Sunday, April 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

The day Giancarlo Stanton went from a football recruit to a baseball legend

MIAMI — Long before he was Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins star and major-league home run leader, he was Mike Stanton, a powerful but raw outfielder at Notre Dame Prep in Sherman Oaks, Calif., best known for his touchdown catches and booming punts with the Knights football team and his 21-point average on the basketball court.

He was a .200 hitter as a junior, No. 7 in the batting order, not exactly the stuff that impresses college coaches or Major League Baseball scouts.

But everything changed Aug. 6, 2006, during batting practice at Blair Field.

It was there, in the Long Beach, Calif., ballpark where Brad Pitt filmed Moneyball, that Stanton's baseball script began to unfold. He slugged his way onto the MLB radar with a handful of eye-popping home runs, including a couple that cleared the leftfield fence, flew through the fronds of 50-foot-high palm trees, over an access road and onto an adjacent golf course. Legend has it one shot traveled between 450 and 475 feet.

And he was only 16 years old.

Ask anyone who knew Stanton back then about his early athletic exploits, and they invariably bring up the homer he smacked out of Blair Field onto the golf course.

More than 200 of the nation's best high school baseball players — including Mike Moustakas, Aaron Hicks, and Matt Dominguez — were gathered at Blair Field for the Area Code Games, an annual summer showcase attended by Major League and college scouts. The Marlins had two scouts there — area scout Tim McDonnell, a former Long Beach State coach who was aware of Stanton, and national crosschecker David Crowson.

Although he had drawn some attention at the USA Baseball Jr. Olympics in Arizona earlier that summer, Stanton was relatively unknown among baseball people.

He was too busy with other sports to be a "show pony" on the club showcase circuit. He dedicated only two months a year to baseball, and he was considered more of a football recruit. Pete Carroll tried to lure him to the University of Southern California as a receiver, and UNLV was also interested.

"He was an outstanding football player, had size, speed and great hands," said his high school football coach Kevin Rooney. "He could have been a great college player, and maybe gone farther."

But Stanton always had a deep appreciation for baseball, born as a young boy in Tujunga, Calif., where his father, Mike Sr., a postal worker, would take him to hit buckets of balls at a church field. His mother, Jacinta, is of Puerto Rican descent and her side of the family — which still calls Stanton by one of his middle names "Cruz" — also loved baseball. They divorced when Stanton was 10, but continued to foster his love for sports.

Earlier that summer of 2006, Stanton spent three weeks in the batting cages with family friend and former college coach Phil Van Horn, who helped Stanton fix his dead-pull swing and refine his form.

"I'm going to teach you how to hit the inside half of the baseball," Van Horn recalls telling Stanton, who took 150 to 200 swings each session. "He was so eager to learn. He said, 'I want to get one percent better each day.' I feel like God's hand was on Mike that summer. Those three weeks in the cages, and that one batting practice at the Area Code Games pivoted the trajectory of his career — and his life."

Trevor Gee played Little League against Stanton, and they were high school teammates. He is not surprised Stanton wound up in the majors rather than the NFL or NBA.

"Mike always did extraordinary things on the basketball court and football field, but he did things that literally seemed impossible on the baseball field," said Gee, who played at Loyola Marymount and is beginning a law career in New Orleans.

"The ball off Mike's bat just sounded different. Even in Little League, when he was up to bat, everyone stopped to watch because you knew you might see something special. When we were 12, he hit one over the L.A. River into an apartment complex. In high school, we'd warn the opposing third baseman to back up for his own safety when Mike was up to bat."

Tom Dill, Stanton's high school baseball coach, said an opposing coach from St. Paul High still likes to tell the story about a Stanton hit that "almost took the pitcher's head off, the kid had to duck, and then almost took the center fielder's head off. That's how hard he hit it. You could hear the difference when Mike was up to bat."

As soon as the Marlins scouts saw Stanton take batting practice that sunny August day at Blair Field, they called Stan Meek, the team's vice president of scouting.

"Blair Field is notorious for being a very tough place to hit a ball out of, so when our scouts saw him hit a ball onto the golf course, that definitely caught our attention," Meek said. "But when the game started, he didn't make contact. He swung at everything, and struck out a lot. He had raw power, not game power.

"Tim had a strong feeling about him, though, kept doing his homework and we scouted him as hard as we've ever scouted anyone."

McDonnell would show up at Stanton's games unannounced, with no visible Marlins logos, and watch from a distance, sometimes through binoculars from his car. He didn't want other scouts to know he was there. The kid improved immensely his senior season, and McDonnell was pleasantly surprised that only a few scouts from other teams were hanging around.

One by one, the other Marlins scouts took trips to see him, and came away impressed. Meek says they scouted at least 20 of Stanton's games his senior season. Orrin Freeman liked him, compared his power to that of Dave Kingman. Jim Fleming gave his stamp of approval. Meek says Stanton reminded him of a young Dave Winfield, whom Meek played against in the 1973 College World Series.

"Collectively, the more we watched, the more we liked him," Meek said of Stanton. "It was the possibility of what he could be that excited us. We felt if this guy hits enough, that raw power will turn into game power. Baseball is such a failure game, but we all agreed that with his size, athleticism and strength, the possible reward would be worth the risk."

The media reports of the Area Code Games indicated Stanton's stock has risen.

Baseball America wrote: "Sherman Oaks, Calif., product Mike Stanton offers intriguing upside. He had little trouble clearing the left-field wall in batting practice. The athletic, strong 6-foot-5, 205-pound Stanton generates above-average bat speed and has plus raw power."

And this, from the Los Angeles Times: "Mike Stanton, Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, Sr. There might not be a better athlete than the 6-4 Stanton, who starts at defensive back and receiver for the football team, starts at forward for the basketball team and starts in the outfield for the baseball team."

The Marlins had the No. 12 pick in the 2007 draft, and though they were completely sold on Stanton, they knew most teams weren't, so they figured that was too high to take him. They selected another Southern California prospect, third baseman Matt Dominguez. And when the second round came around, they snagged Stanton and signed him to a $475,000 contract.

"We had to draft for impact because our club couldn't go out and get the $200 million free agent guys, and we all saw Stanton enough that we made him a focal point," Meek said. "I felt really good pulling his card on draft day. And he has far exceeded what we had hoped for."

At 18, he went to Greensboro, N.C., to play with the Grasshoppers, and he hit 39 homers that first year. There were minor league tales of the Stanton shot that went 500 feet in Montgomery, Ala., and the 450-footer he crushed with a broken bat in Lake County, Ill. All the while, his swing was getting better under the tutelage of Marlins hitting coach John Mallee, now with the Chicago Cubs.

His first two years in the majors, he hit 56 home runs. Only Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez had as many before age 22 in the previous 45 years.

After spending most of his life going by the name "Mike," Stanton decided in 2012 to switch to his given first name, Giancarlo. He always liked that name, he said, but people had so much trouble pronouncing it that he decided to simplify it for them and go by his middle name "Mike."

Now, at age 27, the hulking Stanton is 6-6, 240 pounds, and the premier power hitter in baseball with 52 home runs. His 18 homers in August tied the second most in a calendar month in league history. Since July 5, he has hit 30 home runs. The next-best is 17 by Nelson Cruz of the Seattle Mariners.

He carries the Marlins' playoff hopes on his broad shoulders and is a candidate for National League Most Valuable Player. How valuable is he to the Marlins? They agreed to a 13-year $325 million contract in 2014 — making him the highest-paid North American athlete.

That year, he led the National League with 37 home runs and finished second to the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw in NL MVP voting. Stanton also made headlines that year when he took a fastball to the face Sept. 11, suffering multiple facial fractures, dental damage and facial lacerations. He didn't play the rest of the season.

Through it all, Stanton has remained a quiet leader, stays out of trouble, and keeps his private life private. He likes grilled cheese sandwiches, likes to travel to Europe in the offseason and has a posh condo downtown. And, he is not shy about showing off his chiseled physique. He posed nude for the 2013 ESPN the Magazine Body Issue. And last week, he was all over social media after the release of a racy Lexy Panterra music video in which he is featured wearing only underwear.

Gee said he isn't surprised to see Stanton as a major-league superstar.

"When Mike made his MLB debut, me and my friends were saying, 'We should go to Vegas and put some money on Mike hitting 500 home runs in his career.' We all joked around, nobody did it. Now, we're kicking ourselves."

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