07/14/2003 6:17 PM ET
White 'thankful' for All-Star pick
Padres outfielder talks about his one-year turnaround
CHICAGO -- The turning point for Rondell White was on Opening Day of this season in San Francisco. He was on his way to Pacific Bell Park with his longtime friend and mentor, Marquis Grissom, who had just joined the Giants.
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
"He's the one who told me to turn it up a notch, to get to the park early and take extra batting practice," White said. "Not that I didn't love the game anymore, but sometimes when you get traded around a lot, you get comfortable. That meant a lot to me. Now I look around, and it's like a dream come true."
Now White looks around, and he is among new friends. He was sitting Monday afternoon at his own All-Star interview table in a downtown hotel, flanked by Mark Prior on his left and Jose Vidro on his right. White is here as the San Diego Padres' lone representative in Tuesday's 74th All-Star Game at U.S. Cellular Field, selected as a reserve outfielder. Rarely does life take such a sudden and wonderful twist.
It was just last March 18 that White was traded from the mighty Yankees to a Padres team that had just been dealt a double-whammy with the loss of Trevor Hoffman for the season and then Phil Nevin for at least a half-season. He was going from a team expecting a World Series to a team widely expected to build from the bottom. And he was going from a fishbowl of criticism, disparaged for hitting .240 with the Bombers after an almost automatic career expectation of .300.
Here's the question: Would you rather be in the midst of an off-year for a contender, or an All-Star for a team at the bottom of the standings? In White's case, it isn't even a close call. He had that old gleam back as one of many first-time All-Stars here, bringing with him a .275 average and, more notably, power numbers that already are around where he finished last season in New York. In 82 games with San Diego, he has 16 homers and 52 RBIs. In 126 games last season, he had 14 and 62.
This All-Star trip might have been solidified by what White did in an unforgettable span of nine days. That's when he hit a pair of game-altering grand slams and helped a struggling San Diego team win both of its Interleague series against a Seattle team that had the Majors' best record. On June 20, White launched a walk-off salami to help lead the Padres from a 3-0 ninth-inning deficit into an improbable 5-3 victory over Seattle at home. (His "biggest thrill" until making this All-Star roster, he said Monday.) Then he came up with more drama up at Safeco Field, tying the game as the Padres rallied with six runs in the ninth for an 8-6 victory.
"I had a good spring, and I probably would have been doing the same thing if I was with the Yankees," White said. "Look, it's a business. I love the Padres organization. It's a young club with a great bunch of guys. We've been playing competitive ball for the last few weeks. They believe in me, and I'm proud to be here representing them.
"I know I might get traded again, I might have to move my family again, but you don't have any control over it. You just got to go out and play your game."
Now White was talking about his game in front of some Yankee watchdogs who seemed to relish his chance to be a post-Bronx storyteller. One longtime member of the New York media told him: "You're going to go down as one of the worst trades (the Yankees) ever made." It was most likely tongue-in-cheek, but clearly the Padres have reaped the most visible benefit. The Yanks were able to clear some salary after all that offseason spending, but they just recently saw Bubba Trammell, one of the players dealt by San Diego, curiously leave the team. The other player they acquired, left-handed pitching prospect Mark Phillips, is 6-6 with a 5.76 ERA (51 walks, 50 strikeouts) for Class A Tampa of the Florida State League.
"I never dreamed I'd be here," White said. "That's the game of baseball."
A few weeks ago, White was planning to make his first-ever trip to Las Vegas. His fiancee's sister attends UNLV. Then White was listening again to some sage words from Grissom, with whom he had shared outfield space in Montreal his first two Major League seasons (1993-94). "He told me, 'Hey, you might have a chance to make the team.'"
And then it happened. According to White, Grissom recently left a typical message on his voicemail that said: "Congratulations. Keep working hard." Now, White says, there are cousins, friends and "the whole gang" up here from Georgia.
"I'm real thankful to be here, man," he said. "It's tough to make it as an outfielder. You've got so many great hitters out there."
How ironic that White is about to enjoy his first All-Star Game in a Chicago setting where Sammy Sosa couldn't find an outfield spot. White spent the end of the 2000 season with the Cubs and then played in 95 games for them the following year, making big contributions at the plate and in the field but struggling with injuries. Asked about Sosa's absence, White said humbly: "He's the man. He taught me a lot, like hitting the ball to right field. He's one of my mentors. ... I had fun with Sammy -- he makes me laugh."
The 2002 season was no laughing matter for White or the Yankees. "It was my first off-year hitting," he said. "I can't explain it. ... But I wasn't terrible." White, listed at 225 pounds in the All-Star media guide, said his weight was an issue last season. "I worked out Monday through Friday the last offseason, and I lost about 15 pounds through cardio to get down to 218. (George) Steinbrenner said, 'If you lose weight, you'll hit .300.'"
Someone pressed White about that and asked if the Yankees' owner actually told him that directly. "Well, no," he said. "I was DHing during a game, and I came into the clubhouse and one of the guys told me he said that."
You "go with the flow," as White likes to say. And sitting there between Prior and Vidro, his new National League teammates for a brief while, the 31-year-old left fielder thought about what it will be like when he sits in a different place in time.
"When I'm an old man sitting on the front porch," he said, "I'll be able to say I played in an All-Star Game."
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.