Thursday July 17th, 2008

It took Evan Longoria five years to travel roughly 80 feet.

As he dug into the batter's box to compete in the Home Run Derby on Monday night, Longoria's thoughts frequently returned to his first visit to Yankee Stadium five years earlier, when he and his best friend, Adam Lands, sat in a pair of seats four rows behind home plate for a game against the Seattle Mariners. At the time, the then 17-year-old Longoria was a long shot to ever be on the other side of a big league field. While he starred at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, California, he was just 5-foot-10 and weighed 160 pounds, and was headed for Rio Hondo Community College because he hadn't attracted even a sniff from a Division I school, let alone a major league scout. "I'll tell you right now I wasn't ready for Division I college baseball," he says, "and I wasn't ready to play pro out of high school, for sure."

While other players their age were than embarking on lucrative professional careers or heading to big-time college programs, Longoria and Lands (whom Longoria had persuaded to also play baseball at Rio Hondo) went to New York and coughed up some $400 apiece for their tickets, reasoning that the splurge was worth it because it was likely as close to the Yankee Stadium field as either would ever get. "We spent a fortune on those tickets, and we were so pumped up," says Lands. "Harold Reynolds was sitting right next to us, and we were like, dude, that's crazy!" Their experience as tourists in New York was completed when they were both robbed in Times Square. Says Lands: "We were just walking around and this guy totally took our watches off of our wrists. We were like, did that just happen?"

The sparkling watch the size of a dinner plate that was attached to Longoria's wrist while he sat in a hotel ballroom on Monday is a symbol of how far he's come in the past five years (presumably, he declined to venture into Times Square on this most recent trip to New York). It was just a few months after that first visit to Yankee Stadium that, as he says, "something clicked" for him as a baseball player. Longoria hit .430 in his one season at Rio Hondo, and hasn't stopped hitting since -- a baseball-ripping journey that carried him through a two-year stint at Long Beach State, an MVP summer in the Cape Cod League, and 205 games in the Rays minor league system. It culminated this past April 12, when he was promoted to the majors and became the starting third baseman and number five hitter for Tampa Bay, which until recently was baseball's hottest team. "He always wants to be the clutch guy," says Mike Salazar, his coach at Rio Hondo. "He'll always say, 'I'm clutch, I'm clutch, I'm clutch'."

Longoria has been just that for the Rays. He hit his first walk-off homer less than a month into his big league career, on May 9 against the Angels, and he leads Tampa Bay with 40 RBIs with runners in scoring position. He's also delivering just as well when the pressure's not on. Even though he spent the season's first two weeks with Triple-A Durham, he ranks 14th in the AL with 16 homers and 19th with 53 RBIs, numbers that made him the first AL rookie to be selected for the All-Star Game since the Yankees' Hideki Matsui in 2003. "It's doesn't seem like he's a rookie," said Rays ace Scott Kazmir, who didn't seem the least bit perturbed that the media crowd surrounding him was dwarfed by the one at the next table over that surrounded his young teammate. "I've never seen anything like it. And he still has room to improve, which is scary. I look forward to seeing what he can do in the second half."

Perhaps no one will be as anxious to see what Longoria will do next as his best friend. Sitting in Row F of Box 212 the night of the Home Run Derby was Lands. His baseball dream ended at Rio Hondo -- he now works for the Monarchy Collection, a Los Angeles-based apparel line -- but he flew to New York on Sunday night to support Longoria. When he arrived, he presented Longoria with a framed photograph that depicts the two of them in the stands at Yankee Stadium on that memorable summer day five years ago, wearing Yankees hats and shirts. "I also gave him a congratulations card," says Lands. "I said, 'Just think, five years ago we came here as fans, and now you're here and playing in the All-Star Game.' It was a dream come true for him to be in the big leagues. It's unreal. Even a month ago, when I visited him in Tampa, I never dreamed he'd make it here."

Longoria's performance in the Derby was far from a dream (his total of three home runs was the lowest in the first round and he was booed by the Yankees fans who had hoped their own Jason Giambi would take the last All-Star spot that instead went to Longoria) but he more than made up for it the next night. As he strode to the plate for the first of what promises to be many All-Star at bats in the eighth inning and the AL trailing 3-2, one could imagine Longoria whispering to himself "I'm clutch. I'm clutch. I'm clutch." Longoria then stroked a "clutch-clutch-clutch" RBI double down the leftfield line that tied the score, and set up the eventual AL victory.

Though he surely has many more moments like that ahead of him, Longoria had already completed the journey of a lifetime.

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