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It's a family affair

TRAVELING with the T'JACKS

— Photos by Kris Henry

EDITOR'S NOTE

: This is the last of a series looking at life on a three-day road trip to Eugene with the Southern Oregon Timberjacks. It's Saturday, Aug. 7.

Gerald Laird III isn't letting the falling rain in Eugene dampen the parting moments with his family.

A final game of catch with 11-year-old brother Brandon. One last home-cooked meal by his mother, Vicky. Dozens of autographs on Timberjacks memorabilia for family and friends back home.

— — — —

Laird finds a moment of levity in an — otherwise dreary day as puddles in the dugout foreshadow another — rainout at Civic Stadium.

— —

Just another day in the life of one of Oakland's top prospects.

Ten members of the Laird family have come up from California to see for their own eyes how their loved one is doing.

With a 34-foot recreational vehicle as their temporary home, the close-knit family has seen the pride of the Timberjacks display his skills for nine days.

From greedy runners thrown out at second to key base hits and an occasional throwing error, the Laird family has seen it all.

But now, it's time to go home.

Now we can go home with a little ease because we know he's up here and having a good time, says Gerald Laird Jr., adding that he's pleased Southern Oregon players are housed with local families.

His son lives with Frank and Cheryl Behnke of Medford.

I think it's good that he came to Medford, says Laird Jr. It's a real nice place. Anywhere else, I think he would have to live in a hotel room, but in Medford, he can have that family life.

The Lairds were nervous when their 19-year-old son, Oakland's second-round pick in the 1998 draft, left the roost. This trip has eliminated most of their concerns.

The Timberjacks really welcomed us and treated us real well. We really enjoyed every minute of it, says the father. We got to meet the host family -- and that's a real good family -- so it's a little easier to leave your son knowing everything is OK.

Parting ways hasn't been a piece of cake for the younger Laird, either.

I've always been close to my family, he says. It's kind of getting easier, but it's still tough because you want to go home with your family. I have another month to go, and hopefully it's a good month. I'll see them soon.

One year removed from high school, Laird is drawing attention as one of the best young talents in the Oakland organization. His agent, Scott Boras, had him sit out a season and attend Cypress (Calif.) Junior College so Laird could get the deal they thought he deserved.

Once Oakland and Boras agreed, Laird became a Timberjack.

Being a first-team USA Today All-American for two years and the Los Angles Times and Orange County Register player of the year in 1998 has had its benefits. For a catcher, hitting for average, running well and possessing a strong arm are significant leverage points in contract negotiations.

the time the deal was done, Laird had a $1.2 million signing bonus and, to his chagrin, the nickname Bonus Baby.

Being a team's highest investment can be a blessing and a curse.

It gets to the point where I say it to myself so I get used to it, Laird says of his nickname. It doesn't upset me. I understand it's all in fun. My agent said I was going to hear it, so I was prepared for it.

Laird wouldn't have it any other way. Since he was 5, he made it clear that someday he hoped to make it to the big leagues. That dream is a alive and well.

It's a fun lifestyle, he says. It's better than having a 9-to-5 job. To play baseball every day is lucky. I'm not going to complain.

He doesn't let the pressure of performing get to him, the pressure of living up to expectations, of being the hero, of not being the goat.

He just tries to do his share each day.

I don't feel any pressure at all, says Laird. I just go out there relaxed and let the game come to me. I always know there's a big schedule. If I don't produce one game, there's always going to be another game and another day.

The one-day-at-a-time stance serves him well along the trek he hopes will take him to the majors.

There's always someone in baseball who is going to want your spot, says Laird. There are catchers in rookie ball below me and there are catchers in Double A or Triple A and the big leagues that have the spot I want. As soon as you slack off and don't do your job, there's always someone there to jump in your spot. You have to stay on your toes and play hard all the time. There's no room for being lackadaisical.

Being the bonus baby hasn't guaranteed anything for Laird other than the ability to call upon a few extra bucks in lean times. For the most part, Laird says he is trying to save his bonus. He doesn't live extravagantly, and his biggest plan is to buy a car once the season is over.

As for the day-to-day living, Laird is in the same boat as most first-year Timberjacks. He makes $850 per month from the team, which translates into about $320 net pay every two weeks. Of that money, $100 goes to Laird's host family for housing and $20 goes to the TJs' clubhouse manager, who ensures clean uniforms for the players.

It's not as easy as people think, says Laird. People think we're baseball players and we have all kinds of dough. That ain't it. We have to pinch our pennies, too.

That goes double for players unlike Laird who don't have large signing bonuses to fall back on.

With only about $100 per week to live on, most of the players struggle to make do each day. Some have taken to sleeping in late on road trips so they don't have to worry about buying breakfast. Others skip dinner because it's too late. Most know that they'll have to pay the price down the line for any surge in spending.

Whether it's Laird or a less-ballyhooed player who arrived in Medford with a contract as his only bonus, the same thing brings each to the ballpark.

I love playing baseball, says Laird. There's nothing I'd rather do.

Southern Oregon catcher Gerald Laird, center, spends the last few moments in Eugene with his family signing autographs for proud relatives.