Baseball is in his blood

Howard catcher Alex Arias has spent his entire life around baseball, learning the game from his father and grandfather, two former pros.

May 17, 2006|By ALEJANDRO DANOIS | ALEJANDRO DANOIS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

During his sophomore year in 2004, Howard High School catcher Alex Arias went hitless through his first three varsity games.

While some coaches would have worried about the psyche of a young player in a slump, Howard coach Rich Jenkins was not concerned.

"In high school, there are athletes that just play baseball," Jenkins said. "Alex is a baseball player. This is his sport."

He watched how Arias kept his hands in on a compact, fluid swing. He noticed the natural balance in the batter's box, how well he saw the ball and the way the barrel of the bat found its way through the strike zone.

He also saw that the lack of offensive production didn't affect Arias' defensive performance.

"Good catchers are very hard to find," Jenkins said. "Alex had great skills blocking the ball, and even when he wasn't hitting well, he didn't let that affect him behind the plate."

In his fourth game, Alex collected his first hit, a line-drive single to right field. He went on to hit .300 for the season.

During his slump, Arias did not have to search far for professional advice. His grandfather, Rudy Arias Sr., was a baseball star growing up in Cuba and pitched for the Chicago White Sox in 1959. His father, Rudy Arias Jr., was a catcher drafted in the first round (secondary phase) of the amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners in 1977. A severely broken jaw ended his father's playing career after four years in the minor leagues and he moved into coaching.

Since 1997, Rudy Arias Jr. has worked as a batting practice instructor and bullpen catcher for the Orioles. He also acts as an unofficial liaison and translator for the organization's Latin ballplayers.

While Alex struggled for his first varsity hit, his father downplayed offense and stressed defense.

"The 0-for-4's are going to come as a hitter," his father said. "When you're catching, you have to give 110 percent effort: blocking balls, chasing wild pitches and making good throws. You can't go into a slump as a catcher, and Alex looks at defense as an art form."

Growing up in Miami, Alex carried his father's catcher's mitt around the house while still in diapers. In addition to growing up in a family with a professional baseball pedigree, he also benefited from living in a warm-weather city where the sport is played year-round and enthusiastically supported by the Cuban-American community.

"I've always played baseball and always played catcher," said Alex, a senior. "I've always loved everything about the game."

When he was 3, he was hitting balls off a tee right-handed in the family's backyard when his father decided to do some tinkering.

"One day I turned him around and saw one of the most beautiful left-handed swings," his father said.

That was the last day that Alex swung a bat right-handed.

Because of his father's coaching career, Alex has had the opportunity to mingle with - and learn from - major league players.

In 1996, Rudy was on the coaching staff of the World Series champion New York Yankees. During summer break from school, 7-year-old Alex was a constant presence in the Yankees clubhouse, following behind players such as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Darryl Strawberry.

"I would talk to Derek Jeter when he was a rookie," Alex said. "It was exciting going on the field, but it was all I knew, so at the time, it wasn't that big of a deal to me."

When Rudy left to take the job with the Orioles, the Arias family moved to Maryland. Without any prompting from his father, Alex packed away his Yankees memorabilia and decorated his room with all things Orioles.

At Camden Yards, Cal Ripken tossed batting practice to him and played catch with him. Alex watched the catchers go through their drills and studied left-handed hitters Brady Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro.

Alex still spends his summers at the ballpark with his father, arriving hours before the scheduled opening pitch. Under the tutelage of hitting coach Terry Crowley and third base coach Tom Trebelhorn, he practices his swing in the batting cages in the bowels of the stadium.

"You can tell that he's spent a lot of time in the cage," Jenkins said. "He's developed from a singles hitter to a power hitter. He doesn't swing hard but it's very smooth and fluid, and the ball jumps off of his bat."

Alex, who throws right-handed, completed the regular season with a .390 average, leading the team with 24 RBIs, eight doubles and three triples. He has signed a letter of intent to play at Catonsville Community College next year and hopes to play professionally.

He helped the Lions, who were 7-14 his sophomore year, to a 12-7 regular-season finish and the top seed in the regional playoffs.

Because of Rudy's travel schedule with the Orioles, the Lions' regular-season finale, a 1-0 victory over Atholton that assured the top seed in the playoffs, was the only game he has attended this year. Alex had a strong game defensively, scooping a number of pitches in the dirt with runners on third.

"I really enjoy watching him play like a regular father," Rudy said. "It's fun knowing that all the years I've talked to him, there's a part of me in there somewhere."

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