Tony Tarasco looks fit and grins slyly as he steps into the batting cage before a game between the Hagerstown Suns and Greenville Drive.
Soon, Fluor Field resounds with the crack of the bat as Tarasco smacks line drives to the outfield. The bat cracks are followed by wisecracks after he pounds the ball over the fence in right-center field.
Trotting off the field after batting practice, he even takes time to trade barbs with a few scouts in the stands. He offers to run a 60-yard dash in case any of them are looking for talent.
Tony Tarasco exudes the charisma of a sure-thing prospect.
“Baseball is the most fantastic way of life,” he says.
Baseball is a game played without a clock, and Tarasco seems immune to Father Time. And yet it has been eight years since he last played in a major league game.
Fourteen years since the famous incident in the playoffs when a New York Yankees fan reached over the fence to grab a fly ball headed toward Baltimore Orioles outfielder Tarasco, turing a possible out into a home run.
Eighteen years since he was part of the Greenville Braves team that went 100-43 and won the Southern League championship behind Tarasco, Chipper Jones and 19 other players who made it to the majors.
“I still talk to Chipper every once in a while, and Eddie Perez,” he says.
These days, however, Tarasco’s conversations are more likely to be with young minor leaguers hoping to get to where he has been. He’s in his third year as hitting coach for the Suns.
And he, too, retains major league aspirations. Speaking with the thoughtful vocabulary and quiet confidence he has possessed since he signed his first professional contract as a 17-year-old, he says he hopes to “get some years behind me” before eventually becoming a manager and “win at the major league level.”
“I’d like to touch on a lot of things,” he says.
During a 2008 road trip, Tarasco got a taste of Greenville’s past and present.
“I went and saw the old ballpark,” he says. “It was quite a place and quite a team with all that talent.”
Considered a gem when it was built in 1984, Greenville Municipal Stadium was home to tomahawk chop chants and a steady stream of top prospects as part of the Atlanta Braves farm system in the 1990s. The suburban ballpark has since been replaced by a new Greenville gem, built in an ever-evolving downtown that has gotten Tarasco’s attention.
“The city’s grown a lot,” Tarasco says, mentioning Greenville’s new restaurants and increasing diversity. “It’s gotten a lot more sophisticated.”
So has baseball. Major leaguers now have Twitter accounts, the blogosphere has created thousands of self-proclaimed expert commentators, and fans can watch games on their wireless phones while text-messaging their friends with updates to their fanatsy baseball league rosters.
Yet Tarasco says a proper baseball education still comes the same way he received it.
“It was timely and in small bites,” he says. “In an information era, I still think that’s the best way.”
Tarasco had the benefit of some great teachers, such as longtime manager Grady Little and hitting instructor Willie Stargell.
“I wouldn’t have made the major leagues without those two people,” he says.
Both preferred to instruct players little by little, nudging them along so they could learn by doing. Now that he is a coach, Tarasco has gone from receiving to imparting some of those same lessons.
“They still have a powerful influence,” he says.
And while Little and Stargell hold a special place with Tarasco, he says they were not alone in influencing him.
“I had a lot of good teachers,” he says. “I was lucky.”
As a big-league journeyman, Tarasco played for six teams and a who’s who of managers: Felipe Alou, Bobby Cox, Davey Johnson, Jack McKeon, Joe Torre and Bobby Valentine. He shared locker rooms with players such as Derek Jeter, Fred McGriff and Cal Ripken Jr.
“I had some powerful people around me,” he says.
That background, that “street cred,” helps Tarasco and Suns manager Matthew LeCroy, a fellow former big-leaguer, get the attention of young players.
“We’ve been in the box in the big games under the lights,” Tarasco says.
They’re also still young – Tarasco is 39 and LeCroy 34 – and comfortable with the ways young athletes comport themselves.
“Just because a guy wears his pants baggy doesn’t mean he’s not a blue-collar player,” Tarasco insists.
And then that sly grin returns and he raises his eyebrows.
“To be honest, it’s a lot more comfortable in the middle of July when it’s hot like this,” he says.
Tony Tarasco is having a most fantastic time.
Four-game homestand: The Drive begin a series with the Kannapolis Intimidators Tuesday night at Fluor Field. First pitch is 7:05 p.m.
It will be Silly Bandz Night, with all children in attendance receiving free Silly Bandz. It will also be a Bi-Lo Tasty Tuesday, with each child 12 and under receiving a voucher good for hot dog, 12 ounce Pepsi product, and a bag of Lay’s potato chips.