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San Diego gives Russo new hope

By now, Paul Russo figured to be a major leaguer.

The power-hitting infielder rose steadily in the Minnesota Twins organization after he was drafted out of the University of Tampa in 1990, where he still holds season records for hits (100) and total bases (191). But he never got the call up to the "Show."

After four years in the Twins farm system, the last one and a half at the highest level, Triple-A, Russo became eligible during the last off-season for the Rule 5 draft, which makes minor-leaguers with extensive service available to other clubs.

The San Diego Padres grabbed Russo with the very first pick. He played half a season at Memphis, San Diego's Double-A farm team, and after batting .311 with six home runs and 18 RBI in 45 games to help the Chicks to the first-half title in the Southern League, was promoted last week back to Triple-A with the Las Vegas Stars.

"This is a new life for me," said Russo, 25, a two-time first-team UT All-American who also played high school baseball in Tampa. "With the Twins, no matter what I did, they never gave me an opportunity to get to the big-league level. I was drafted in the 16th round (in 1990) and it seemed like they always wanted to bring up the higher draft picks."

The Padres consider the acquisition of Russo a bargain at $12,000.

"It was money well spent to get a bat like that," said San Diego assistant general manager Steve Lubratich. "We like his offensive potential. He's going to get to the big leagues eventually."

The Padres' major-league club acquired veteran Ken Caminiti as its third baseman last winter, a move that probably will keep Russo in the minors, at least until September when teams are allowed to expand their rosters.

"I just wanted the opportunity to get to the big-league level and now I have that," Russo said last week from Calgary after going 1-for-3 in his first game with the Stars last Friday.

A series of injuries earlier this season threatened to derail Russo's rise up the Padres' ranks, but his hard-headedness literally kept him off the disabled list.

"I got hit in the head by a pitch in a game against the Knoxville Blue Jays in mid-May," Russo said. "It cracked the batting helmet, knocked me out for half a minute and they had to carry me off the field. I got a cat-scan and everything was okay, but I was out five games."

Another time, in Birmingham, Russo attempted to field a ground ball, but it hit him in the face, bruising but not breaking his jaw. "The stuff he took would have killed some people, but not Russo's hard head," said Memphis media relations director Jim Dominguez.

Russo also has wrestled with a nagging hamstring injury this season.

Married since last October, Russo's wife, Melissa, is expecting the couple's first child around their first anniversary.

"This is a new life for me in many ways," Russo said. "But I won't be completely happy until I make it to the majors."