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A Recipe For Success: After cooking up MVP-type season last year, Giants shorstop is ready for an encore

A Recipe For Success: After cooking up MVP-type season last year, Giants shorstop is ready for an encore – Interview

Henry Schulman

RUMOR HAS IT THAT SPORTSWRITERS appreciate a good meal now and again. If the writers who cast National League MVP ballots last year only knew that Rich Aurilia can cook a mean shrimp scaloppine, he might have cracked the top 10 in voting.

But hey, 11th place for MVP isn’t bad for a shortstop in his coming-out year as one of the league’s elite hitters, especially considering the roster of boppers who finished ahead of him. It started with teammate Barry Bonds, followed by Sammy Sosa, Luis Gonzalez, Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman.

You grow up in the part of New York where Aurilia lived, and food is serious business. It’s not just sustenance. It’s Italian art, and in his household, Aurilia was an eager apprentice to the master, a baby-sitter who could color the canvas on a stove.

“When I was growing up, I had a lady who watched me when my parents were working, from the time I was six months till the time I was 10, a little old Italian lady,” Aurilia said.

“Everything that she made was from scratch. I would just sit there and watch her all the time. That’s where I got it from.”

Now a 30-year-old baseball player, Aurilia loves to visit the kitchen when he goes to a restaurant. He learns recipes he can try at home, where he figures he cooks about 80 percent of the meals for his grateful wife, Raquel, who enjoys having a husband who knows strikeouts from strombolis.

“He’s a great cook,” Raquel Aurilia said. “Actually, he doesn’t let me into the kitchen half the time. When he has the time at home, he’ll tell me to go away or go somewhere with the baby so he can cook.

“He buys all the stuff. There’s a certain one he makes that I love. It has everything from a heavy cream, butter, sauteed onions, chicken or shrimp. He doesn’t do the canned stuff as much. He’d love to go to a culinary school and learn more about it.”

Le Cordon Bleu will have to wait. Giants manager Dusty Baker needs Aurilia more right now, to occupy the second spot in the batting order and approach the kind of season he had in 2001, when his bat reached the proper temperature for cooking pasta.

Aurilia became a good hitter over his first three full seasons in the majors, but nothing he had done foretold last season, when he led all N.L. hitters in batting average for parts of the first half and finished at .324. He had 206 hits, two short of Willie Mays’ San Francisco record, and for the third year in a row led all N.L. shortstops in homers (37) and RBI (97).

“Awesome. Super year. Great player,” said Cubs third baseman Bill Mueller, whom Aurilia supplanted as the Giants’ second-place hitter. “It’s just amazing when a guy like that gets an opportunity. He always had the ability to do that, and now he’s showing it. He deserves it. He’s worked hard.”

No matter how hard Aurilia works, as long as he bats second for the Giants he will hear whispers that his numbers are the product of grooved fastballs from pitchers who don’t want to put him on base ahead of Bonds.

Aurilia is the first to admit batting ahead of Bonds and Jeff Kent had its advantages. He said, “I was hitting ahead of a guy who was hitting a home run every five at-bats (actually every 6.5 at-bats), and the guy behind him who was the MVP the year before. I had a lot of help behind me in the lineup.” But Aurilia is also the first to stick up for his own record. He was becoming a solid hitter long before Baker planted him in the No. 2 spot in the spring of 2001.

“I’d like to see a bunch of guys come in here and try to put up those numbers. I don’t care who’s hitting behind you. You still have to go out and hit the ball,” he said.

“The thing that gets me the most frustrated is, everybody has this idea that because you hit in front of Barry all you see is fastballs. It’s totally not true. If you go back and look at the home runs I hit, I’d say at least 50 percent or even more were off breaking balls. It does help hitting ahead of them. It helps when you get into a hitter’s count, 2-0 or 3-1. Then you’ll get a fastball. Otherwise, they’re going to pitch you the way they normally do.”

Some things Aurilia can’t explain, like why he hit 25 homers after the All-Star break after he managed just 12 before it.

“To a certain extent I felt like Barry,” he said. “I felt like every other game or something I was hitting a home run, and I know that’s not me. I really don’t have any reason why I was doing it. Maybe I just got more mistake pitches than I did in the first half.”

Aurilia’s challenge, of course, is doing it again, rising to the bar he set in 2001, foiling the legions of skeptics who’ve turned Aurilia-doubting into a cottage industry.

He can always turn to his double-play mate for advice, for Kent’s career has had a similar progression. He, too, was an improving hitter who suddenly went berserk in 2000 and won the MVP. His numbers declined last year and he broke his hand in spring training this season.

Kent believes his breakout season made him a target for pitchers. The days when he could slip under their radar were over, and Kent surmises Aurilia will attract the same scrutiny.

“Pitchers have a better memory,” Kent said. “They’re like horses that have a memory that won’t quit. I don’t remember the home runs I’ve hit off pitchers, but pitchers remember just about every single one and every single situation in which you beat them. Once you beat a pitcher, he’s going to do everything he can to make up for that beating. He’s beaten quite a few pitchers now, and they feel they owe him back now, so it’s going to be tougher.”

If times get tough, Aurilia can always go home and relax in the kitchen, or spend time with his son. Raquel Aurilia said fatherhood has had a calming influence on Rich.

He’s not quite as sanguine about his detractors, who are still out there, certain that Aurilia is due for a letdown.

“That kind of stuff motivates me and pushes me harder,” he said. “Do I think I’ll have the numbers I had last year this year, or ever again? I don’t know. It all depends on circumstances and situations. At least now I know I’m confident I can do it again and I’m capable of doing it again because I did it once before.”

Power & Average At Short–Last

season, the Giants’ Rich Aurilia became the fifth shortstop

in major league history to hit 30 or more home runs and

maintain a .300 batting average in the same season when

he hit .324 with 37 homers. See chart below.

Year Player, Team HR BA

1958 Ernie Banks, Cubs 47 .313

1959 Ernie Banks, Cubs 45 .304

1991 Cal Ripken, Orioles 34 .323

1996 Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 36 .358

1997 Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox 30 .306

1998 Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox 35 .323

1998 Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 42 .310

2000 Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 41 .316

2001 Alex Rodriguez, Rangers 52 .318

2001 Rich Aurilia, Giants 37 .324

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group