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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Cirillo, Hughes Brew Careers in Milwaukee

April 04, 1999|ERIC SONDHEIMER

LAS VEGAS — It's more than 2 1/2 hours before the Milwaukee Brewers take on the San Diego Padres in an exhibition game at Cashman Stadium, and the only player wandering around the Brewers' locker room is Jeff Cirillo.

He paid $7 to take a cab from the Golden Nugget hotel so he could arrive early. The rest of the team waited to travel by bus.

It's vintage Cirillo, a 29-year-old all-star third baseman who grew up in North Hollywood, played at tiny Providence High, wasn't a high draft pick out of USC but earned his place in the majors through an obsession to prove people wrong.

"I love playing baseball, I love getting to the yard early," Cirillo said. "Someone told me a good quote. 'Jeff, you know why you're so hard on yourself? It's because your hobby is your vocation.' If I'm not playing baseball, I'm watching baseball. If I'm not watching baseball, I'm reading about baseball or discussing baseball."

Soon, Bobby Hughes arrives in the locker room, another Valley product who made the majors in a completely different way than Cirillo. He grew up in Van Nuys, was a standout catcher at powerful Notre Dame, played at USC, then became a second-round draft pick and can't-miss prospect. Except he was going nowhere until he adopted Cirillo's all-out work ethic two years ago.

"Bobby finally woke up and realized potential can only take you so far," Cirillo said. "He got into shape. He's seen the results that come from hard work."

In September 1997, Hughes' career was at a turning point. The Brewers refused to call him up from triple-A. He weighed almost 250 pounds and was blaming everyone but himself for his lack of progress.

"I felt, 'Hey, I'm a second-round draft pick. These guys are going to do everything they can to get me to the big leagues,' " he said. "I didn't take it seriously. I was going through the motions. I wasn't dedicated to the game, not realizing I had to work hard."

Then came the decision that saved Hughes' career.

"I surrendered myself," he said. "OK, I give up. Somebody help me. I'm going to listen, I'm going to do whatever it takes to get my life turned around."

His father, Bob, recommended a private trainer, Steve Zimm of Culver City. For six months, Hughes became a fitness fanatic. His weight dropped 20 pounds and his body fat plunged.

He not only became a better player, but more importantly, felt better about himself.

"In the big leagues, it's not all about ability," he said. "It's about how you go about playing the game, how you concentrate, how you stay focused, how you go about your daily life. You might get to the big leagues on talent alone, but you won't stay there without the intangibles."

Last year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, Hughes was up before 9 a.m. and off to the gym working out.

His family had to postpone opening Christmas presents until he finished his workout.

"That's two years in a row," he said. "I think they're getting fed up with me."

Hughes, 28, considers Cirillo "like a brother." The two are constantly teasing each other and trying to push each other to get better.

"We have this competitive nature and it fuels the fire between us," he said. "Believe me, he lets me know every day, 'Had I gone to Notre Dame, I would have been this and that.' He's had to work as hard as anybody to get where he's at. He's a good example of what it takes to make the big leagues. He refused to be overshadowed. He's proven he's one of the elite third basemen in the game."

Cirillo is a father for the first time. His son, Cole, is 15 months old, and his wife is expecting a another child in October.

With Opening Day approaching, he's just as excited as when he made his professional debut, but it's a different kind of excitement. The "oh-my-God-I-made-it" feeling is gone, replaced by a maturity that comes from a player on his way to becoming a veteran.

"I really don't feel like one of those young guys anymore," he said. "I'm not a comer anymore. I'm in the second stage of my baseball career, and hopefully there will be a third and maybe a fourth."

Cirillo is recognized as one of baseball's best fielders, and that might come as a surprise to those who knew him from high school.

"I was afraid of the ball," he said.

But he learned to play third base when he ran out of options.

"I knew the only way I'd get to play pro ball was to learn this position," he said. "It was rough. I'd make the real hard play, but I'd let a ball go through my legs or kick it."

Asked how many grounders he took to get better, Cirillo said, "10,000--you can quote me."

Cirillo also likes to offer comments about scouts. He doesn't hold them in high regard for making him an 11th-round draft pick his senior year at USC. Oh, he does appreciate Dale Sutherland and Spider Jorgensen, who offered advice and support, and Kevin Malone, who turned in an initial scouting card.

But he added with a smile, "Jeff Cirillo thinks all scouts are blind and thinking of playing golf. He thinks those glasses they wear at games were one-way glasses and they weren't looking out."

The thing is, Cirillo is grateful the scouts overlooked him because he turned his anger and frustration into the motivation that carried him to the majors.

Cirillo and Hughes are doing what they always wanted to do as little kids--they're having fun and fulfilling childhood fantasies.

"I live in La-La Land--I mean Disneyland," Cirillo said.

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached (818) 772-3422.

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