Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

June 17, 2014

Top Rays' catching prospect happy in Princeton

PRINCETON — Nick Ciuffo has already experienced a bookful of treasured memories, including being the first round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013.

But one stands out among them all.

On his way to a state high school baseball championship a little more than a year ago in his native South Carolina, “We had a little extra push,” the 19-year-old catcher said Monday after the Princeton Rays finished practice.

“There was a little girl back home named Kennedy Branham. She was 14 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer.

“One day we were sitting there (on the team in my) junior year, and somebody said, ‘Why don’t we shave our heads for Kennedy?’ She was going through chemo. We shaved our heads.

“We went through the playoffs; she was our biggest supporter. We didn’t win it for her my junior year.”

In the next season, he said, the team’s motto in the playoffs was “Finish it for Kennedy.”

Ciuffo said, “The series was tied 1-1, best two of three, and there was 8,000 people at this game. I remember hearing one voice at the beginning of the game, and it was her’s. After that, I knew we’d won it.”

“We struck the last guy out. I remember, I caught it, and I turned around, and made eye contact with her. And that’s probably the best feeling I’ve ever had in baseball.”

“I’ve won national championships. I’ve got a gold medal ring with the national team. I was drafted in the first round. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve done in baseball.”

With his voice almost breaking, he said, “But making eye contact with her, and seeing that smile, and being able to hand her the baseball (after) promising her a state championship. That’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

The catcher, rated as Tampa Bay’s No. 7 prospect entering this season, will write the next chapter of his rise in the sport as a Princeton Ray, after spending his rookie season as a pro in the Gulf Coast League, playing noon games with no fan base.

“I’m really excited, to play in a stadium, under the lights, with people in the stands, all that. It’s going to be a good summer,” he said.

“Gulf Coast League is an experience,” he said. “It’s hot, 12 o’clock games. But you learn so much.”

The Appalachian League attitude is different, he feels.

“Now it’s kind of, go out there and play. You’re still, obviously, working on things, but now, it’s more of, let’s win a ballgame, let’s win a ring.”

“That’s all we’ve been talking about since we’ve been here. You know, they didn’t have a great year last year, but we want to turn this thing around.”

“We want to have this place packed on Thursday nights, Friday nights and Saturday nights.

“For all the people that are going to read this thing in Princeton, y’all need to get out here, because we work hard, we’re ready to go, we’ve got a good team this year, and we need the support. I want to see this entire thing packed out, the first night.”

The Rays’ first game is in Princeton on Thursday evening, playing the Bristol Pirates.

It’s the same location where Ciuffo’s high school coach, Brian Hucks, played in 1996 for the Princeton Reds. Ciuffo said he’s still in “constant communication” with him.

“He’s been through the minor leagues,” Ciuffo said. “He’s experienced what I’m going to experience for the next 2 1/2 months — and he’s actually experienced it in the same place where I’m going to experience it.”

“It’s good to have somebody who’s kind of been a father figure for me for the last three or four years, to continue to help me in my baseball career.”

“He told me, the one thing, is that it’s a great place to hit. I’m telling you ... we might have hit 20 or 25 balls out of here today. We were launching some balls out of here today.”

Hucks told him “to just take it one game at a time, just like he told me in high school. Take it one pitch at a time, one bat at a time, next thing you know the season’s going to be over — so don’t let the little things affect you.

“Try to come here, do your job, and see what happens from there.”

His early experience includes mentoring by college coaches while he was still in high school, and serving as a minor league baseball bat boy.

His baseball playing ability was noticed early on.

“I think the first guy that ever approached me was, when I was 14, from the Pirates. It was kind of surprising. I was, like, I’m 14 years old and I’m not even thinking about pro ball yet. I’d committed to (the University of) South Carolina already, but I was still young.”

“My summer after my junior year (of high school), I started doing showcases, and that’s when it really started picking it up. It went from two or three phone calls every now and again, to a letter every day, calls twice a day, emails, all that.”

“It was a great experience. It’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything,” he said. “It doesn’t do anything but help you get ready to play everyday.”

He said he told his father before his junior year of high school that he was going to be a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft.

“I basically dedicated my whole senior year to becoming a first-round pick,” Ciuffo said. That included gaining 20 pounds, up to 215 pounds, plus weight-lifting.

He recalled, “I’m about to go play our second game of the state championship, and on my phone I get an email from Chuck Fox, who’s one of the assistants to (Major League Baseball Commissioner) Bud Selig.”

It was an invitation to the 2013 draft. “They don’t even invite guys unless they think they’re going in the first round,” Ciuffo said. He was on his way to Seacaucus, N.J.

He wound up visiting Yankee Stadium and meeting former major leaguers.

“They treated us like we were big-leaguers,” he said. “Went to the draft, got to wear a really nice suit, and look good for one time in my life ... had my mom and dad sitting behind me.”

“I was fortunate. Things worked out. That was a great experience.”

He praised the support of Tampa Bay’s area scout Brian Hickman, who once was a catcher himself.

“I don’t think area scouts get enough credit,” he said. “They’ve got a bunch of paperwork, and if they don’t have every little thing lined out perfectly ... it’s hard to take a guy in the first round. He had a ton of confidence in me. I thank him all the time. He did a great job.”

He said he told Hickman, “You take me in the first round, and you give me what I’m supposed to get, and I’m coming. It was as simple as that. I think that’s why they pulled the trigger on me.”

“When it finally happened, it was, like, ‘whew!’ ... I was just so happy to have it all over with, and just know that now, all I have to focus on is baseball.”

“People that know me, and people who knew me in high school know that I just want to play baseball. I don’t care about school; I don’t care about money; I don’t care about anything. I want to play baseball and I want to play in the big leagues.”

This year, in extended spring training, he was ready to move up from the Gulf Coast.

“I didn’t know where I was going in the beginning,” Ciuffo said. “I knew it was obviously Princeton or Hudson Valley.”

He has obviously studied the Tampa Bay organization, and one position in particular.

“We have some catching! In my opinion, the Rays, as an entire organization, we have the best catchers in minor league baseball. I am not scared to say that on the record, at all. ... I think we had probably over half of our guys throw out over 50 percent (of potential base stealers) and in minor league baseball, that’s hard to do.”

“We’ve got good catchers, and on top of that, we’ve got good instructors. And when you’ve got good coaches and good players, you make great players.”

He sincerely believes he has top coaches in Princeton, starting with manager Danny Sheaffer.

“Me and Sheaf have been working together every day for the past, probably, four months. We just work well together,” Ciuffo said. “The Rays aren’t going out to get guys who are second best. They’re getting the best managers, the best hitting coaches, the best catching guys, everything.”

Now he feels it’s time to demostrate his ability to the upper echelons of the Rays.

“You control your progression in this game,” he said. “If you come out and have a good year, you’re going to move (up). That’s what it’s all about. I think Princeton and the Appy League is going to be the best position for me to move.”

He even likes the altitude and geography of Appalachian League ballparks. “We’re up in the mountains, so the ball’s going to fly,” he said.

“The driving is great. That’s the one thing you hear, is the travel’s great. You’re not going 10 hours there, 13 hours there. I think the farthest bus ride we’ve got is three hours.”

“This is got to be one of the best leagues to play in. The ball flies, the travel’s good, what else can you ask for?”

— Contact Tom Bone at tbone@bdtonline.com

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