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Giant Steps San Francisco's RICH AURILIA has made such great strides at the plate that he's in the thick of a race for the National League batting crown

July 23, 2001
July 23, 2001

Table of Contents
July 23, 2001

Cover Story [bonus Piece]

Giant Steps San Francisco's RICH AURILIA has made such great strides at the plate that he's in the thick of a race for the National League batting crown

Before he was the Hack Man of Pac Bell Park, before he became San
Francisco's gentlest Giant, before he turned as golden as a
certain Bay Area bridge, Rich Aurilia was the Phantom of the
Metropolitan Opera. To supplement his meager wages in the minors
seven years ago, the Brooklyn-born shortstop spent an off-season
in Manhattan as a stagehand at the Met. Three nights a week he
lugged scenery and struck sets, haunting the famous opera hall
until the squeak of dawn. While punching in for the late shift,
he would sometimes catch the last act of I Pagliacci or La
Traviata. "It seemed everybody in the theater knew what was going
on but me," Aurilia recalls. "I had no clue."

This is an article from the July 23, 2001 issue Original Layout

Asked to explain his bravissimo performance as a batsman this
year--through Sunday he ranked fifth in the National League in
average (.346), first in hits (123) and eighth in doubles
(24)--the 29-year-old Aurilia is equally clueless. "I really don't
know," he says, lifting a bemused eyebrow. "I just hope it lasts
a whole season."

After a little more than half the season Aurilia has a shot at
becoming the first Giant to win a batting title since Willie Mays
in 1954 and the first National League shortstop to win one since
Dick Groat of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960. "He has good bat
control, and he's not afraid to hit the ball [anywhere] in the
count," says San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who has won
eight National League batting crowns. "He [used to] wear us out,
but then he'd play somebody else and go 1 for 8. This year he's
hitting everybody."

Everyone but Aurilia seems to have a theory about why the average
of this career .270 hitter is suddenly as lusty as Carmen. "If
you asked five different people," he says, "you'd get five
different answers."

So we asked five people, and we got these five answers:

--It's his slot in the batting order, insists Florida Marlins
pitcher Chuck Smith. Until this season Aurilia mostly batted
seventh, which meant his job was to clean the table, not set it.
Following a 22-homer, 80-RBI season in 1999, he again led all
National League shortstops with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs last
year. That made Aurilia the senior circuit's first shortstop
since Ernie Banks in 1960 and '61 to have back-to-back 20-homer
seasons. Ever since spring training, however, manager Dusty Baker
has been penciling him in as the number 2 hitter, ahead of Barry
Bonds. Smith believes the prospect of facing the homer-binging
Bonds has caused pitchers to feed Aurilia a steady diet of fat
heaters. "You're not going to pitch him as carefully when you've
got somebody like Barry up next," says Smith.

--It's his ability to hit to all fields, insists Baker. Strictly a
pull hitter in previous seasons, the righthanded-hitting Aurilia
has been slapping the ball the opposite way, spraying it from
foul line to foul line. He has accomplished this by shortening a
stroke that was as long and looping as a Jerry Garcia solo. "Look
at the guys who have won batting titles--the George Bretts, Tony
Gwynns, Rod Carews and Pete Roses," Baker says. "Those guys were
perennially on top because they used the whole field. Now you see
Richie hitting triples into right center and singles to left, up
the middle and down the lines."

--It's his patience at the plate, insists Giants first base coach
Ryan Thompson. "After five full years in the league Richie has
learned to treat every at bat like it was his last," he says.
"For the first time, he's not afraid to go deep in the count."
Aurilia has learned to lay off not only sliders that are balls
but also sliders that are strikes. Impatient and impetuous, he
had a habit of hacking at the first acceptable pitch he saw. By
working the count, he has cut down on his strikeouts--from one
every 6.6 at bats over the last three years to one every 9.2 this
year. "I realized they give you three strikes, and you don't have
to swing at the first one," he says. "I used to think the first
strike might be the best I'd be thrown. Now I wait for a pitch I
can drive."

--It's his maturity, insists Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper. In
the past, one of the joys of watching Aurilia was to see how far
he'd fling his helmet after making an out. "Richie led the league
in helmet tossing," Kuiper says. "He'd go 0 for 4 and throw four
helmets." From their redoubt on the mound, pitchers would watch
Aurilia snap and knew they had a psychological edge on him. This
year he hasn't flipped his lid once. "It was too Little League,"
Aurilia says. Kuiper thinks Aurilia has become a player who can
mask his on-field emotions and remain focused. "As you get
older," says Aurilia with a small shrug, "you realize you can't
get a hit every at bat or every game." Part of that equanimity
may come from the fact that his wife, Raquel, is now in the
seventh month of pregnancy. Says second baseman Jeff Kent,
"There's nothing like having a baby to mature a man and give him
perspective."

--It's his approach, insists Kent. "Rich comes to the plate
knowing what he wants to do," he says. "He has a game plan and,
more often than not, follows it." To date, Aurilia's plan has
worked almost 35% of the time. "Thirty-five percent will get you
fired in a nine-to-five job," says Kent. "In baseball, it gets
you into the Hall of Fame."

Aurilia, who was voted the starting shortstop in last week's
All-Star Game, is making San Franciscans forget all the other
guys who have played short in that city. That's not hard,
considering the position has been home to more itinerants than a
Polk Street flophouse. Since Daryl (Big Dee) Spencer first
anchored the infield in 1958, shortstop has been manned by such
immortals as Eddie Bressoud, Jose Pagan, Tito Fuentes, Hal Lanier
and Jose Uribe.

Until now Aurilia has been only slightly less anonymous. "There's
a big piece of me that likes that," he says with a wry smile. "I
can go about my business without anybody bothering me. But a
small piece of me feels good to be recognized. It's bound to
happen if you have a decent amount of success." He can be
painfully modest. Informed that Padres skipper Bruce Bochy calls
Aurilia the best overall shortstop in the league, he practically
averts his eyes in embarrassment.

The soft-spoken Aurilia may have the most expressive body
language in baseball. "He can argue loudly with an umpire without
saying a word," says Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow. Unhappy with
a call, Aurilia will let his shoulders slump, kick the dirt and
whip his head from side to side.

Aurilia is not only quietly demonstrative but also quietly
generous. When Hall of Famer Willie Stargell died during spring
training, Aurilia bought Pops's old teammate, Giants hitting
instructor Gene Clines, a round-trip plane ticket from the
Giants' camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., to the funeral in Wilmington,
N.C. "Rich said, 'Don't argue--you've got to be there, and I'm
making sure you are,'" Clines says. "In today's game, that
attitude's a rarity."

San Francisco leftfielder Shawon Dunston describes Aurilia as a
"bad story because he's a good person. You don't hear about him
staying out until five in the morning before a game." Yet when
Aurilia steps up to the plate at Pac Bell, he is often serenaded
by the strangled strains of the Beastie Boys' No Sleep 'Til
Brooklyn. "Any time we need an interpreter for The Sopranos, we
call Rich," cracks Kuiper.

The son of a nurse, Lorraine, and a stockroom worker, Rich,
Aurilia grew up in an Italian enclave of the Gravesend section of
Brooklyn, home to one of the country's oldest cemeteries. His
youth was misspent playing stickball on the streets. "I can't
even tell you how much money my parents must have spent replacing
windows," he says. The one neighborhood home Aurilia never
hit-and-run from belonged to mafia don Carlo Gambino. "If I had
broken his window," Aurilia says, "I would have apologized."

Because of his strong arm Aurilia was turned into a shortstop at
15 by his coach at Xaverian High, Ed Murach. "At that age, if
you're a guy who can catch grounders and throw across the infield
on a consistent basis, that's a good thing," Aurilia says. "I
guess I was one of those guys." He still is. Although he's so
slow that teammates jokingly call him Speedy, Aurilia positions
himself well and catches everything he can get to.

Drafted out of St. John's in the 24th round in 1992 by the Texas
Rangers, Aurilia was handed a $5,000 signing bonus and a plane
ticket to Butte, Mont., where he began his pro career in the
rookie Pioneer League. He hit well at Butte (.337) and the next
season at Charlotte (.309) in the Class A Florida State League,
but he sputtered at Double A Tulsa (.234) in '94. "I didn't know
how to deal with failure," he says. The Rangers dealt with it on
Christmas Eve of that year, swapping him to San Francisco.
Aurilia was heartbroken. "I was thinking, Why doesn't Texas want
me?" he says. "I should have thought, Some other team wants me
more."

For four seasons he quietly waited his turn, in Triple A Phoenix
or in San Francisco, while the Giants brought in a conga line of
seasoned shortstops to play in front of or with him: Dunston,
Jose Vizcaino, Rey Sanchez. Not until 1999 did Aurilia win the
job outright. "Maybe the Giants couldn't get anybody else," he
muses. "Maybe that's why they gave me the job."

They almost took it back. Last year, with Aurilia mired in an
early-season slump, the buzz was that he might be traded to the
New York Mets. Encouraged by those 22 homers in '99, he had been
trying to park every pitch in the bleachers. "Next thing I knew,"
he says, "I was hitting .230 in June." He worked his way out of
his funk by "just going out and having fun," he says, and he
ended up hitting .282 in June and .363 in July to raise his
average to .271 by the end of the season. Typically, Aurilia says
he's prouder of having dug himself out of that slump of 2000 than
of having put up the gaudy numbers of 2001.

In a game too often dominated by operatic prima donnas, Aurilia
is still content just to be part of the scenery.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Cooler head prevails Aurilia used to blow his top after making outs, but now he is calmer and hits line drives to all fields.COLOR PHOTO: BEN MARGOT/AP

20-20 Vision

At week's end Giants shortstop Rich Aurilia (above, left) and
second baseman Jeff Kent (right) had 14 and 12 home runs,
respectively, putting both on pace for their third straight
20-plus-homer seasons. Of all the middle-infield pairs who each
hit 20 or more homers in a season (below), Aurilia and Kent are
the only National Leaguers to have done it and the only major
leaguers to have done it twice in a row. --David Sabino

SEASON TEAM SECOND BASEMAN (HR) SHORTSTOP (HR)

2000 Giants Jeff Kent (33) Rich Aurilia (20)
1999 Giants Jeff Kent (23) Rich Aurilia (22)
1999 Mariners David Bell (21) Alex Rodriguez (42)
1996 Orioles Roberto Alomar (22) Cal Ripken (26)
1986 Tigers Lou Whitaker (20) Alan Trammell (21)
1950 Red Sox Bobby Doerr (27) Vern Stephens (30)
1948 Red Sox Bobby Doerr (27) Vern Stephens (29)
1940 Red Sox Bobby Doerr (22) Joe Cronin (24)

"He's got good bat control," says Gwynn, "and he's not afraid to
hit anywhere in the count."