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Judging by last season, Longoria's star still only rising

ST. PETERSBURG — He gets the plaque. He goes to the awards banquet in New York. For the rest of his life, Evan Longoria gets to be introduced as the 2008 American League Rookie of the Year.

And what does a Rays fan get out of this deal? The promise of memories still to come.

For, on the day that his major-league debut was celebrated, it is Evan Michael Longoria's future that seems especially titillating. Think of it as baseball's equivalent to being on the ground floor of a public stock offering.

"His ceiling is so high, it's unbelievable," said Rays senior baseball adviser Don Zimmer. "Lord only knows how good he's going to be. He's got everything going for him."

Today, it is permissible to imagine how far this career might go. He's not there yet, but are we witnessing the early moments of a Brooks Robinson-like glove at third base? His offense is not yet that potent, but is it possible we have seen the first at-bats of a Mike Schmidt-like hitter?

Those kinds of comparisons are still a dozen All-Star Games from being legitimate, but can anyone say the possibilities are insane? Does anyone doubt the potential is there?

He is the first Rays player to win one of baseball's major awards, and he did it in a landslide. Not since Albert Pujols has a player been a unanimous winner of a rookie of the year award.

"There are no limits to how good Longoria can be. He's got the makeup to become one of the elite players in the league," said first baseman Carlos Pena. "The question people will ask is, what does he have to do next? The answer is just be himself. He's a hard worker, he has his feet on the ground, he's confident and owns his own space, but doesn't take any of this for granted.

"Those are all the things you get before even speaking of his talent, which is obviously out there for everyone to see. He's got the perfect makings for this exciting, beautiful, rare career."

This is one of the ancillary joys of having a team to call your own. It is not just the day-to-day results on a scoreboard but the familiarity, the anticipation and, yes, the affection of following a favorite player.

It is knowing the 5-year-old pretending to be Longoria in your living room this morning might well be chasing Longo's autograph at Tropicana Field by 2012 and, perhaps, arguing with a cousin in New York or Kansas City or Seattle about who is the AL's best third baseman by 2016.

Here in Tampa Bay, we are not completely oblivious to this phenomenon. We have seen it before, just on other stages. There was Lee Roy Selmon arriving as the Buccaneers' first draft pick in 1976, and eventually becoming Tampa Bay's first Hall of Famer in '95. There was Derrick Brooks showing up in 1995 and winning a Super Bowl in 2003. And Vinny Lecavalier following a similar path with the Lightning.

They all arrived as phenoms and grew as men in the community. With a contract that could keep him in Tampa Bay for another eight seasons, Longoria is in the same position.

Think of what he has accomplished since the Rays announced his promotion from Triple A, exactly seven months ago today. He was voted onto the All-Star team and drove in the tying run with an eighth-inning double. He hit more home runs than any rookie third baseman in more than 40 years, and his slugging percentage was the second-highest in history for a rookie at that position. He homered in his first two at-bats in the playoffs and set a major league record for postseason homers by a rookie with six.

Longoria is a month past his 23rd birthday and already the face of a franchise.

"I know — and I feel — I can do a lot more," Longoria said. "I had a great year, bar none. But I wouldn't go into next year expecting to hit double the home runs and double the RBIs. That would be silly. If I was able to replicate this year every year, I'd consider it a productive season.

"I know I have the ability to do more, and all I can do is prepare myself to the best of my ability and then go on the field and see what happens."

The award itself is hardly a precursor to greatness. Previous winners have seen their careers fizzle due to alcohol, drugs, injuries and, quite often, a gross miscalculation of talent.

Don Schwall won in 1961 after going 15-7 for the Red Sox. He was 34-41 the rest of his career. Joe Charboneau was a sensation in Cleveland in 1980, and his big-league career was done by the summer of '82.

Voters in 1954 saw fit to hand the awards to Bob Grim in the American League and Wally Moon in the National League. In retrospect, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline had somewhat brighter futures.

Yet for every winner such as Curt Blefary, there is another like Willie Mays. For every John Castino, there is a Johnny Bench. Thirteen current Hall of Famers were once rookies of the year, and a half-dozen more are probably on the way to Cooperstown.

Where does Longoria fit in that portrait? It's impossible to say today, but there is reason to believe his future has more in common with legends than with forgettables.

Today, it is worth imagining that he is only just beginning.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Judging by last season, Longoria's star still only rising 11/10/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 7:08pm]
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