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Father hit the long ball; son throws the fastball

Tony Armas doesn't recall the specifics. Teenage boys can be that way. But the day that changed his life occurred early this spring, a few months after he accepted an invitation to the New York Yankees' baseball academy in Maracay, on the other end of his native Venezuela.

Just shy of his 16th birthday, a lithe boy trying to follow in the footsteps of his famous father, he was playing centerfield in a routine game against a team of young Baltimore prospects.

"We had no pitchers left," Armas says now, laughter building as he tells the story. "We had an outfielder left on the bench so they called me to pitch. I threw 84 (mph) and I was 15. They said, "Hey, what are you doing as an outfielder?' "

Armas doesn't hear that question anymore.

He has been exclusively a pitcher virtually since that day, signing with the Yankees a few months after his 16th birthday and spending the past four weeks in Tampa working with the Yankees' Instructional League team.

The Yankees have been bringing him along slowly _ he didn't pitch in a game until this week _ but are impressed with what they've seen so far of the 6-foot-4, 175-pound right-hander.

"We like him," Yankees manager Buck Showalter said. "Any kid that young that shows that type of potential has a high ceiling."

"He's a talent," added Yankees GM Gene Michael. "I know his father was a good one, and that's a good sign."

A baseball pedigree can work two ways. Having a father who played 14 seasons in the majors and hit 251 home runs can create certain advantages in terms of opening conversations and doors. (The two share first and last names but have different middle names, so Tony does not use Jr.) But it can also create unfair expectations.

Armas played several seasons in the youth leagues as an outfielder, but said he didn't think he had the quickness or batting stroke to succeed.

The elder Armas said he is glad his son is working off the mound instead. "To me, it's great," Armas said from his home in Venezuela. "He doesn't want that kind of pressure from fans. They'd want to see him hit the long ball."

Armas, who was born in Venezuela in 1978 and came to the United States when he was about 2 months old, claims to remember lots of details of his father's career. That career had plenty of high points: There was 1981, when the senior Armas hit 22 homers and drove in 76 runs for Oakland in a strike-shortened season and was named player of the year by The Sporting News; 1984, when he hit a major-league-high 43 home runs and drove in 123 runs; and 1986, when he helped the Red Sox reach the World Series.

While Dad was doing that, young Tony attended schools in the United States through fifth grade, returning to Venezuela about the time his father retired in 1989.

Because of his exposure to the major-league lifestyle, Tony said he is not having any trouble adjusting to professional baseball _ even though he is a 16-year-old in a strange city a continent away from home.

"No problem," he said.

"He knows what it's like, so it's easy for him," the elder Armas said.

Father and son were both a little surprised when the invitation came to join the academy, and even more so when the Yankees offered a contract. (Venezuelan and Dominican players are not subject to the amateur draft.)

A simple discussion ensued between the high school freshman and the former major-leaguer.

"My father told me that if you're going to leave school, you've got to be serious," Armas said.

So that is why he is here, working with the Yankees' pitching instructors, trying to add a little more speed to a fastball that has been clocked around 90 mph and learning to have better control of his curveball and change-up.

He'll be back next spring, hoping for an assignment to one of the Yankees minor-league clubs. His final destination, of course, is Yankee Stadium. He's been there once, as a 6-year-old watching his dad play in 1984. Now he wants to go back, on his own ticket and his own merit.

"I hope so," he said.