Rocky road ends for 'Raccoon'

TORONTO -- A year ago at this time, Dean Anna was a member of the Triple-A Tucson Padres, but when the San Diego Padres affiliate took the field for its 2013 opener, he was on the bench. In fact, it took four games before manager Pat Murphy saw fit to write his name into the starting lineup.

"I had a good third game," Anna said with a laugh. "So they put me in the fourth game."

So far, Anna's career arc in the major leagues is on the same path; in the fourth game of their 2014 season, manager Joe Girardi wrote his name into the Yankees starting lineup for tonight's game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

So in addition to being Anna's first big league start, he is also being asked to replace Derek Jeter, who is getting a day off after a late flight from Houston and early-morning arrival in Toronto, as well as playing behind Masahiro Tanaka in his first big league start, a game that is expected to be watched by millions in Japan.

"I can't ask for more than that, I guess," Anna said when informed that by Saturday, he could well be a household name on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Not that Anna will be without his own rooting section; His parents will be watching on TV back home, and he has a small group of friends driving up from Chicago to Toronto, guys who work with him at the Bo Jackson Elite Sports Dome in Lockport, Ill., where he teaches baseball to kids in the offseason.

"That's my winter job," he said, laughing.

Things have moved very quickly for this 27-year-old from Mokena, Ill., who spent six years in the Padres organization without once being invited to spring training only to make the Yankees' Opening Day roster after his first training camp this year.

Anna, an enthusiastic guy, admitted there was some small measure of satisfaction in that. "Oh, absolutely," he said. "When stuff happens like that for any player, I feel like you always have a chip on your shoulder, no matter what. I’m just happy to be here and have the opportunity. It’s great. Awesome."

The Yankees acquired Anna from the Padres in a trade this winter for Triple-A pitcher Ben Paulus, a move that at the time might have seemed like another dead end; at the time, Robinson Cano was still a Yankee, Alex Rodriguez hadn't yet had his appeal denied and Jeter was expected to make a healthy return to shortstop. Still, Ana knew it had to be better than the situation he was in with San Diego.

"When someone trades for you it's a fresh of breath air, really," he said. "They wanted me. It feels good to be wanted."

Anna made the club in spring training not so much with his bat -- he hit .262 with no home runs and four RBIs -- but with his versatility at three infield positions, a quality that became important when Brendan Ryan was sidelined with back problems. He, in fact, made the club before the incumbent backup infielder, Eduardo Nunez, and the up-and-coming Yangervis Solarte, who had a white-hot spring.

He even was bestowed the ultimate tribute, a nickname from Girardi -- for some reason, the manager calls him "Raccoon."

"I think it's because of my nose," Anna said. "I have a little bigger nose. It don't matter. I love it. As long as he writes my name into the lineup card, I don't care what he calls me."

And by the way, Yankee fans, take note: Anna hit .331 with nine home runs, 73 RBIs and an .892 OPS for Tucson last year.

And that was after riding the bench for the first three games of the season. Sound familiar?