Leone’s glass slipper fits him like a glove

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Friday, March 5, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

PEORIA, Ariz. — Only a fiction writer would deam this one up.

Then the critics would trash it.

Come on, not another Rocky.

Never happen. Not in a hundred lifetimes.

Beyond unbelievable.

No more Cinderella stories, please.

Oh, yeah? Cinderella lives. Golden slipper and all.

She lives in the bat and glove of a 26-year-old third baseman in the Seattle Mariners minor league system.

For her to live happily ever after, Justin Leone will have to make the major leagues. That’s just what he intends to do.

And he isn’t talking next year.

"Play baseball with the Seattle Mariners," he replies when asked what his goal is in this his first big-league spring training camp. "I like to think I’m ready for the big leagues. Might as well."

More likely, he’ll play this summer for the Tacoma Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League, but after last season, he’s got to believe anything is possible.

He went to Class AA San Antonio as a backup infielder and ended the season as the Texas League Player of the Year and the M’s Minor League Player of the Year.

"To go from I’m-just-happy-to-be-here to Texas League Player of the Year to the big-league camp in 11 months is a Cinderella story," said Terry Pollreisz, the San Antonio hitting coach last season.

You hear raves about his defense.

"Outstanding infielder," Pollreisz said. "He can flat-out play."

Travis Blackley, who went 17-3 and was Texas League Pitcher of the Year, certainly appreciated Leone’s stellar glove work. "He’s as good as anybody," the 21-year-old Australian lefthander said. "I’ve heard people say he’d be in the top five third basemen in the AL (American League) right now."

Want a Brooks Robinson moment? Blackley recalls one.

"I had a ball hit off my ankle," he begins. "He comes in, barehands it, throws off the dive, lands on the mound and gets the runner.

"Unbelievable play. The best play I’ve ever had made. He plucks line drives out of the air like nothing."

Leone’s own highlight film includes a play he made on a bunt last season. "I got to the ball 10 feet in front of the plate and threw it before I looked," he said with a laugh. "I just kind of got rid of it."

And he just kind of threw the runner out, much to his and his teammates’ astonishment. "A lot of guys were surprised," he said. "So was I."

To think, this guy was going to be a utility player. And would have been had San Antonio’s starting third baseman, Greg Dobbs, not ruptured his Achilles tendon in the second game of the season. "One man’s misfortune," Pollreisz said, "is another man’s gain."

In this case, how true.

It seems as if Leone has taken advantage of every break he’s had in recent years. Not that breaks alone have gotten him where he is. His hitting coach calls him a workaholic, says he’s eager to learn. "He’s receptive to help," Pollreisz said. "There’s always an exchange going on. He has an idea what he wants to do, but he’s open to suggestions."

Fielding his position well wasn’t all Leone did last year. The Las Vegas native also had his best season with the bat, hitting .288 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI. He was tops in the league in on-base percentage (.405), extra-base hits (66), runs scored (103) and tied for the lead in doubles (38).

A few years ago, Leone couldn’t have imagined getting paid to play baseball. His goal in life was to become a coach.

He wasn’t drafted coming out of high school or junior college. When a JC teammate signed to play for St. Martin’s in Lacey, he told the coach, "If you need a shortstop," and he mentioned Leone’s name.

Though shortstop was Leone’s favorite position, he was willing to play anywhere they wanted to put him. He went to short.

He had a team. He had a position. Still, he had no illusions of playing pro baseball. Until a game one day against Lewis-Clark State College of Lewiston, Idaho.

L-C State has an excellent baseball reputation, has turned out numerous pro players, so perhaps what happened that day made a big impression with Leone. He had singled sharply over the shortstop’s head and was standing on base when the first baseman turned to him and said, "You keep hitting like that and you’ll get drafted."

"I had always done well against them," Leone recalled, "and when he said that, I thought, ‘Maybe that can happen.’ "

Leone wasn’t sure if any scouts ever came to St. Martin’s games, but apparently they did, including one from the Mariners. After his senior season — "I had a fantastic year," he said — the M’s worked him out in the Kingdome.

"The guys I always saw get drafted were from Lewis-Clark," Leone said the other day after a charity game against the San Diego Padres.

He went home and waited for a call from the M’s to see if a guy from St. Martin’s might have that same fate.

"When I got the call," he said, "I just kind of dropped the phone."

The M’s had taken him in the 13th round of the draft.

Five years later, Justin Leone, who began his career with the Everett AquaSox, has become one of the top prospects in the M’s organization. "The Dobbs situation opened the door for him and he made the most of it," said M’s manager Bob Melvin. "He’s a nice looking player."

That’s fact, not fiction.

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