Almost Heaven . . . San Diego
SAN DIEGO - Jedd Gyorko answered the questions politely as he tightly gripped his bat. He was sitting in the San Diego Padres clubhouse when Jerry Coleman walked by.
Coleman is a Padre announcer now. Played nine seasons in the bigs, all with the Yankees. Had 558 hits. Was a World War II hero. Is a San Diego area legend.
Gyorko is a Padre rookie. Has 105 major league hits. WVU baseball hero. Hit .404 in three seasons with the Mountaineers. Is already a legend in Morgantown baseball circles.
"Another interview for the West Virginia kid," Coleman quipped. Gyorko smiled. "Hi, Colonel," he said with a sheepish grin.
The Padre players rib Gyorko a lot about his roots. He smiles. A true-blue West Virginian.
So it did seem curious that when he strides to the plate at Petco Park, the song he has selected to hear is Jason Aldean's "The Only Way I Know" and not John Denver's "Country Roads."
Oh, Aldean's lyrics - "That's the only way I know, don't stop 'til everything's gone, straight ahead, never turn round, don't back up and don't back down" - work just fine for Gyorko. But wouldn't Denver's classic - "Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong" - work even better?
"They've played it sometimes," Gyorko said of the Padres' public address announcer and "Country Roads." "It's kind of a montage of photos of me with the song playing. I've heard it a couple of times. That's good enough."
Gyorko comes home - almost - this week for the first time as a major league baseball player. He'll be in Pittsburgh Monday through Thursday as the Padres, well out of the playoff race, visit the postseason-bound Pirates.
As he glanced around the Padres clubhouse at Petco Park during a recent home stand, it became rather obvious that if West Virginia was almost heaven for this 24-year-old, then this is heaven.
"Unless you are lucky enough to get to do this," he explained of being a major-league baseball player, "you don't understand what it's like. How much everyone pulls for one another in here and how much this is like a family."
Playing the Pirates in Pittsburgh will be a memorable experience for the University High graduate.
"Yes, I was a Pirates fan growing up," Gyorko admitted. "But the day that the Padres drafted me I pushed the Pirates off to the side. It's good to see them doing so well and I wish them well, but I want to beat them every time we play them."
Gyorko's personal big-league highlight reel so far puts his initial MLB homer at Wrigley Field at the top of the list. "That was pretty special," he admits.
But there is also a home run in Dodger Stadium off Clayton Kershaw, stellar play at second base and even a recent three-hit game in Philadelphia against the Phillies.
The clubhouse is his sanctuary, his home away from home, although he and wife of two years Karley live within walking distance of Petco. And he walks to every home game. Blue-collar.
"We wanted to get the experience of city living so we just rented a place in downtown," Gyorko explained. "The clubhouse is pretty special because everyone in here accepts their role on the team and I haven't experienced any animosity at all."
It's Gyorko's home away from home until batting practice calls. "Gotta run," he said as he headed out the tunnel to the Padres' dugout.
'It's meant to happen'
Tony Gwynn's likeness is in Cooperstown. His statue is beyond the center-field wall at Petco Park next to a barbecue stand. Gwynn played 20 big-league seasons, all with the Padres. He finished with 3,141 hits and 135 of those were homers.
So, when he talks about hitters, you listen.
Gwynn loves Gyorko's hitting approach and his zest for the game.
"Young players have to figure it out," said Gwynn, now the head coach of San Diego State (the Aztecs will entertain WVU in a series next spring). "I can't tell you how bad I was as a rookie with runners on base. That [Padres] lineup will be something with Chase Headley, Carlos Quentin, Yonder Alonzo and Jedd in there on a regular basis."
Gyorko, who will turn 25 on Sept. 23, made a quick rise through the Padres' minor-league system after being selected in the second round of the 2010 draft. Stops along the way included Eugene, Ore., Fort Wayne, Ind., Lake Elsinore, Calif., San Antonio and Tucson, Ariz., before Gyorko reached his destination - the big leagues.
"He's a good player," Gwynn said. "I really like his bat. He reminds me a lot of Dan Uggla.
"I bet if you asked him if he were getting himself out or if the pitchers were, he would say he is. As a young player you just try too hard with runners on base.
"What he does do now is go the other way real well. The other day he took a pitch and then hit it out to right. He has good hands and lots of pop on the ball. It's meant to happen with him, and I think it's gonna happen. I can see him easily hitting .300 with 20 homers and 90 RBIs."
One tough Mountaineer
The Padres will conclude their season Sept. 28 in San Francisco, Gyorko's rookie season will come to a close and he'll head east, back home to West Virginia. In order, he admits to missing 1) family (he smiles); 2) WVU football ("I go to all the home games."); 3) Cheat Lake ("We have a home there, spent a lot of time in that lake as a kid."); and 4) pepperoni rolls ("Oh, yeah," he says of the Mountain State delicacy).
He went to WVU - where he plans to one day get his degree in business when his baseball career is over - for three years in part because he never wanted to go anywhere else.
"He's just a hitter," said Greg Van Zant, Gyorko's coach at WVU. "I think if they ever tested him they would find out that he has exceptional eyesight. And he comes from just a great family. He's had excellent upbringing.
"We treated him like any other recruit, but I knew from the beginning he wanted to come to school here. In the three years he played for us before he was drafted, he never missed a game. He is so tough. There was one game we played, I think it was in Cincinnati his freshman season. He fell on his shoulder trying to get to a grounder and could barely lift his arm. I tried to take him out of the game, but he wouldn't come out.
"The next inning he doubled to right."
Gyorko was the runt of a family of three boys. One older brother, Scott, played inside linebacker on a WVU football team that went to three bowl games. Jedd watched all three from the stands.
"I played football [quarterback and wide receiver] and basketball in high school," said Gyorko, who's now a 5-foot-10, 210-pound middle infielder. "We weren't that good and I had to give them up whenever it was time for baseball."
On the job
"He's a blue-collar worker," Padres broadcaster Dick Enberg said, "the kind of player who is going to give you everything he's got every day."
And that's exactly what Gyorko did - until June 10, when he suffered a groin injury and was placed on the disabled list. He stayed there for the rest of June and into July.
"I was running to second, slid in and felt something grabbing my groin," Gyorko explained. "I thought it was just a cramp. My body was pulling against a muscle. My timing, endurance, stance, all changed. I kinda had to start all over. I even had to go over the tendencies of the pitchers again."
As a result, his batting average, sitting at a lofty .288 on June 8, started to plummet after his return from the disabled list. He went 2 for 26, then 4 for 33 and finally 5 for 51. Only now has he started to drag himself back into 100-percent shape and move the average back near the .250 mark. (He was at .247 going into Saturday night's game at Atlanta.)
He never lost his position, though.
"Jedd won the job back in spring training," said Padres manager Bud Black. "He simply did everything we asked of him. And defensively it became apparent right away he could handle everything we threw at him."
Gyorko had been moved from third base to second by the Padres simply because they had an everyday third baseman in Headley. A year ago they had gone through Orlando Hudson, Logan Forsythe and Alexi Amarista at second. Gyorko won the position and has held his own, committing only six errors while playing alongside shortstops Everth Cabrera, Ronny Cedeno, Forsythe and Amarista.
"I had played [second base] some in college so it wasn't completely foreign to me," Gyorko said. "I think they are happy with my play at second this season."
One concern, though, is Gyorko's strikeout total.
"Strikeouts?" questioned Padres hitting instructor Phil Plantier of Gyorko's whiffs, which were up to 109 in 425 at bats. "Yes, we are concerned, but that number will go down next year. The injuries hurt him, but it's a matter of learning the tendencies of the pitchers he is facing. It's not the pitch he is striking out on that bothers us, it's the first or second strike and those pitches before the punchout that he is just missing that concern us. It can and will be fixed. He is just too good of a hitter."
'Dig a little deeper'
It's 396 feet to the dead-center-field wall at Petco Park. On this day, Gyorko had been hit by a pitch on the shoulder in the first inning and then teed off on a Tim Lincecum splitter in the fourth inning for a 392-foot double that hit that wall on one bounce. No small feat considering Lincecum had led the National League in strikeouts in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
But when Gyorko next approached the plate with two runners on base and two out in the sixth, the Padres were trailing 8-5 and Jean Machi was coming in to replace Lincecum for the Giants.
With a little time to kill, the scoreboard operator dropped in a tape, THE tape. The one blaring "Country Roads," the one showing various exploits of the rookie from Morgantown, the one Gyorko would rather not hear.
Nope. He struck out.
Next time maybe they should cue Aldean and his lyrics: "Full throttle, wide open you get tired, you don't show it. Dig a little deeper when you think you can't dig no more. That's the only way I know."
That's more Jedd anyway.
Jedd Gyorko profile
Jedd Gyorko's big-league home runs to date
No. Opponent, date Pitcher
1. at Cubs, May 1 Scott Feldman
2. Diamondbacks, May 5 Ian Kennedy
3. Marlins, May 6 Wade LeBlanc
4. Nationals, May 17 Gio Gonzalez
5. Cardinals, May 22 Tyler Lyons
6. at Mariners, May 28 Brandon Maurer
7. at Dodgers, June 5 Clayton Kershaw
8. at Rockies, June 7 Rob Scahill
9 Yankees, Aug. 2 Joba Chamberlain
10. Orioles, Aug. 7 Miguel Gonzalez
11. at Rockies, Aug. 12 Jeff Francis
12. at Rockies, Aug. 13 Jeff Manship
13. Mets, Aug. 17 Carlos Torres
14. Pirates, Aug. 20 A.J. Burnett
15. Cubs, Aug. 23 Edwin Jackson
16. Cubs, Aug. 23 Blake Parker
17. Rockies, Sept. 7 Matt Belisle
18. at Phillies, Sept. 11 Cliff Lee