For (True) Love of the Game

People deal with loss in different ways. Some people participate in support groups. Some people turn to alcohol and drugs. Some people fill the void with hours of exercise. And then some people just play baseball.

That's what 22-year-old Peter Ciofrone was doing with the Fort Wayne Wizards, a Low- A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.

Ciofrone, who lost his father at the end of the season last year, said that this loss still affects him today and will probably be very hard for him until the day he dies.

"He was my best friend. It hurts not being able to call him after a good game that I had," Ciofrone said of his father. "I have my mother to call, but it's a different feeling telling your mother about the game and then telling Dad."

But the emptiness that he feels doesn't stop the 5-foot-10, 205-pound infielder of Smithtown, New York, from following his dreams.

Like most New Yorkers, Ciofrone grew up rooting for the Yankees, but in 2002 he was drafted out of high school in the 16th round by the Yankees' most despised enemy—the Boston Red Sox.

"At first my friends kind of got on me because of that strong rivalry," said Ciofrone, "but I liked playing for them. It didn't bother me at all."

The youngest of three boys, Ciofrone has been playing baseball since he was about three years old, and fresh out of high school, he wanted to get started in professional baseball as soon as possible. Although he had many offers from colleges, baseball was his one and only love, and he wanted to get "married" to it right away.

But after two years in Boston's organization at Augusta (Low-A), which is now affiliated with the Giants, he was traded on July 2, 2004, to the Padres for right-handed pitcher Brandon Puffer. Last season Ciofrone played for the Wizards, where he had the highest batting average (.301) and third-highest on-base percentage (.391) among his teammates who played in 40-plus games.

"I was in shock," he said of when he first learned of the trade. "I walked into the clubhouse, and I hadn't been in the starting lineup that day and the day before that and thought something was kind of weird. I was always in the lineup. So I got changed and said to my buddies, ‘Watch guys. Watch, I got traded.'

"When I got out to the field, I was called into the office with the minor league director, pitching coach, and hitting coach, and they told me the news. I was in shock, but they told me I got traded straight up for a big-leaguer, so it was unlike anything that's ever happened in my career so far."

The Padres' and the bidding colleges' interest in him was mostly because of his ability to get on base. In his last year of high school, he walked 20 times and was hit by pitches ten times. It almost seemed as if he were a Yankee player in that, no one "liked" him.

"I think in high school, pitchers would have rather just hit me than try to pitch to me and make a mistake," Ciofrone said.

But even recently he has led his team in the number of times hit by pitches with, coincidentally, ten.

"It's tough getting hit by pitches, but I like getting the on-base percentage. If that's the only way I can get on base to help my team, I'm happy for it."

It's that team-before-self attitude of his that has been the reason for his success in baseball. After winning the Gold Glove Award all four years of high school, the Padres haven't really found a position for him on the field, but that extra experience is OK with him.

"If my playing more positions will give me an advantage over a guy who just plays one, then that's fine with me," said Ciofrone. "I'll play anywhere—left field, third, first; wherever they want to put me."

Well, as long as it's not at designated hitter. Last season, he was the DH for 56 games and saw his average drop from .340 when he played third base to .278 at DH.

"I didn't like being the designated hitter at all," he said. "It's very hard to stay in the game because whenever you made an out or struck out, all you think about is that at-bat. Meanwhile, when you're playing the field, you can go back out to the field, forget about your at-bat, make a good play, and look forward to your next at-bat. So that was tough for me, especially playing in Fort Wayne where it was cold and trying to stay warm."

However, it did give him a greater appreciation for the David Ortiz's who play that role on a daily basis and play it well.

So why put him in the DH role? Is his defense a problem?

"I honestly think that there is a misconception about my defense because I had a rough year during my first year with the Red Sox. I was an 18-year-old kid, and I was nervous. They moved me over to second, where I had never played before, so I made a few errors.

"I feel like I have a lot to improve in the field, but I also feel like I'm a good fielder, and they haven't really seen that."

In the big scheme of things, that's not important to Ciofrone. To him, family comes first, and losing his father has only brought him closer to his mom and his brothers.

"We talk every day. I'm so much more sensitive to my mom and her feelings because she was married to my dad for 35 years, right out of high school. And now, she doesn't have him around, and it's so hard on her.

"My brothers and I have gotten so much closer too. We were a close family anyway, but this just brought us much closer. My dad treated my brothers and me so well, and he treated my mom so great," he said. "He was the best Dad I could ever ask for."

Ciofrone plans on getting a tattoo soon in remembrance of his father that Wizards teammate Matt Lauderdale sketched for him.

"When I was growing up, us boys did everything together. We went to Yankees games together, we did everything. When I had baseball games, my father was always there and would take off work early. He was always there; he never missed anything. He was so proud of his boys.

"I know he's looking down on me. I had a really good year, but it was tough. I'm making it through with the Lord's strength, and my family and I will make it through the tough times."

In the meantime, Ciofrone has been working every day on his hamstring and upper and lower body, trying to get stronger so he doesn't get injured again. Last year was his worst season injury-wise, missing two weeks in July with hamstring problems and then several days with a knee sprain. Ciofrone is also taking real estate classes right now as a backup plan, but real estate isn't his dream; baseball is.

"My goal my whole life has been to get to the major leagues," he said. "My dad was always so supportive of me. [Losing him] only pushes me harder to make it there to make him proud.

"Getting called up to the pros will be an emotional day. I'm going to miss my father not being there, but that gives me the motivation to get there even more."

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