A long road home for Rays' Evan Longoria

LONG BEACH, Calif.

Evan Longoria makes it look so easy. The relaxed, almost sleepy-eyed approach before unleashing the fury of his swing. The athletic, occasionally acrobatic moves in the field that turn golden. Even the silky-smooth delivery of the key lines in his national TV commercials. But maybe that's because it was anything but easy for him to get there. Longoria's return to Southern California for Tuesday's All-Star Game will be hailed as a royal homecoming for the kid who grew up 20 minutes from Angel Stadium.

But it also will stand as a measure of how far he has come: from the scrawny teen who wasn't drafted out of high school and didn't emerge as even the slightest pro prospect until the summer of 2005 to the three-time-in-three-years All-Star (twice elected ahead of Yankees megastar Alex Rodriguez) and, given a growing resume of magazine spreads, endorsements and 60-second TV splashes, burgeoning national celebrity.

"To be honest with you, I can't believe it either," Longoria's father, Mike, said. "Just to be a major-leaguer then to step to the next level and be an All-Star and now Evan's kind of blown up in another direction with the media.

"You know, it's like, 'Wow.' It's hard for us to conceive, too."

• • •

Longoria, 24, says all the right things about his rapid ascension, about how blessed and fortunate he is to have the fame and glory and rewards, including a contract that can pay him $45 million over nine years.

"It's definitely surreal to me," he said.

As much of a blur as the past five years have been, Longoria has managed — for the most part — to keep it all in perspective, drawing raves from past coaches, associates and current teammates for the way he has handled his success.

And the reason, all seem to agree, started at home.

"I think a lot of it has to do with him being raised by 'normal' parents and not the athletic parents," said Kris Jondle, his high school coach. "And I think that's had a lot to do with him handling it all well."

Mike and Ellie Longoria worked hard — and still do — for what they have, raising Evan and his three younger siblings in the middle-class environment of Downey, Calif. Mike, 55, is a maintenance worker (primarily painting) in the Long Beach school district. Ellie, 54, is a manager in a medical office.

"We're not destitute. We're a working family," Mike said one recent night. "We've got all the things you're supposed to, but I've paid for them, too. I've got a mortgage. It's everyday life going on with three kids living here. I'm not doing laundry right now only because I'm talking to you."

Ellie did most of the shaping — "She keeps Evan grounded," Mike said — with a huge assist from her mother, affectionately known as Bubbie until her death in April 2009. She would watch the kids every afternoon. Evan, who went to Catholic school, wears a cross in honor of both women.

"His family did a good job of making him humble,'' said Troy Tulowitzki, former Long Beach State teammate and current Rockies star. "He plays with an arrogance and commitment that you need to be a good player, but he doesn't take it too far off the field.''

The focus in the Longoria home was on family, hard work and education. And the lessons were learned.

"If they could have raised me with a silver spoon, they would have. I think every parent wants the best they can give to their kids," Longoria said. "My parents, being very middle class, they raised me with as much love and attention as any parents would, but they couldn't give me everything.

"And I think that definitely feeds into the way I am now, the way I go about things and the way I try not to take things for granted that I'm given now."

• • •

That upbringing carried over to the baseball field.

Longoria wasn't very big and wasn't very good coming out of St. John Bosco High, ignored by the pro scouts and — to the not-always-concealed dismay of his parents — barely noticed by major college coaches.

"Nobody wanted him," Mike said.

The Longorias couldn't compensate by making him what former Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers calls "a show pony," the kid whose parents trot him out to every showcase event and travel league to get him noticed and hire private coaches by the hour.

Instead, two patterns quickly emerged: Longoria had to work hard for what he got, and he liked doing it.

"It never came easy for Evan," said Ken Ravizza, the sports psychologist who started working with him at Long Beach. "Everyone wasn't after him telling him he was Mr. Wonderful. He had to earn it. He's always had to work to get better, and he's really embraced that."

Mike, who coached Evan when he started in the church league at St. Dominic Savio in Bellflower at age 4 until high school, would hit him endless grounders after practice. They'd take swings when they could. Evan played as much as possible, even joining a wood bat league that included drives across the border to Mexico.

From Bosco, where he was a decent B student, the story picks up.

Longoria had some other junior colleges interested but took the promise of playing time at Rio Hondo and made the most of it, getting bigger and stronger and better.

Then after Weathers heard from a friend about "this little guy over there who has this really good bat speed," Longoria got the opportunity at Long Beach State, though he had to move from shortstop, where Tulowitzki was anchored, to third base.

A decent debut season earned Longoria an invite to spend the summer of 2005 playing for the Chatham A's in the prestigious Cape Cod League. His MVP performance there was the breakthrough moment for all the hard work.

"That's where he was born," Weathers said. "That's where the name started coming out that he could really hit."

A stellar junior season at Long Beach State followed, leading to being drafted third overall by the Rays and launching a pro career that led quickly to the big leagues.

Longoria viewed each step as a significant challenge to continue his progress in a larger pool of competition. The key was taking the same approach: keep quiet, listen often and work hard.

"I went in with the attitude and mind-set that I was going to keep my head down and keep plugging away at playing baseball and try not to bring attention to myself or ruffle any feathers," he said.

"I'm sure when he was little he was a really good player but probably not the best player at any of the leagues he ever played in," said Jondle, his high school coach.

"And that helped keep things in perspective; like the big fish/small pond syndrome."

• • •

There is so much Longoria does on the field that is worth noticing, the way he hits, fields, runs, throws and thinks.

Asked to describe him, Yankees and American League All-Star manager Joe Girardi needed only four words: "He's a complete player."

Tulowitzki, who remains one of Longoria's good friends, raves about how comfortable he looks.

"He wants to be the best," Tulowitzki said. "Some guys don't want to be that guy. He wants to be that guy. He always wants to be up in the ninth inning with the game on the line. He wants the attention. Not everybody wants that."

Weathers, the college coach, speaks to the confidence, which he noticed the day Longoria showed up on campus for their first meeting.

"He didn't say much, but what he said, he was very sure," Weathers said. "He's always been a guy that's sure of himself. I think it's a trait the great ones have, to be honest with you."

But there's something even more noticeable, Ravizza said, and noteworthy.

"When you look at Evan, look at the number of times in a game when he's smiling," he said. "That's the thing that gets me is that he's enjoying it."

• • •

Longoria said there will be a time, though probably not until his next contract, when he will give his parents the ultimate thank you, telling them, "I got it," paying off their bills to welcome them to a leisurely retirement.

Mike insists he's not even thinking about that now (and laughing at how many people ask when he will retire), more focused on working the couple of years he needs to guarantee his health insurance coverage.

Besides, they wouldn't think of asking Evan for anything (except for that one signed World Series ball Mike treasures) or of stepping into his spotlighted world.

"We just have Evan," Mike said. "That's the best part."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

A long road home for Rays' Evan Longoria 07/10/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 11, 2010 1:05am]

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