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It's a star-studded sequel for Evan Longoria

Tampa Bay third baseman has not played a full season in the majors but is now a two-time All-Star.

July 13, 2009|Kevin Baxter

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Ernie Banks made 14 All-Star teams during a 19-year Hall of Fame career in which he hit 512 home runs and won two most-valuable-player awards. But he never played in a World Series.

Hector Lopez played in five World Series in as many years. Yet, he never made an All-Star team.

Which brings us to Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, who has yet to play a full season in the majors but has already been in one World Series and Tuesday night will appear in his second All-Star game, this time as the American League's starting third baseman.

If early success can spoil a player, then Longoria, who received the third-highest number of AL All-Star votes (only Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees and Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins got more), should be as rank as a month-old carton of milk.

But instead of carrying himself like a superstar, he acts as if he's just lucky to be wearing a big league uniform -- which, in many ways, he is.

"He wasn't a silver spooner when it comes to this game," Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon says of Longoria, who goes into the All-Star break hitting .285 and ranking among the major league leaders in runs batted in with 66. "He had to grow into it. And grow into becoming good also."

Ignored in the draft out of high school, Longoria didn't receive so much as a scholarship offer after his senior year at Bellflower's St. John Bosco High. So he went to Rio Hondo College in Whittier.

Two years later he transferred to Long Beach State, where the coaches asked him to change positions because they already had a shortstop in future major leaguer Troy Tulowitzki. Longoria not only deferred to Tulowitzki on the field, he deferred to him off it as well, sleeping on a futon in the suite the two players shared.

That's hardly the resume of a player who would go on to become a unanimous choice as the AL rookie of the year, as Longoria did last year.

"He's not a kid who is extremely talented and just pretty much knows it," Tampa Bay teammate and fellow All-Star Carlos Pena says. "He's a guy who respects the game, respects his teammates, doesn't take anything for granted. That's his best asset -- his makeup. The talent will obviously blossom . . . just because of the way he is."

Agrees Maddon: "He's very grounded. Great family. Great baseball background."

And the foundation of that background was hard work, followed by more hard work and uncommon dedication.

Although Longoria also played water polo in high school, he gave that up at 15 to concentrate on baseball, joining a summer wood bat league, working on his hitting and lifting weights.

"We tried to give him a firm base," says his father, Michael, a maintenance worker with the Long Beach Unified School District. "We taught him right from wrong, kept him grounded."

And his son was not discouraged when he wasn't drafted out of high school. It made him work harder, the father says, work that paid off three years later when Longoria was the third player selected in the 2006 draft.

"I can't even comprehend it," Michael Longoria says of all that has happened. "Really, the odds of a kid starting in T-ball and making the major leagues is pretty astronomical."

The 23-year-old Longoria played in only 205 games in the minors, batting .301 with 44 home runs and 154 RBIs, before being called up to the big leagues 10 games into last season. The Rays had never come close to a winning season in their 10-year history, but in the span between Longoria's promotion and the broken wrist that sidelined him for a month, Tampa Bay was 63-41 en route to a playoff berth. Once there, Longoria made more history, hitting a home run in each of his first two swings and setting a rookie record with six home runs in his first nine postseason games.

"He just makes the lineup different," says Carl Crawford, who suffered through six losing seasons in Tampa Bay before Longoria arrived. "You can feel the difference. There's only a few guys that can bring that kind of presence."

And Longoria, who finished the year with a .272 average, 27 home runs and 85 RBIs in 122 games, might have made an even bigger contribution on defense. In 2007, Tampa had the second-worst fielding percentage in baseball and Rays pitchers gave up a major league-high 944 runs. A year later, the Rays had the third-best fielding percentage in the majors, cutting their runs given up by 273.

"Damn, he can play third base," marvels senior advisor Don Zimmer, who has spent 61 years in professional baseball. "From what I've seen, you talk about Brooks Robinson, [Graig] Nettles, Mike Schmidt. He don't have to take a back seat to none of [them]. He plays the slow-hit ball as good as anybody. Double plays, he gets the ball to second base quicker than anybody.

"He's a hell of a player. I can't say no more than when I put him in the category of those guys that I named."

Longoria smiles shyly when told of Zimmer's praise. He's heard it before, of course, but he tries not to let it sink in.

"I try to make it go in one ear and out the other," he says. "One year or one day you could be . . . on the top of a mountain and then the next day your name could be mud. I just try to play the game hard every day. And what happens happens. You've got to try to keep yourself as even-keel as you can.

"It really is a big tribute to my parents and the way they raised me. How you were raised and how you were brought up to treat people."

Which is why Maddon spends little time worrying that success will go to Longoria's head.

"If you're around him, that's the farthest thing from the truth," he says. "His work has actually gotten better this year. Evan's not about Evan. Evan is really about us winning."




Evan Longoria

Born: Oct. 7, 1985, Downey.

Bats/throws: Right/right.

College: Long Beach State.

Major league debut: April 12, 2008.

*--* G AB R H HR RBI Avg. 2008 122 448 67 122 27 85 272 2009 84 312 48 89 17 66 285 *--*


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