Shortstop is long on talent

Baseball: Centennial senior A.J. Tinnirella makes sizable impression with a .742 average despite some colleges scoffing at his 5-foot-9 frame.

High Schools

April 27, 2003|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Centennial shortstop A.J. Tinnirella, described as shy and reserved by his father, once called a Division I college coach to see if he would have any interest in coming out to watch him play.

The coach asked only two questions. His height? His weight?

The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Tinnirella, who leads the Baltimore area in hitting with a .742 (23-for-31) average, was stunned by the coach's reply.

"If you're not 6-2 and 190 pounds, I don't even want to look at you. You have no place in my program. On the next level, you need to be big and strong," the coach said.

For a while that upset Tinnirella, whose dream is to play at the Division I level and perhaps professionally.

"It was a heartbreaker," Tinnirella said. "I know I can play with those guys if given a chance, and baseball is not a sport where size really matters. In college they may just want the big boppers, but not in the major leagues."

He cited a couple of small but outstanding current major league shortstops, Cleveland's Omar Vizquel at 5-9 and David Eckstein of the Anaheim Angels at 5-8.

Tinnirella likes to read about the legendary players, and knows the sport has a long tradition of small shortstops like Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and Luis Aparicio.

"They got someone to look at them," said Tinnirella, who clings to his dream with the same determination that allowed him to earn a junior black belt in tae kwon do at age 12.

Tinnirella is not afraid of working hard to achieve a goal.

The normal team practice is two hours, but Tinnirella comes early and stays late, regularly extending his practices to three or 3 1/2 hours by taking extra batting practice and fielding extra ground balls.

Then he goes home to his batting cage in the basement at night and hits 200 to 300 tennis balls off a batting tee to perfect his swing.

"He's driven," said his father, Frank, who has passed on his own love of the game to his son. "But he's self-motivated. He truly enjoys hitting and working at it. He understands how difficult baseball is to play."

Tinnirella loves baseball partly because it is so challenging. "You fail more than you succeed, and the way that you cope with failure and carry on tells you a lot about yourself as a person," Tinnirella said. "I never let it [losing] get the best of me, even though it eats me up if I lose."

Tinnirella did receive some encouragement that his talents may someday be noticed when a Toronto Blue Jays scout spoke to him after the NABF under-18 World Series last summer in Canada.

"The scout told him he loved the way he played and saw in him a knowledge of the game he hadn't seen in a long time," Tinnirella's father said. "He took his name and phone number and said he'd try to watch him this spring."

Tinnirella, who started playing baseball at 6 and has always played up an age level, started at shortstop for the Columbia Reds last summer and batted over .300. He has played the game since he was 6 and been at the travel level since 11. When he's not playing, he's watching pro, college or high school games.

Steve Walker coached him for five years and Tinnirella said he learned an incredible amount about the game from him.

His high school coach, Denis Ahearn, said he is amazed by Tinnirella's knowledge.

"He plays at a different level than 99 percent of the kids - at a pro level," Ahearn said. "He's so insightful he pushes me to look at things in a different way."

Ahearn describes Tinnerella's agility, arm and speed as all being exceptional. Over-the-shoulder and diving catches appear to be routine plays for the Eagles' senior.

Among his 23 hits are four triples and four doubles. He's 8-for-8 on stolen bases. He has also been hit by pitches four times.

"I don't mind getting hit," he said. "My job is to get on base."

Ahearn said he wishes Tinnirella was getting more interest from scouts.

"He's being overlooked by college scouts because of his size, but people won't sleep on him much longer," Ahearn said. "He'd make the ideal leadoff hitter because he walks, makes contact, goes the other way and hits line drives."

Tinnirella said Towson University coach Mike Gottlieb promised him a spot on the team, but no scholarship money, and that's where he'll most likely play.

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