A Budding Star From the Lone Star State

VERO BEACH, Forida-- There's quite a group of Texans playing for the Vero Beach Dodgers these days. Pitchers Justin Simmons, Danny Muegge and Jarod Plummer all are from that state as is outfielder Ryan Russ, who was here until being sent to Columbus. Third baseman Andy LaRoche is actually from Kansas but did play junior college ball in the Lone Star state.. The, there's outfielder Justin Ruggiano, who, in a very real way, is the unlikeliest of all.

Ruggiano, who played high school ball in the state's capitol, Austin, and collegiately at Texas A & M was almost a draft afterthought last June when he was chosen in the 25th round. The rather lowly selection didn't bother him -- "All I wanted was a chance to play", but he's certainly cognizent of what that means." It's the lot of low draft picks and free agents that you have to prove yourself all the time."

So far, Ruggiano has been doing just that. Last year at Ogden, he hit .329-7-36 in 46 games, then showed enough this spring to skip low A and join Vero where he's been playing almost every day and delivering key hits to demonstrate that he belongs.

In college, he played against Simmons, Muegge and Russ, who were teammates at the University of Texas. Playing in the Big 12 he feels prepared him for pro ball because the competition is strong, but, on the other hand, " There we had weekend series and some were huge so you spent most of the week getting ready, getting pumped to play. But playing every day as a pro, you don't find highs like that. You have to be calm and just stay steady."

He's a right-handed hitter who likes to take the ball to right or right center. Using the whole field is something he's working on with coach Dan Radison. How much tougher does he find the hitters in this league compared to last year? "Actually, I found the Pioneer League pitchers tougher. They were, shall we say, effectively wild. Here, they're usually around the plate."

He goes up with something definitely in mind. "I have a favorite pitch I'm looking for every time, no question but I don't think I want it shown on the internet." He's been seeing it enough that he's been able to adhere to his policy of, "keeping my average above. 300 with occasional power," for, currently he's at .309 with four homers, six doubles and three triples. He's also leading the team in stolen bases with nine.

Because he turned 24 in April, Ruggiano will be moved along quickly if he demonstrates that he's capable of making the crucial adjustments as he moves upward. He's been on course to prove that he's capable of doing that.