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A long line at short

Espinosa is the latest to excel at the position for Long Beach State

May 30, 2008|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Troy Tulowitzki arrived bearing gifts.

Fresh off a breakout 2007 rookie season and World Series appearance, the Colorado Rockies' shortstop returned to Long Beach State's annual preseason baseball banquet last January and gave out custom T-shirts.

On them was written, "Long Beach State, Shortstop U."

It was no exaggeration.

Tulowitzki is one of three former 49ers shortstops playing in the major leagues. Utilityman Chris Gomez of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Bobby Crosby of the Oakland Athletics also gobbled up ground balls at Long Beach's Blair Field before beginning their pro careers. And Tampa Bay Rays rookie Evan Longoria took a brief turn as Long Beach's shortstop before settling in permanently at third base.

"It's quite a line," junior shortstop Danny Espinosa said.

Espinosa, a three-year starter, hopes to become a part of Long Beach's growing major league legacy. Baseball America magazine projects the switch-hitter from Santa Ana to be chosen between the third and fifth rounds of Major League Baseball's first-year player draft next Thursday.

Espinosa is batting .311 and playing solid, sometimes spectacular defense for the 49ers, who won a share of the Big West Conference title and are top-seeded in a four-team NCAA Regional that begins today at Blair Field.

Second-seeded San Diego (41-15) plays third-seeded California (33-19) at 2 p.m., and Long Beach State (37-19) plays fourth-seeded Fresno State (37-27) at 6 p.m.

At 6 feet and 190 pounds, Espinosa is not as rangy as Crosby or Tulowitzki, both of whom stand 6-3. But he shares a common mentality.

"They all love to catch the ball, I mean with a burning desire," Long Beach State Coach Mike Weathers said. "Some guys, you watch them in workouts and it's no big deal to them to miss balls hit during drills or batting practice. But Bobby, Troy and Danny are all the same -- they get really upset. They don't want to miss anything."

Crosby was the American League rookie of the year in 2004 and Tulowitzki was runner-up in the National League last season. Espinosa has learned to live with comparisons to those that came immediately before him.

"I can't put that extra pressure on myself: I just go out and play as hard as I can every day," he said. "If people like what they see, great."

That was Gomez's attitude in the early 1990s when the former Lakewood High standout transferred to Long Beach State for his junior year after two seasons at Loyola Marymount. The Detroit Tigers selected Gomez in the third round of the 1992 draft and he was in the major leagues a year later, the start of a big league career that has included stints with eight teams.

"I don't follow Long Beach State every day, but I check to see how they're doing," Gomez, 36, said in a telephone interview. "And Crosby and Tulowitzki, both those guys were big prospects so you can't help but follow them and take some sort of pride in having played shortstop there."

Weathers, who became a Long Beach assistant in 1993 and the head coach in 2002, credits Crosby for making the 49ers a recent major league shortstop pipeline.

The son of a professional baseball scout, Crosby grew up attending games at Blair Field, watching Gomez and other future major leaguers such as Jason Giambi.

The Angels selected Crosby out of Westminster La Quinta High in the 34th round of the 1998 draft, but he opted for college and chose Long Beach State.

"It was a kind of a no-brainer because I always wanted to go there anyway," Crosby said last month before a game against the Angels.

Crosby started for three seasons and was selected by the A's with the 25th overall pick in 2001.

"I thought I was a decent player coming out of high school but the progressions I made from the time I got to Long Beach to the time I left were huge," Crosby said. "A lot of it has to do with the way Weathers coaches and how much better he makes you as an infield guy."

Tulowitzki first appeared on Long Beach's radar in 2002 after a 49ers assistant spied him during an abbreviated tryout for the Area Code Games, an annual summer showcase for many of the nation's top high school players.

"He saw the same things in Tulo that we had in Crosby -- the work ethic, the tallness and the fact that every ball that came his way wound up in his glove," Weathers said.

Tulowitzki grew up in the Bay Area but was aware of some of his predecessors' success at Long Beach.

"It was definitely appealing and definitely made me want to go there," Tulowitzki said before an April game against the Dodgers.

Tulowitzki started for three seasons at Long Beach (2003-2005), though Longoria moved over from third base and filled the spot with aplomb when Tulowitzki missed 18 games in 2005 because of a hand injury.

"He did fine and could have been in the same line," Weathers said.

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