Feb. 3, 2011
By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Chris Valaika was a caged beast as he peered through the batting screen, forbidden by contract to compete in Saturday's Home Run Derby at UCSB's Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
The soft, straight pitches looked like raw meat to the former Gaucho shortstop, especially after the curve ball that he'd just been thrown by the Cincinnati Reds.
It left Valaika anxious to start taking his cuts at Spring Training in Goodyear, Ariz.
"I'm flying out of here on Sunday," he said. "We report on the 19th. Pitchers and catchers go the 16th, and then we strap it on for the season."
Valaika, 25, feels ready for his turn in the Major Leagues, having batted .263 in 38 at-bats last year during a late-season promotion to Cincinnati. The Triple-A Louisville Bats had played him at every infield position but first base, grooming him for a utility role this summer with the big club.
But the Reds signed Edgar Renteria, World Series MVP shortstop of the San Francisco Giants, just two weeks ago, and now there's no room in the infield.
A third summer in Louisville appears likely for Valaika, barring any more roster moves.
And the only move he can make is to get a head start in Arizona this week.
"In the role I play right now, every spring is big," Valaika said. "I have to go out and prove myself, show I can play, compete and fight for a job.
"Especially with the guys we brought in, the World Series MVP, we have a lot of guys that have been there, so I have to show that I can play and show them I belong in the big leagues."
He did a good job of that last year, batting .304 at Louisville with just 12 fielding errors in 116 games that were split between second, third and shortstop.
Valaika is following a path blazed by another former Gaucho, All-Star Michael Young, who's been moved all around the infield by the Texas Rangers.
"Wherever there's an opening, hopefully I can help out and give myself a chance to be there," Valaika said. "I think that's the trend. You have guys who can play all over the place, and you don't want to get type-cast.
"You can get stuck in a position behind a guy. But if you can play three infield positions, or all four, and even play the outfield, you give yourself more of a chance to get to the big leagues."
Valaika, a third-round draft pick out of UCSB in 2006, was Cincinnati's Minor League Player of the Year as a shortstop in 2008, having batted .317 with 18 homers between Single-A Sarasota and Double-A Chattanooga.
But a broken hand delayed his progress in 2009, allowing several younger shortstops to gain ground on him in the organization.
"That's just the way my career has gone, to overcome a lot of stuff and fight every day," said Valaika, who also tore a knee ligament during his sophomore year at UCSB. "But I think that makes me better, having that want.
"I need to do that stuff to feel like I'm getting better. I have to get better every day. If I don't, I feel like I'm getting behind."
He's part of the Reds' young-blood movement, which includes 27-year-old Joey Votto, last year's National League MVP.
"Everybody saw it coming," Valaika said. "He's such a grinder. He works the hardest of anybody I've seen. He's always in the cage. It's an art to him, hitting.
"The more I can watch him and pick his brain, hopefully I can put myself in a situation where I could be in that class."
Valaika was greeted by many familiar faces when he was summoned to Cincinnati on Aug. 24. He came off the bench to get a base hit in his first at-bat, and then responded to his first start by slugging a home run and a double.
"You're nervous, you're excited, you have all these emotions," Valaika said. "But being able to be around guys that you've come up with makes it feel a little more normal - like just another game.
"When we were making that playoff run, 13 of the 25 had come up together. I think that says something about where the organization is going, and what they've done."
He's feeling more comfortable with another major change in his life, having married the former Sarah Preston last November.
"It's been great - it's such a great Santa Barbara family that I've married into," he said. "It's such a crazy life we live, and we're all over the place. To actually be able to come home to my wife every night will be a lot of fun not only for me, but for her, too.
"The tough part of the job is not having roots. But she's a trooper, and I'm used to it."
Just another tumble weed, looking to take hold in Arizona.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.