Sept. 2, 2010
By MARK PATTON
NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
John Mellencamp had love on his mind when he wrote "Hurts So Good," but he could have been singing about sports.
Injury and pain are part of the athlete's journey, and they were even what guided former UCSB baseball star Chris Valaika on his way to Great American Ballpark.
The newest infielder of the Cincinnati Reds is no masochist, but he now embraces the two major injuries he suffered as the turning points in his trek to the Major Leagues.
Valaika described them as "a blessing" after making a successful big-league debut last week.
The first injury occurred during his sophomore year as the Gauchos' all-league shortstop when he drifted back for a fly ball at Cal Poly.
"It was an innocent type of play," UCSB coach Bob Brontsema recalled. "He went down and kind of tweaked his knee, but it didn't seem like anything at the time."
He also clearly remembers Valaika's reaction when the injury was diagnosed as a torn anterior cruciate ligment: "He was pretty devastated ... But that's where you separate the men from the boys."
Valaika had his surgery, and then sat and learned.
He first watched his teammate, second baseman Chris Malec, undergo surgery of his own for testicular cancer, and then return just 22 days later. He also watched Malec, still fighting the nausea of his chemotherapy, hit a grand-slam home run to beat Long Beach State 7-6 in his first game back.
"I loved his work ethic, always seeing him out on the field early every day," Valaika said. "And then for him to go through something like that and then return to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat, it brought tears to everybody's eyes."
Valaika also picked an important vantage point in UCSB's dugout -- right next to pitching coach Tom Myers, so he could study the enemy on the mound.
"It taught me so much about myself, and the game," he said, "and how much to respect it, because it can be taken away at any time by something like a freak pop fly to left field."
When the spring of 2005 turned into summer, Brontsema was amazed by how often he'd see Valaika work out with athletic trainer Chris Ritter.
"There had been a question if he'd be ready for the 2006 season, but he worked really hard and got back a lot quicker than anyone anticipated," he said. "He ended up having a pretty good year, too."
The Cincinnati Reds selected Valaika in the third round of the 2006 Major League Draft, and the young shortstop rewarded them with a Pioneer League-record 32-game hitting streak at their farm club in Billings.
He batted .324 overall, followed that up with a .307 season at low-A Dayton in 2007, and then was named as the Reds' Minor League Player of the Year in 2008 after batting .317 with 18 home runs between high-A Sarasota and double-A Chattanooga.
Baseball America rated him as the Reds' fourth-best prospect entering last season, but that's when the game threw him another curve. He was hitting just .161 at triple-A Louisville in early May when he picked a fight with a water cooler, punching it after a strike out.
The water cooler won.
Valaika found himself back on the bench for another month-plus with a broken hand, watching and learning again.
"It gave me a different perspective about the game," he said. "It made me a better player in kind of a weird way."
He batted .260 after returning, and was hitting in the low .300s at Louisville last week when the Reds finally summoned him to Cincinnati on Tuesday.
And the first thing Valaika did was ... sit and watch.
"I sat in the dugout watching the pitcher warm up and I read up on him," he said of his pinch-hitting debut against Santiago Casillas of the San Francisco Giants.
Valaika lined Casillas' first pitch to center field for a single.
"I didn't want to get to any of his out pitches, so I jumped on the first one," he said.
He hit a home run and a double when he got his first start on Thursday, filling in for injured second baseman Brandon Phillips.
Valaika has now batted .400 after six games (8-for-20) for the National League's Central Division leaders, and is a lock to stick with the club until at least the playoffs.
"I think that injury here is what really changed him," Brontsema said. "He'd always been a hard worker, but it was all that extra work he put in that made him a great player, and he figured that out after he got hurt."
He joins a growing club of current Major Leaguers from UCSB, which includes former Cy Young Award-winner Barry Zito of the Giants, All-Star third baseman Michael Young of the Texas Rangers, outfielder Ryan Spilborghs of the Colorado Rockies and second baseman Skip Schumaker of the St. Louis Cardinals.
So who's next? Brontsema has his money on pitcher Virgil Vasquez, who's currently 6-2 with a 4.88 earned run average at triple-A Durham.
"He's got a very deep bruise on his knee which he got from a moped accident earlier this year," he said, "so he's rehabbing right now."
And watching and learning ... and probably listening to some Mellencamp.