher Chris Barna this season. He has throws out 50 percent of them and hit a career-high .380|Provided to the Tribune|.
What does Chris Barna have to do to get noticed by Major League Baseball scouts — sprout to 6-foot-8 and join the 300-pound club?
Already 6-5 and 250 pounds, Barna is more imposing than Mike Piazza behind the dish. Perhaps the South Tahoe High graduate can add 20 points to his .380 batting average or throw out every baserunner instead of 50 percent of those who try to steal against him.
Certainly a stolen base of his own would get them to enter his name in their notebooks. By then, Barna would be the next coming of George Plimpton’s 1985 April Fool’s joke Sidd Finch in Sports Illustrated.
Everything is coming together for the Lambuth University catcher as he puts the finishing touches on his collegiate baseball career. But Barna has an uneasy feeling that his baseball clock is ticking toward its final hour.
Scouts aren’t talking to him, not even to wish him well in med school.
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“I don’t have any scouts talking to me or any independent teams offering me a tryout,” Barna said. “As far as I know, this is it. I wish it wasn’t.”
Barna’s father, Rich, who coaches the South Tahoe High softball team, is more mystified than his humble son.
“Are they looking at him? God only knows,” Rich said. “If they are, they aren’t talking. It’s kind of sad that he’s not on a team that gets scouted a lot, because they don’t run on him. He shoots bullets to the bases.”
Rich tries to travel back to Jackson, Tenn., or an adjoining state a couple of times a season to watch his son play. One of the most memorable was in Montgomery, Ala., seeing his son impact a game like Shaquille O’Neal does for the Lakers.
“This team had a runner on third and a ground ball was hit to the shortstop. The runner took off for home and the shortstop threw the ball to Chris. This guy ran right into Chris and Chris stood there. This guy fell over backward and they had to help him back to the dugout, Rich Barna said. “Then this fellow in the stands says, ‘Did you all see that? That boy just ran into a tree.’
“I just about fell out of my chair, I was laughing so hard. That’s how he plays.”
Lambuth seventh-year manager Wayne Albury knows as much as the Barnas about the catcher’s chances of being drafted. Scouts have inquired about Barna, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be drafted.
“He’s got the ability and the size. It just depends. You have to be at the right place at the right time,” Albury said. “If something doesn’t work out with an affiliated club, there could always be an opportunity with an independent team.”
In previous seasons the knock on Barna was that this mountain of a man wasn’t punishing pitchers consistently.
That changed when Barna started visiting the batting cage more often than the school library. With the fifth-year senior only needing to take half as many classes as usual, Barna used the extra time to work on his swing with a hitting instructor.
“I made lots of swings off tees and lots of batting practice, that and being relaxed,” Barna said. “I pretty much figured to be at the end of the road, so I relaxed and started enjoying myself.
“Just being able to stand up there and enjoy myself makes me wish I could have realized this five years ago. Everyone kept telling me, but I could never put it into the game.”
Confident, relaxed and in the best shape of his life, Barna has been hitting at a pace that would have satisfied Ted Williams. He finished the regular season hitting .380 and kept it going in the Mid-South Conference tournament last weekend, hitting safely in six of his 12 at-bats.
“Knowing that we had him coming into this year was a huge pick-me-up for us,”Albury said. “He works hard every day. He’s probably the hardest worker we have on the team.”
Averaging 2-for-5 days at the plate far exceeded the goal Barna set prior to the season.
“My goal was to hit between .300 and .350 and hit somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 home runs,” Barna said.
If there is any statistic that displeases Barna, it’s his home run total. He has three to date, but he has a theory why more haven’t disappeared over the fence.
“I’ve gotten so good at hitting line drives that when I hit the ball hard I never get the ball high enough to hit the ball out of the park,” Barna said.
Four years ago, Barna had a solid reason to quit the game. He thrashed his elbow while trying to walk on at the University of Nevada. Instead of a spot on a Division I ballclub, Barna headed for the highly respected Jobe Clinic for “Tommy John” surgery.
“I thought my career was over right there,” Barna said.
Two years later, following his sophomore season at Lambuth, a local doctor repaired torn cartilage in his right knee.
While not as serious as the previous injury, what ensued was no longer like going out on a blind date arranged by a self-serving roommate. Barna knew then that he never wanted to rehabilitate another injury.
“I went on a complete health kick, working out hard and making sure I was eating right,” Barna said. “I didn’t want to go through it again, so I did everything I could to turn my body into a machine.”
Today, Barna is free of injuries and has the body fat of an aerobics instructor.
“It’s just a blessing to play every day. Each day I get to play is like a dream come true,” he said. “There are countless people who would kill to be in my shoes.”
Adding to the stress of Barna’s unclear draft position is his equally clouded entry into medical school.
“I don’t have enough volunteer hours. I’ve gone though the classes and worked in hospitals, but they want 1,000 hours of volunteer work,” he said. “It’s kind of scary and exciting all at the same time. We’ll see what happens.”
Next week, Mid-South regular-season champion Lambuth will try to win a regional title. It might be Barna’s final chance to stand out for the scouts who will be in attendance.
“Give me a plane ticket and a pair of shoes and I’ll play anywhere for a while,” Barna said.
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