EvCC helped Indians’ Cunningham get to majors

SEATTLE — Sitting in the visitors clubhouse at Safeco Field Tuesday afternoon, Aaron Cunningham reflected on his time at Everett Community College and had to laugh at himself.

Cunningham, now an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, went to EvCC seven years ago as a guy who hit well at South Kitsap High School, but was anything but a polished player. Sure Cunningham could hit, but the way he remembers it, he didn’t do a whole lot else well, and at the time, playing at EvCC seemed more like a way to keep playing baseball than a means to professional career.

“It’s crazy,” said Cunningham, who came into Tuesday’s Cleveland-Mariners’ game as a defensive replacement and singled in his only at bat.

“In high school I couldn’t throw. There were a lot of things I didn’t do well. I hit a little bit, and I liked DHing. I was first-team, all-league DH. I was terrible in the outfield. … When I got to their program, I just blew up. My strength got better, it was just a great experience. I never thought I would be as good as I got there. I went from just having fun playing baseball to thinking, ‘Holy cow, this might turn into something good.’”

The irony of Cunningham’s story is that, so far this season, the guy who was “terrible in the outfield” has seen most of his playing time as a late-inning defensive replacement. Of course, inconsistent playing time and only a few at bats here and there is hardly an ideal situation for anyone, but even if this season isn’t going exactly according to plan, Cunningham is still thrilled to be on an opening-day roster for the first time in his career.

Making things even better is the fact that his job brought him to Safeco Field for the second time — he also played here in 2008 with the Athletics. With an off day Monday, Cunningham, who turns 26 next week, was able to visit family and friends in Port Orchard and enjoy an early birthday party. Cunningham estimates he’ll have 20 or so family members and friends at games this week.

“It’s priceless,” he said. “When I came here that first time in 2008, it was so emotional playing in the city you grew up in, seeing your family. All of that stuff was really cool.”

Now? It’s still great to be home, Cunningham says, but not quite as emotional as was the first trip here in 2008.

“Those first few times, everywhere you go it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is awesome,” he said. “I’m over that. I’m definitely over it. This is my life now. It’s work, in a sense. Everything is still exciting, but I’m not star-struck anymore.”

For Cunningham, this chance to make an impression early with the Indians is just his latest fresh start, and one that he hopes will help him finally settle down with one team. Already Cunningham, who was drafted in the sixth round by the White Sox in 2005, has been played for five organizations — Chicago, Arizona, Oakland, San Diego and now Cleveland — appearing at the major league level with the A’s, Padres and Indians, and he has been a part of four trades. All of that bouncing around hasn’t been all bad, however.

“Most people might play for a couple of teams, but I consider myself lucky because I’ve been able to meet a lot of people, and if I wasn’t able to move to other teams, I wouldn’t have learned the things I’ve learned,” Cunningham said. “My maturity wouldn’t be as high as it is at this point. So I’m pretty thankful for that, but the main goal for all of us is to get to a spot to where you’re locked in somewhere, feel comfortable, can go buy a house in that area. But it doesn’t always work out like that. I haven’t really been a guy to play every day, and that’s tough.”

So far Cunningham hasn’t been able to play every day with Cleveland, but it’s early in the season and he is still optimistic his time will come. He is also realistic, however, and knows that he won’t have forever to prove himself. By his own admission, one of the reasons Cunningham made the opening-day roster was that he was out of options (the number of times the team can move him up from the minors) — limiting what the Indians could do with him coming into the season.

“That’s the stuff we don’t like to think about, but it’s part of it,” he said. “I am at the point where, in a sense, it’s make-it-or-break-it. I’m still young I’m still maturing, but by now I wish that at some point I would have had that every-day opportunity. But if I would have done better in those times they gave me, I might have had an every-day opportunity, so it’s my fault I’m where I am right now. I do think about that stuff sometimes, but I do truly believe I’ll be playing baseball for a long time.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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