Throughout Evan Longoria's remarkable rookie season, teammates, opposing players — even Hall of Famers — talked of how the Rays third baseman exuded the calmness and poise of a veteran.
But Longoria, 23, admitted that underneath the California cool exterior, he sometimes felt in "awe" throughout a year filled with memorable moments.
That included Monday, when Longoria was a unanimous choice for the American League rookie of the year. In picking up all 28 first-place votes by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, he became the first AL rookie to be a unanimous pick since 1997 and Nomar Garciaparra, who, coincidentally, attended the same St. John Bosco High in California.
Longoria said the award meant "everything" to him, "a dream come true," especially considering the journey he made to reach this point.
Five years ago, Longoria left high school with zero scholarship offers. Longoria, who led AL rookies with 27 home runs and a .531 slugging percentage, was left off the opening day roster this season, having to start in Triple A. But after being a key cog in the Rays' turnaround from worst in the majors to the World Series, the All-Star has left his mark, tabbed as a potential face of the franchise.
"This is where, as a baseball player, I wanted to be," Longoria said via conference call from his Southern California home. "If I told you two years ago I knew I'd be in this situation, I'd be lying. This is a dream come true."
Longoria was a first-round pick (third overall) in 2006 out of Long Beach State, where coach Mike Weathers (who has coached 10 major-leaguers, including Troy Tulowitzki) saw Longoria grow from an undersized, "way under the radar" prep infielder to a hot prospect with "the best swing and the best hands of anyone I've ever coached."
Longoria showed just that from the time he was called up April 12. Despite missing 30 games with a fractured wrist, Longoria led AL rookies in RBIs (85) and extra-base hits (60) and was sixth among AL third basemen in fielding percentage (.963).
He had several signature moments, from bare-handing a Reed Johnson bunt to make the final out in a win over the Cubs in June to his three-homer night against the Twins in September, and homering in his first two postseason at-bats in the ALDS.
Longoria's feats made him a slam-dunk pick. He racked up a perfect 140 points in the voting; White Sox second baseman Alexei Ramirez — who hit 21 homers and four grand slams — finished second with 59 points, and Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury was third with 26.
"We are pleased to see Evan's accomplishments recognized with such a prestigious award," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He had a remarkable debut, and we are proud to see him named one of the top young players in baseball. It's a great honor for Evan, and also a tribute to our scouts, player development personnel and major-league staff who played a role in helping him along the way."
It marks the first such award for the Rays in their 11-year history; OF Delmon Young finished second in the voting in 2007. Longoria is one of seven AL rookies to be unanimous selections, with others including Derek Jeter, Mark McGwire and Carlton Fisk. Cubs catcher Geovany Soto won the NL award.
"It's so special," Longoria said. "It's tough to put into words. I didn't start the year in the big leagues; I struggled all the way through high school ball and college ball. There are so many emotions that come to mind when I think about (the award)."
In just more than a year, Longoria has gone from fielding questions about actor Eva Longoria (no relation) to becoming an icon of sorts in the Tampa Bay area and beyond; a record 9-million fans voted him into the last AL spot for the All-Star Game, and "Got Evan?" shirts have popped up around the Trop.
Longoria said he welcomes the attention and expectations that come with his success and stature — he signed a six-year, $17.5-million contract during the season — and is fine with the label of being a face of the organization for years to come.
"We all know that baseball is a team sport, but every franchise has to have somebody," Longoria said. "You look at every team, and there's one player that sticks out. Whether it's me or B.J. Upton or Scott Kazmir, it doesn't matter. If it happens to be me, I'll do the best I can to represent the club and the city."
MADDON HONORS: Rays manager Joe Maddon, honeymooning this week, is scheduled to receive the Chuck Tanner manager of the year award Saturday in a Pittsburgh banquet. So Scott Challis, father of the late John Challis — a Pittsburgh-area teen who inspired Maddon in his fight with liver cancer — will accept the honor for Maddon, who is a heavy favorite to win Wednesday's AL manager of the year award.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.