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Rusk's mom a big hit with the big-hitter

People just seemed to chuckle and shake their heads when they read the Troy Rusk bio at Monday's Clearwater Phillies game.

There was the usual biographical information _ height, weight, position, residence _ and there were the cute questions that are supposed to provide insight: favorite food, favorite TV show, favorite movie.

It was Rusk's answer to the question, "Person you'd most like to have dinner with?" that elicited surprise. The former University of South Florida standout could have chosen some famous catcher he tries to emulate when he lines up behind the plate, a Hollywood starlet who would woo over his handsome looks, or Elvis, his favorite singer.

Instead, he chose his mom.

"My mom and I have always been real close," said Rusk, who lives in his native Seattle, Wash. "I guess because I was an only child. She's a flight attendant and she came down to see me play when I was in college."

Janice Rusk often scheduled vacations and flights around the USF baseball schedule. She said Troy has raised her in baseball as she raised him as a child.

"I think Troy and I are so close because I've been single for 18 years," Janice said from her Seattle home. "We have a nice, nice relationship. We talk, we laugh, we're just a good family.

"Our relationship has been an honest one. There's no pressure between us. If I had to do it again, he would be the one I want."

Troy's grandparents, Blanche and Cleo Manning, live in Tampa and follow the Clearwater team to every game. Blanche beamed with pride when she saw Troy's bio sheet on Monday.

"I thought it was great," she said. "I thought it was very thoughtful that he would think of her. How many boys would think of their mother?"

Rusk would, and at a muscular 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, he can speak of admiration for his mother without fear of being called a "mama's boy." Rusk is one of the reasons Clearwater won the Western Division first-half title in the Class A Florida State League. He started the season hitting over .300, and although he has cooled to .281, his bat is still considered one of the team's top assets.

"We've played him at catcher, first and DH," Clearwater manager Bill Dancy said. "We feel comfortable with him at the plate, but a guy capable of swinging the bat the way he can should be in the lineup somewhere."

Dancy said Rusk plays catcher two to three times a week, behind talented first-year prospect Chad Moler. Rusk said he's adjusting to the versatility.

"I'm a little more comfortable at first base," Rusk said. "You have to make the throws there with a little more finesse.

"As a catcher, I've learned a lot defensively from the instructors in this organization. I think my defense is getting stronger."

Still, it's Rusk's offense that fuels his hopes of a major league career. He's second on the team in home runs with seven, and third on the team in RBI with 31.

Hitting has been a trademark of Rusk since his youth days in Washington state. His grandfather was on hand to witness many of his Pony League heroics.

"He's always been a No. 4 hitter, he's always hit home runs," Cleo Manning said. "In fact, he was a switch hitter growing up, and there were several times he hit home runs right-handed and left-handed in the same game."

After several outstanding games in Seattle, Rusk came to USF in 1987. His grandparents had moved to Florida and he had spent several Christmas vacations at baseball camps around the state. Rusk said his main attraction to the Bulls was a chance to play for the Cardieri brothers, head coach Eddie and assistant Ron.

"They believed in having fun as long as you worked hard," Rusk said. "And the program had several successful years during the 1980s."

Rusk played in a school-record 224 games with a school-best 34 home runs. He had a career batting average of .290 with the Bulls, and in his junior year he hit .356 with 14 home runs to become the Sun Belt Conference's most valuable player.

After college he entered the Phillies organization but was sidelined by a hand injury in 1991. The season ended after only 15 games with the Phillies' Class A team in Spartanburg, S.C., and he spent the next 11 months in rehabilitation.

At 25 (he turns 26 in September), Rusk knows that age is not on his side. He will have to improve on his patience at the plate if he wants his hitting to drive him into the majors.

"Sometimes he just tries to hit the ball too hard, believe it or not," Dancy said. "When he stays within himself he does well. He's hit one way over the Hooters sign (in left center at Jack Russell Stadium); he can hit one out any place in the park when he stays within himself.

"He needs to be more selective at the plate."

Whether Rusk makes it or not, he does have the guarantee of his mother's love. After he won a semi-pro game in Washington with a last-inning homer, his mother said her collection of baseball memories was complete.

"It was the most exciting thing I had ever seen," she said. "It makes me get chills just thinking about it.

"I hope he makes it to the majors because he loves the game so much, but after that I told him it doesn't matter what else he does in baseball."

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