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Sweet Success Ligons’ Performance At Short Has Been Bright Spot For Indians

Nobody would encourage students to leave high school, but one dropout provided a valuable service for Merrell Ligons.

Ligons, a mainstay at shortstop for this year’s Spokane Indians, began as a center fielder in high school in Compton, Calif.

He arrived at practice one day and learned the regular shortstop had quit school.

“The coach threw me out there at shortstop, and I’ve been there ever since,” Ligons said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it was probably the best thing for me.”

Look for Ligons, expected to return to the lineup tonight after a hip flexor problem, to continue his strong efforts as the Indians begin a crucial three-game Northwest League home series against Boise. Game time is 7:05.

The Indians trail first-place Boise by four games in their division race. Spokane’s first trip to Boise is Friday, also for three games.

The first time the teams met, July 12-14 in Spokane, Boise put the clamps on Ligons, holding him to 1 for 10 at the plate. Ligons responded in the Indians’ next series, against Everett, with his second home run as a professional.

Ligons went without a home run in 130 at-bats last year at Gulf Coast (Fla.) in a rookie league. He’d been drafted in the 55th round in 1995, but played a season at El Camino (Calif.) Community College in a draft-and-follow agreement.

The humidity and strange surroundings in Florida affected Ligons.

“I had to learn how to take care of myself,” said the 20-year-old. “When your body starts breaking down, you have to force yourself to eat your vegetables. You have to do it on your own.”

Ligons hit just .185 at Gulf Coast for former Spokane manager Al Pedrique. He reported to this year’s extended spring training with a few doubts.

Soon, however, current Indians manager Jeff Garber took Ligons aside and said his hard work would mean a promotion to short-season A Spokane.

“He went from a guy who had the potential to do it, to a guy who can do it,” Garber said.

Nobody ever doubted the bloodlines. Ligons’ grandfather, Arthur Bennett, played shortstop for the 1952 Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

If Bennett had Ligons’ range at short, he must have been a dandy. Ligons also possesses a quick release on his throws that Garber compared to Ozzie Smith, the former great with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Besides encouragement, Ligons picked up another thing at extended spring: the nickname “Sweet Pea.” Tribe pitching coach Steve Crawford, whose nickname is “Shag,” ruled that Ligons resembled the character from the Popeye cartoons.

Thus, Ligons leads the Indians in nickname potential, surpassing NWL Triple Crown threat Dermal (“Dee,” “The Rock”) Brown. Pitcher Scott Key, christened Francis Scott Key III, still leads in overall name potential.

Ligons, known as one of the most affable people on the club, turns serious when the discussion involves his hometown.

“I had a great time in (Compton),” Ligons said of the Los Angeles suburb too often noted for gang problems. “I didn’t grow up in poverty, and I had a lot of friends.

“Good people come out of Compton. Compton has good parts and bad parts, just like any other city.”

Ligons’ mother, Brenda, received a videotape of an early season Spokane-Portland game televised by Fox Sports Northwest. She hopes to visit Spokane later this month and see her son playing as a professional for the first time.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo