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Whicker: UC Irvine CF Mike Peabody’s head-first approach is in his DNA

Mike Peabody is the Big West Conference Co-Player of the Year.

He’s part of the surprising UC Irvine crew that begins NCAA tournament play against Nevada on Friday night at the Stanford Regional. He hit .353 this year with 54 RBIs, second in the conference.

Not so long ago, Peabody saw himself wearing the white stripes for Mater Dei football, bouncing people around, getting bounced in return.

His father Tom dissented. Too dangerous, he said.

For those who remember Tom Peabody, this is like Evel Knievel putting training wheels on his kid’s bike.

Peabody was on hand for the comet phase of Loyola Marymount basketball, when it carved its own orbit, then crashed, then took one more screaming ride. He was getting ready to check into the West Coast Conference Tournament game against Portland, 31 years ago, when Hank Gathers fell to the floor.

Peabody had been the point guard for Mater Dei teams that lost one game in two years. At LMU, he played the position of Stunt Man, ready to land nose-first on any bleacher seat if it meant saving a basketball. They called him the Human Bruise.

He has been a medical malpractice lawyer all these years and sent four athletic kids to Mater Dei, including Luke, who is on Gary McKnight’s junior varsity basketball team right now. He saw his mirror image in Mike, who never shied from the deep end and, even now, hopes to turn his criminology degree, earned five months ago, into a firefighting career.

“I remember watching Mike play football against St. John Bosco,” Tom said. “He got hit pretty hard and I was watching to see if he would get up. He did, and he was visibly excited about taking that hit. I said, ‘This is a bad sign.’”

After one of his Little League seasons, Mike announced he was done with baseball. But thanks to good experiences with coaches at Quakes Baseball in Tustin, he relented. He noticed that it always took a few weeks of decompression to put football behind and pick up baseball at Mater Dei. By then, he was behind everyone.

Peabody, a 6-foot-4, left-hand-hitting junior center fielder, was a second-team All-Big West selection in 2019 and hit .312.

Last year turned into a 15-game warmup, thanks to COVID-19, and it was different. Peabody hit .246. But when the official season ended, Peabody continued his. It became the on-ramp for 2021.

“He set some lofty goals when everything shut down,” Tom said. “He changed up what he ate, he got up early and worked out four hours every morning. He and a bunch of other players, including (Cal State Fullerton pitcher) Tanner Bibee, would hit and throw any place they could. They could always find a cage or a place to do soft-toss. It was a tough time for a lot of the juniors because Major League Baseball cut the draft down, and nobody knew when baseball was going to start up again.”

When it did, Peabody gave the Anteaters a .481 on-base percentage and a 1.064 OPS. He and his team improved by the week, and at season’s end, with the league title safely won, the Anteaters got their first home sweep of Cal State Fullerton, still a symbolic feat despite the Titans’ 20-35 record.

UCI finished 32-8 in conference and 40-16 overall. The Anteaters took the last three games of a four-game series at UC Santa Barbara, beginning a stretch that saw them win 14 of their final 15 games, and Peabody hit .452 in his final eight games.

Those Anteaters who were around in 2019 have kept the grievances burning. That team was 37-17 overall but was denied entry to the 64-team NCAA tournament. Built by John Savage and taken to higher levels by Dave Serrano and Mike Gillespie, the Anteaters are going to their ninth NCAA tournament and are pursuing their third College World Series appearance. Ben Orloff, the first UCI player to become Big West MVP (Peabody is the fourth), is in his first postseason as head coach.

“Ben has done a great job identifying Orange County talent,” Tom Peabody said. “I think about my experiences and what it’s like being part of a team. It can really set the stage for your life.

“But even though you don’t quit on the game, at some point it will quit on you. That’s what I learned with Hank. We were suitemates, and he was a big boxing fan, just like my dad. You just never know when it’s going to end.”

That’s where heredity comes in. In doing everything he’s done, Mike Peabody also set the UC Irvine record for times hit by pitch. That’s 48 for a career, 24 this season alone.

Even fathers and sons can be Bruise Brothers.

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