Sunday, March 9, 2014
Garin Cecchini's baseball roots run deep
By Gordon Edes
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- They'd just gotten back from a three-hour bus ride across the bracing underbelly of Florida, through the poor towns and past the RV lots and dreary landscapes that don't show up in the tourist guides, when Deven Marrero noticed that one of his roommates, Garin Cecchini, was walking past with a bat in his hand.
After growing up in a baseball family, Garin Cecchini is getting close to making his big league dream a reality.
"What are you doing?" Marrero asked.
Cecchini continued on, into the living room.
"I know it may sound weird," he would say a couple days later, "but I went to practice my swing for the next 30 minutes to an hour in the living room, visualizing fastballs and curveballs, and the pitches that I missed."
That day, in an exhibition against the St. Louis Cardinals, the rookie third baseman had struck out in all four of his plate appearances. "First time ever," he said, "that I struck out four times in a game."
He called his mother, Raissa, after the game, but this was not about an overwhelmed kid looking only for a sympathetic ear. Raissa Cecchini (pronounced chick-KEE-knee), like her husband Glenn, was a baseball coach, assisting her husband at powerhouse Barbe High School in Lake Charles, La., a team that has won six state titles since 1998 and was ranked sixth in the country in one poll this spring.
Raissa eventually cut back to raise her family, Garin said, including the two boys, Garin and Gavin, who are both in spring-training camps now, Garin with the Red Sox, Gavin with the New York Mets. Garin, a third baseman, was drafted in the fourth round in 2010 by the Red Sox; Gavin, a shortstop, by the Mets in the first round in 2012.
"Shoot, man, he's a lot better than me," Garin said of his younger brother. "What would he say? He's going to tell you the truth, that he's better than me."
Raissa Cecchini was pregnant with Garin, only days from going into labor, and still coaching first base. Gavin was still pretty much a newborn, Garin says, when his mom left him in the charge of 2-year-old Garin in the dugout.
"I guess she trusted me," Garin said.
And in this moment, Garin Cecchini trusted that his mother would have the right words to say.
"It sounds to me like you have to simplify things," she said. "Be on time with the fastball, and don't swing at bad pitches. And remember, it's still early in spring."
There's such a thing as growing up in a baseball family. And then there were the Cecchinis. "It was great," Garin said. "I remember when I was young and I'd say to my teammates, 'You mean your mother doesn't throw you batting practice? My mom does.'"
Mom, dad, the kids, and baseball at the center.
"The first time I remember?" Garin Cecchini said with a smile, something that comes easy and often. "I used to have a pacifier, and my dad told me if I got rid of the pacifier, he'd get me a bat and ball. He took me to Walmart, and got me a bat and ball. He'd throw to me, and he said I never wanted to hit right-handed, so he never changed me."
Even the family dog, a black Labrador, had a baseball tie-in. "I named him Nick," Gavin said, "after one of my dad's best players, Nick Bourgeois."
Bourgeois, after starring at Barbe, did the same for Tulane and was drafted in the fourth round by the Phillies. A left-handed pitcher, he advanced as far as Triple-A. "He was a left-handed hitter and a left-handed pitcher," Cecchini said. "I loved his swing."
Cecchini's mother has been helping him hone his swing since day one.
Glenn Cecchini was a student of pitching, and the mental side of the game. Raissa studied hitting, coached hitting, helped teach her boys to hit. "She has thousands of videos, from Babe Ruth to Dustin Pedroia, on her computer," Garin Cecchini said. "She'd compare swings, study their strengths."
Mom and dad passed on what they could to their son, and it shows. Cecchini, who turns 23 on April 20, has impressed the Sox with his advanced hitting approach, particularly his patience and selectivity at the plate, reflected in a .469 on-base percentage in Class A Salem last year, and a .420 OBP after he was promoted to Double-A Portland in midseason. He has not shown the power typical of a corner infielder -- he was a shortstop in high school -- but neither did another patient-hitting third baseman, Kevin Youkilis, early in his pro career.
When CEO Larry Lucchino, on his first visit to camp last month, appeared on WEEI's Dennis and Callahan show and was asked about a new player who might make an impact, he said: "How about Garin Cecchini? How about that? There's a name. There's a guy with a major league hitting approach."
Manager John Farrell, like Lucchino, brought up Cecchini without prompting early in camp.
"There are some who come to us with a greater level of instinct, and that happens because they're taught as a young, young kid," Farrell said. "One example of that is Garin Cecchini. He's a guy with tremendous instincts on the baseball field, but he was raised in a baseball home. Both of his parents are coaches. There's a reason for that."
The family's influence on their son does not begin and end with baseball. When Garin Cecchini played for his dad in high school, every year the team would go to Shreveport, La., to visit the Shriners Hospital for Children. "Just to help us keep things in perspective," Garin said. When he was a senior, his beloved grandmother succumbed to breast cancer. Shortly thereafter, he injured his right knee, and six days later, on March 19, he underwent surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee. A player regarded as a certain first-rounder was now damaged goods. "Strike three," he said.
But that's not the way it played out. The Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round but gave him first-rounder's money, a $1.3 million bonus, to persuade him to sign. In gratitude, on the night his signing was announced, Garin Cecchini announced he was making a $20,000 donation to the Jimmy Fund. "Cancer directly affected my family," he said. He has since interacted with young cancer patients at the Jimmy Fund Council's New Stars for Young Stars fund-raising events, and said he looks forward to the day when he is in Boston and can become a frequent visitor.
That day has not yet arrived, but Garin Cecchini, the kid who stood in the middle of his living room practicing his swing after a bad game ("That's not weird," hitting coach Greg Colbrunn told him afterward. "I used to do the same thing") can visualize when it does.
"I can sniff it," he said. "I can definitely sniff it."
That four-strikeout game? It had begun with a terrific 11-pitch at-bat against Marlins pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, whose fastball averaged 97 miles per hour last season and was clocked at 101 mph. After that, Colbrunn said, it looked like he'd gotten a little anxious. Cecchini concedes that maybe he did, and that he was late on the fastball and not recognizing curves. Breaking balls that he would normally swing at only if they were up, he was chasing out of the zone or in the dirt. Learn from it, Colbrunn said. And it probably won't be the last time it happens.
On the walls of the Sox clubhouse here there are quotes from Sox legends printed in large, bold letters, designed to engage and inspire the young players who enter.
Cecchini reads aloud the line from Carl Yastrzemski.
"I think about baseball when I wake up in the morning," he reads. "I think about it all day and I dream about it at night. The only time I don't think about it is when I'm playing it."
Cecchini remembers being in high school, and his friends urging him to come out with them.
"This is the God's honest truth," Garin Cecchini said. "I told them, 'No, man, I'm gonna sit in bed tonight, thinking about pitchers, thinking about hitting, thinking about my swing.'"