PEORIA, Ariz. — Aaron Cunningham tried not to sound too enthused.
But admits he might have failed.
It was mid-January. Cunningham was driving in Gilbert, Ariz., when he got a call from the Oakland Athletics that they had just traded him to the San Diego Padres, part of a four-player deal.
“I may have sounded too excited,” he said with a laugh.
Two months later, his excitement hasn’t abated. If anything, it’s increased.
The former Everett Community College athlete is sitting in the Padres’ clubhouse before the daily workout begins at spring training. Cunningham is relaxed. And very happy.
Happy to be back in uniform. Especially, this uniform.
“I wanted to be here,” he said of the Padres. “It’s the number one place to be, great city, great surroundings, young team.”
He might also have added: fresh start. He needs it after last season.
The year 2009 was not kind to the 23-year-old outfielder.
He suffered a separated shoulder that forced him off the field for a month. Sustained a concussion from a fastball to the head. And, during winter ball in Venezuela, tore some abdominal muscles requiring surgery.
His body wasn’t the only thing that took a beating. His mind got worked over pretty good, as well. “It was the worst season mentally that I’ve been through,” he said.
Call it an up-and-down season. Literally. The A’s brought him up to the major leagues three times. And he saw the bright lights of Sacramento, home of the A’s Class AAA team, three times.
He had a superb year at Triple A (.302 batting average with 11 home runs and 11 stolen bases). He wishes he could say the same thing about his time in the majors.
When he was called up late in 2008, he got a lot of playing time, batting .250 and driving in 14 runs in 22 games. When he got called up last season, he had 27 fewer at-bats (53 in 23 games) than he did the year before and hit a paltry .151 with one homer and six RBI.
Like any hitter, Cunningham felt he needed consistent at-bats to get his timing down. “I had no rhythm,” he said.
What he did have was frustration. He’s young. He wanted to play. Wanted to show what he could do. Wanted to swing a bat, not just go in late in the game and play defense or pinch run.
“I feel I can produce and be a great player,” he said.
He certainly has produced in the minors. In his first five seasons, he put together a cumulative .309 batting average with 60 home runs and an impressive .382 on-base percentage. He also stole 80 bases in 118 attempts.
Such numbers don’t escape baseball’s upper management. Jed Hoyer was very aware of them. Hoyer is the new Padres general manager after spending the past eight years in the Boston Red Sox front office.
In the trade with the A’s, outfielder Scott Hairston was the veteran player the Padres wanted. He had played for them in 2007, 2008 and part of the 2009 season before being traded to Oakland.
The young player the Padres wanted was Cunningham, who hails from Port Orchard and played one year at Everett CC.
“When I was with the Red Sox, we always liked him as a player,” Hoyer said before a spring training game with the Mariners early this month. “It’s hard to find a right-handed hitter who can hit for power and average and play some defense and he can do that.”
Cunningham is on the Padres’ 40-man roster but whether he’ll make the major league team or start the season at Class AAA Portland remains to be seen. “Long-term, we see him as a starting outfielder,” Hoyer said, which means they might want him to play every day at Portland this season rather than be a reserve outfielder in the big leagues.
Needless to say, Cunningham would like to be in the majors, but he also realizes that he’s young (he turns 24 in April) and could benefit from playing every day in the minors. And, hey, Portland is only 21/2 hours from his hometown and his parents could come and watch him play.
“I’d be very happy at Triple A,” he said. “I like Portland. One of my best friends I grew up with lives there.”
He likes San Diego better, of course. He was so invigorated by the trade that he went down there for a week this winter so he could get the feel of PETCO Park. “It plays to my power,” he said. “I’m a doubles guy.”
He also noted the difference between PETCO and the Oakland Coliseum. “It’s (PETCO) big league,” he said. “Oakland is like 4A.”
Cunningham didn’t have many memorable moments in the big leagues last year, but he did have one moment he’d like to forget. You can check it out on the Padres’ Web site if you click on his name.
It shows a fastball getting away from Minnesota’s Anthony Swarzak and hitting Cunningham on the left side of the head. It shows Cunningham dropping to one knee. If there was a balloon hovering over his head with what was going through his mind, it might be empty.
“They asked if I was OK,” he remembered. “I said ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know if I was speaking straight English.”
He apparently convinced the A’s trainer that he was recovered enough to remain in the game. “I got to first base and there was a gapper to right-center and I scored. I was glad I hit all the bases. I remember struggling trying to make sharp turns, though.”
With a “huge lump” on the side of his head, he remained overnight in ICU, then took a day off.
And two or three days later, he was sent down to Sacramento.
“I didn’t think much about it,” he said of the head-shot. “Stuff happens.”
Sometimes, good stuff. Like a trade.
“They’re going to give me a solid opportunity,” he said. “I like the vibes I get around here.”
For Aaron Cunningham, it’s hard to hide his excitement.