Looking for Respect

MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs catcher Jake Fox has had quite the surreal spring in 2006. It all started back in January when the 23-year-old was invited to big league camp and got married all within the same week.

"I had the woman I love most in this world tell me she's going to love me for the rest of my life, and then I get invited to big league Spring Training the same week," explains Fox, who was 6-for-15 with four doubles in nine Cactus League contests before being sent to minor league camp earlier this week.

Fox knew he had a strong shot at making it to big league camp with catchers Michael Barrett and Henry Blanco each scheduled to participate in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Being invited to camp was a dream come true and, according to the young catching prospect, a chance to show up and earn some additional respect than previously before. Earning respect may be Fox's way of showing his modest side, or it's recognition that there's room for improvement on the field.

A third-round draft pick from the University of Michigan in 2003, the Indiana native has always been strong with the bat. He hit .357 in 56 games during his final season with the Wolverines and followed that up with two solid seasons in the Cubs' farm system at Lansing in 2004 and Daytona in ‘05, hitting .287 and .281, respectively.

The biggest criticism about the 6'0", 210-pound Fox isn't at the plate, where he's always been a consistent nag to opposing pitchers; it's behind the plate, where he acknowledges his critics and makes every conceivable effort to improve.

"I guess the question in a lot of people's minds is whether I'm going to be able to handle myself behind the plate," Fox admits. "My main focus is improving every day defensively and showing people that I have the knowledge and physical ability to play at the top level. Getting people to see that has been the biggest challenge for me."

At Lansing, Fox struggled with 13 errors and 25 passed balls. Those numbers improved last season at Daytona, though Fox played in fewer games behind the plate due to alternating time between catching and the DH slot with fellow 2003 draft pick Tony Richie.

"A lot of times, all people see is what you can do at the plate," Fox said. "Sometimes that overshadows what you do behind it. I think I'm finally starting to earn a little bit more respect behind the plate this spring since it tends to stick out more by being in the limelight."

With two solid seasons under his belt at the Class-A levels, it's at Double-A where Fox will likely begin the regular season once camp ends. He participated in Monday's West Tenn exhibition opener against the Huntsville Stars in Phoenix, although he says he doesn't like to guess where he'll start the year.

"You never want to assume things," Fox says, "but I think that's where they have me lined up. You obviously want to keep going higher and never repeat a level."

This past off-season, Fox spent most of his time in southern California working with Vanguard head baseball coach Scott Mallernee, a former coach and mentor at Michigan. Training with Mallernee was beneficial to Fox in part because it was the first time he'd ever gotten to spend his off-season working outdoors.

"It was the best off-season training that I've ever had," Fox said. "I got to be outside and do a lot of training outdoors. Growing up in the Midwest, you don't get to do that because of all the cold weather and snow."

In doing so, Fox feels he's more ahead of his game now than ever before.

"In years past, I would get myself in baseball shape once I got to Spring Training," Fox said. "This year, it's a little different because I was able to come to Spring Training already in baseball shape due to the amount of workouts that I was able to do.

"The whole off-season all the way through now, it's been beneficial. It's been surreal."

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