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RICO BROGNA

March 12, 1996
March 12, 1996

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March 12, 1996

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Scouting Reports

RICO BROGNA

It's hard to miss Joe Ro's coffee shop along Main Street in
Watertown, Conn. "It's the place with the awning the colors of
the American flag," says owner Joe Romano. It's one of those
places where everybody knows everybody, where the regulars sit
at the same stools, order "the usual" and talk about the
weather. But these days the most popular subject at the counter
is New York Mets first baseman Rico Brogna, Watertown's hometown
hero.

This is an article from the March 12, 1996 issue

Joe Ro's is the official headquarters of the Rico Brogna Fan
Club. "Membership is free, and it's for life," says the
44-year-old Romano, flipping the pages of a binder that contains
the names of the club's 1,000 or so members. Photos of Brogna, a
few of his game-used bats and his baseball cards cover one wall
of the coffee shop. In Joe Ro's basement "archives," piles of
stories from Brogna's 182 major league games are stacked next to
boxes of ketchup bottles and saltshakers.

At Joe Ro's, no matter what the season, Brogna is a daily topic
of conversation. On this snowy winter morning, a man in a
porkpie hat enters the restaurant. "Hi, Joe, how ya doin'?" he
mumbles, the stub of a stogie in his mouth. "What's new with
Rico?"

During last year's strike-shortened season the
lefthanded-hitting Brogna gave everyone something to talk about
when he batted .289, with 22 home runs and 76 RBIs. And he was
nearly perfect in the field, committing only three errors in
1,208 chances. "Last year he established himself as a solid
major league player," says Mets executive vice president for
baseball operations Joe McIlvaine. "At first base he had the
fewest errors in the league; if he were a bigger name he
probably would have won a Gold Glove. Offensively, we expect the
same production over 162 games. His RBIs will continue to rise,
his strikeouts [111] will go down. Now he just has to prove
himself against lefthanded pitchers." (Brogna hit .229 against
lefties in 1995.)

Last year 18 rookies played for the Mets, and the average age on
the final roster was 25, the youngest in the majors. "I played
on older teams in Triple A," says Brogna. This year manager
Dallas Green expects the 25-year-old Brogna to be a leader on
this twentysomething team. "Rico has every attribute of a
leader," says Green. "There are a lot of similarities between
him and [former Yankee] Don Mattingly. But Rico will be expected
to be a leader and perform at a higher level quicker than Donnie
did."

How things change. Not long ago, Brogna, tagged as a can't-miss
prospect after the Detroit Tigers took him in the first round of
the 1988 free-agent draft, was being called a bust. After he hit
a league-high 21 home runs at Double A London, Ont., in 1990,
coaches in the Detroit organization decided to turn him into a
pull hitter. "They might have felt that I was almost ready to
make it to the big leagues, and they wanted me to take advantage
of the short rightfield porch at Tiger Stadium," says Brogna.
But the experiment failed. "My swing broke down mechanically,"
he says. "I was lost." And Brogna became nothing more than a
.260, 10-home-run hitter. So much for taking advantage of the
short porch: In six years in the Detroit system, Brogna got 26
at bats in the big leagues and hit just one home run. Once, in
1992, manager Sparky Anderson pinch-hit for him in the first
inning.

Then in 1993, after Brogna had spent yet another year at Triple
A Toledo, Anderson offered this stinging assessment: "Brogna's
not going to hit with any power. He couldn't possibly stay with
us in any of the next five years. He couldn't do enough to
stay." The Tigers' immovable force at first base, Cecil Fielder,
had just signed a multiyear contract.

And so when Brogna was traded to the Mets in March 1994 for
another first-round flop, first baseman Alan Zinter, he couldn't
pack his bags fast enough. "The trade was the most important
thing that has ever happened in Rico's life," says Mets hitting
coach Tom McCraw, who has worked very closely with Brogna. "He
was going backward at the time. If he didn't get traded, he
probably wouldn't be in professional baseball today. With the
Mets, he got back to what made him successful; he learned how to
be Rico Brogna again, how to use the whole field."

After the trade the Mets assigned Brogna to their Triple A club
in Norfolk, Va. In June of '94 Brogna was called up to the big
leagues after the Mets' starting first baseman, David Segui, was
injured. Outside Watertown, few had ever heard of Brogna, but
that soon changed. In 39 games he hit .351 with seven homers and
held the big city in thrall. One night in St. Louis he went 5
for 5 with two doubles, and the next night he knocked in four
runs, including a two-run homer that won the game in extra
innings. A headline on the back page of one New York tabloid
shouted, ric-oh! Back in Watertown, about a two-hour drive from
Shea Stadium, Joe Ro's buzzed with excitement. On days after the
Mets played West Coast night games, the 5 a.m. regulars showed
up for their morning coffee bleary-eyed but raving about Rico.
All in all, it was a magical time for the kid they called the
Watertown Wonder. Only the players' strike ended the fun.

Last season Brogna's popularity grew, and he became the poster
boy for the new Mets. Says McIlvaine, "He gets more letters than
anybody else on the team. Women love him." Through it all,
Brogna has remained unfailingly nice and genuinely humble. "All
the attention never went to Rico's head," says Watertown High
baseball coach Roger Ouellette. "There are a lot of idiots in
pro sports. Rico's the white knight."

Success has turned Joe and Louise Brogna's son into a celebrity,
but people in Watertown attest that the boy next door has not
become bigger than his small hometown. Brogna and his wife,
Melissa, who also grew up in Watertown, recently bought a house
just on the outskirts of the city.

As he has done for several years, Brogna continues to coach high
school basketball in the off-season. He has been the freshman
basketball coach at Watertown High for three years, and although
he gets embarrassed now that fans treat him like Pat Riley and
referees ask for his autograph, Brogna loves the job. "After I
retire from baseball I'd like to coach high school football or
basketball," says Brogna, sitting in a cramped athletic office
just outside the high school gym. The office is not much larger
than a batter's box, but here Brogna is completely comfortable.

"It doesn't surprise me that he stays in his hometown, and it
doesn't surprise me that he still coaches at his high school,"
says McCraw. "He's not going to change. Money won't change him.
A high performance in a place like New York won't change him.
He'll always be just the same small-town, Watertown boy."

--Kelly Whiteside

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT JORDAN LEVY Brogna rediscovered his big bat in New York, but he's still a small-town boy. [Rico Brogna in game]COLOR PHOTO: PAUL BERESWILL Nearly flawless in the field, Brogna "would have won a Gold Glove if he were a bigger name," according to McIlvaine. [Rico Brogna in game]