Edited By Chris Kline
Wheaton College is hardly a baseball factory. The former all-women's school only went co-ed 16 years ago, didn't field a varsity baseball team until 1998 and is presently a Division III program competing in the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference.
Yet the minute Chris Denorfia set foot on this bucolic campus located in the woods of Norton, Mass., he never doubted he could make his major league dreams come true.
Denorfia put together a record-breaking career at Wheaton, amassing 264 hits and a .403 batting average over four seasons in the Lyons' outfield. He became the school's first (and only) player drafted when the Reds took him in the 19th round in 2002.
This past season was a whirlwind 8 1/2 months that began in Double-A Chattanooga, peaked in Cincinnati and finally ended in November in the Arizona Fall League, 178 games after it began.
Through it all, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound outfielder never changed his attitude.
"So much of why he's become the player he is, is because he's just a kid playing baseball," Wheaton head coach Eric Podbelski said.
There may not be a more apt description of the 25-year-old Denorfia.
"Chris is a good man, a high-character guy, he's got good makeup," Reds farm director Tim Naehring said. "He plays the game like we'd like to see all our players play in the organization. He brings 100 percent to the field each night and does a lot of things well. He's not going to wow you with his physical size or lightning speed, but he doesn't have to.
"Marty Barrett once told me, 'You don't have to be a great player to play in the major leagues, you've got to be a good one every day.' Chris is that kind of guy."
The kind of guy who has always overcome his perceived shortcomings. Denorfia's wiry frame had scouts wondering if he was big and strong enough to play professionally. He had speed, but not the kind of blazing speed that could make up for other deficits. He had gap-to-gap power, but not enough for an outfielder who wasn't going to steal a lot of bases.
Even after a sensational freshman season in which he hit .417-6-40 and was named NEWMAC rookie of the year, Denorfia knew it wasn't good enough. His swing was long, he struggled against breaking balls and he couldn't consistently handle top-notch hurlers.
Denorfia made adjustments, but it wasn't easy. His batting average fell a full 70 points (.347) as a sophomore, but the numbers weren't important.
"Really, that ended up being a great thing for him, because he was addressing things with his swing and approach that needed to be fixed in order to hit great pitching," Podbeski said. "I'd say midway through his junior year, it really started to roll for him, and in his senior year, he exploded and kind of came full-circle."
Denorfia hit .377 as a junior and spent his senior season re-writing Wheaton's record books: .457, 47 games, 58 runs scored, 85 hits, 133 total bases and 34 stolen bases, all school marks.
"On my end, I don't get too involved looking at where a guy comes from, where a guy is picked," Naehring said. "I like to look at who the person is, what type of player they are, no matter what the background. You look at a major league roster, there are guys from all over the world, from all different types of playing experience.
"But it is a great story."
Denorfia began 2005 at Chattanooga and hit .330-7-25 in 188 at-bats before getting the call up to Triple-A Louisville. He remained strong with the RiverBats, hitting .310-13-61 in 323 at-bats. He was called up in September but wasn't activated right away, because of a bruised knee.
Once cleared, Denorfia made his major league debut on Sept. 7. Two days later, in his second big league at-bat, Denorfia homered off Pirates lefthander Oliver Perez.
"That was a really great moment for me and my family," he said.
Denorfia finished 10-for-38 in Cincinnati, then capped the year by batting .333-3-24 in 93 at-bats in the AFL.
"The number one thing we wanted to expose Chris to was a long season," Naehring said. "I can only imagine how tired he (was) physically, even mentally. But (late in the AFL season), I went to see him play and he was in the outfield making diving plays in both gaps, saving pitchers numerous runs."
Denorfia will be attending his first big league spring training camp this year, though he is far from a lock to nail down a job with the major league club. The Reds' one strength in their system is outfield depth--which unfortunately for Denorfia is also their strength in the majors.
But patience has long been an attribute of Denorfia's, and poised he will remain.
"I definitely wouldn’t be disappointed if I start back in Triple-A," he said. "I only spent a half-season there (in 2005). Regardless of where I start, I still have to play hard and put up numbers. You can learn something anywhere you're playing. I'll do the best I can do and make the decision hard on them."
• After hiring Tim Wilken as their scouting director, the Cubs reunited Wilken with one of his most trusted assistants from his days with the Blue Jays. Chris Buckley joined the Cubs after 16 years in the Jays organization. He'll be a special assistant to general manager Jim Hendry and Wilken, scouting amateurs in the spring and helping with pro coverage at all levels. Buckley was an area scout and crosschecker in Toronto before succeeding Wilken as scouting director in 2001. Buckley was scouting director in the 2001-03 drafts when the Jays' first-round picks were Gabe Gross, Russ Adams and Aaron Hill. "Those are my guys," Buckley said. "It's hard to leave that situation. But I'll be doing a lot of evaluating with the Cubs, and that's what I want to be able to do."
• Twins outfielder Kevin West, who batted .271-20-64 in 425 at-bats at Triple-A Rochester in 2005, is expected to miss at least the first two months of this season after having knee surgery. West, a 16th-round pick in 1999 out of Mendocino (Calif.) Community College, injured his knee while playing for Caracas in the Venezuelan League. He finished .222-5-14 in 81 at-bats in Venezuela.
Contributing: John Manuel.
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