Aurilla Shines in MLB Postseason

“Richie is one of the finest shortstops we’ve ever had here at St. John’s. He has soft hands, good range and is very quick. He has good power for a lead-off batter too. He is definitely a pro prospect.” – St. John’s baseball Head Coach Joe Russo on Rich Aurilia in 1992

Ten years ago, little Richie Aurilia was the big man on campus.

He was the conference rookie of the year as a freshman, an All-Big East shortstop as a sophomore and then, as a junior, he was a pro prospect.

Aurilia lived the game, one of those players who never wanted to leave the field or the batter’s box, someone who traveled around the country just to play.

From Alaska to Massachusetts and places in between, this Brooklyn boy took part in the one thing he held so dear.

So it was no surprise to see that Aurilia, a decade removed from attending St. John’s, was playing in the pinnacle of the national pastime – the World Series.

On a team with the previous two National League Most Valuable Players, Aurilia may not be the first guy even a San Francisco Giants fan calls out right off the bat.

Still, over the past four seasons, Aurilia has the best shortstop in the NL and one of the best in the game.

But it wasn’t always World Series and All-Star Games for a player people thought would never make it.

He was from New York they’d say, no competition in the Northeast.

Kids from California, Florida and the Carolinas had the advantage of better weather, longer seasons and the tradition of big leaguers that their states had churned out years before.

And while Aurilia was one of the best infielders in the Big East in the early ’90s, winning awards at the end of every season, scouts couldn’t get a read on him.

It was those same excuses – poor weather, poorer competition.

The Texas Rangers took a chance on him, selecting him in the 24th round.

Showing that the draft is an inexact science, the following players were taken ahead of Aurilia – Will Brunson, Larry Sutton and Allen McDill. Those three have combined for 302 games in the major leagues.

Again, Aurilia turned a negative into a positive. He hit .337 in Rookie Ball, and then .309 in Single-A.

But after he slumped to hit .234 in Double-A in 1994, the Rangers traded him to the Giants along with Desi Relaford for John Burkett.

Aurilia got a September call-up in 1995, and has been the Giants’ regular at short since 1998.

In that time, he has led all National League shortstops in home runs and RBI.

Last season, the best season of his career, he was voted to start his first All-Star Game.

The 31-year old hit .324 with 37 home runs and 97 RBI while leading the league with 206 hits in 2001.

This year, injuries hampered his ability to put up his usual gaudy offensive numbers, but when the playoffs rolled around, Aurilia was back to his hitting self.

“Rich is a very heads-up player,” Giants Manager Dusty Baker said. “He knows how to position himself on defense. He’s an outstanding hitter. He was hurt this year and now he’s hitting, now, like the Richie that we’ve always known.”

All Aurilia did was set the major league record for most runs batted in by a shortstop in the postseason, taking advantage of pitchers’ unwillingness to face Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds, the two men batting behind him.

It’s always nice to have two future Hall of Famers in the lineup right after you.

There was the four RBI in a Division Series win over Atlanta, two home runs in a game against St. Louis, breaking the Cardinals and earning his team a trip to the World Series.

These performances came after a season when he hit .257 with 15 home runs and 61 RBI.

“I didn’t really contribute the way I wanted to during the season,” Aurilia said. “I’m just glad I can come through and get some hits for this team and help us win. I mean, I said this the whole postseason, it’s not about individual numbers here in the postseason – it’s about winning ball games.”

The injuries were the toughest part of his season, and he played most of the year with the resulting aches and pains.

“I had not felt healthy until about the middle of August,” Aurilia said. “My elbow was bothering me from spring training on, and when you’re in pain, your body tends to try and act in a way that you don’t feel pain when you’re out there.

“It didn’t bother me at all on the field or throwing. It bothered me hitting. I think finally in the middle of August, beginning of September, I started feeling better again. I started feeling like myself.”

But that couldn’t amount to the heartache that came in the World Series.

Eight outs away from a World Championship in Game 6, the Giants couldn’t capture the ultimate prize, eventually losing to the Anaheim Angels in Game 7.

Aurilia joined two other St. John’s baseball alums to play in the Fall Classic, but just like John Franco, and unlike Frank Viola, Aurilia would head home without a ring.

But somewhere during the past week, Coach Russo was sitting in his living room, watching Aurilia at the plate and in the field for all seven games, a small smile creeping across his face.

He knew all along something the baseball world had now become aware.

Jason Della Rosa is a senior journalism major who only visits Shea Stadium when the Giants are in town. Send comments to [email protected]