Only the most historically enlightened citizens remember the name John Herrnstein, yet Richie Allen's tales of the tape have become folklore among grizzled and veteran phanatics. Yet, when the rookie brigade of Phillie talent showed up in spring training some 42 years ago in 1964, it was Herrnstein and not Allen who was considered most likely to star. Allen was second on the list, but by year's end, Allen was not only first in the hearts and minds of rabid Phil phans, but first in the Rookie of the Year race.
His career achievements, both in Philadelphia and elsewhere, have more than ensured his place among the greatest third basemen in Phillie history, and deservedly so. Yet, he became first by being second. Much like Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen, who were both drafted in the second round of the annual June Amateur Draft. Both were drafted after pitchers who time has basically forgotten, but not so these two. Schmidt is widely considered the greatest third baseman in baseball history while Rolen has become a star of the highest order, and may someday join Michael Jack in the Baseball Hall of Fame, should injury not derail him first.
As for Dave Hollins, another third baseman of much aplomb, he was selected in the December Rule 5 draft of minor league players way back in 1991. Needless to say, it was a very non-descript pick seeing as it came in the second round, long after the Phils were done extolling the virtues of their first round pick, outfielder Sil Campusano of Toronto. While Campusano soon disappeared from the major leagues, Hollins was busy batting cleanup in 1993 for the last Phillie team to make it to the World Series.
Make no mistake, batting cleanup on the team with such offensive juggernauts as Darren Daulton, John Kruk and Pete Incaviglia was no mean feat, yet Hollins switch-hitting talents were a perfect blend for the exploits of Sir Daulton, Kruk and Inky. Richie Allen, Mike Schmidt, Scott Rolen, Dave Hollins. And now Mike Costanzo, Jr. All becoming first by being second.
You see, Mike Costanzo Jr. was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the second round of last season's June draft after a storied and highly successful collegiate career at Coastal Carolina in the Big South Conference. To hear him tell it, he was "excited but surprised to be selected by the Phillies" as he "expected to be picked in the first round by either the Oakland A's or Boston Red Sox."
This story is almost too good to be true for not only was he happy to be selected by the Phils but as a local boy he grew up a Phillies phan. Costanzo told me in a phone interview that "I grew up going to about a game a week at Veterans Stadium" and counted among his favorite players, "Von Hayes and Pete Rose." Oh, and least we forget, Mike Schmidt. Mike grew up hearing of the wonderful exploits of Schmidt from his father, Mike Costanzo, Sr.
Please note that I place the Jr. behind the younger Constanzo's name because it was Mike Sr. who played such a meaningful role in his life, as did his entire family. Mike shared with me that when his dad was gone, "my mom would pitch to me on the front lawn." Clearly, this was someone destined to play baseball. Major league baseball. Phillie baseball. Remember the name...the latest Phillie third baseman to become first by being second. Mike Costanzo, Jr.
His college numbers suggest the Phils knew what they were doing when they selected him with their first pick, albeit in round two. privately, almost anyone in the organization, when asked will say that they were profoundly and pleasantly surprised to find him available in the second round. He was the player they wanted all along but never expected would be there when their turn came. A quick glance at his numbers while with Coastal Carolina College would seem to indicate that more than a few teams might someday regret this oversight.
While playing for an outstanding college team, seeded first in the Arizona Regionals last spring, Costanzo, Jr, was voted the Big South Player of the Year not once, but twice in a row. He was selected the Player of the Year in his sophomore season after hitting a stellar .359 with 21 home runs and 74 RBI. His junior year was even more productive as he batted .379 with 16 home runs and 67 RBI while leading a talent laden club to a best ever 50-16 season.
Oh, by the way, when he wasn't hitting with power and average he found time to become the best relief pitcher in the conference, to the tune of an 8-1 record and 14 saves and an ERA of 2.13. Clearly, this was a skilled and versatile player on a club that had no less than six players drafted last June. Yet, Costanzo, Jr. was the best of the bunch and when the Phils selected him on draft day, both he and the team were ecstatic.
There was never any doubt that he would sign and make his dream of playing third base at Citizens Bank Park a reality. He signed quickly, reported to Batavia in the New York-Penn rookie league...and proceeded to struggle badly for about a month. I speculated at the time that his struggles might have to do with the conversion from aluminum to wood bats but he told me this wasn't really the case.
Rather he said that "I just put too much pressure on myself to succeed and the harder I tried, the worse it got for me." Still, the organization remained patient and by late July, he began to relax, with predictable results. Playing for a very talented offensive club that included such prospects as Welinson Baez, Clay Harris, Jeremy Slayden, Lou Marson and Julian Williams, Costanzo, Jr. began to display the power bat that scouts raved about throughout his college career.
After hitting under .200 for much of the early summer, his August numbers were superb and he finished with a .274 batting average and 11 home runs and 50 RBI in but 73 games played. The smooth swinging lefty hitter hit well over .300 the final month and caused the Phillie braintrust to reevaluate his standing for the upcoming season. Proverbial wisdom would have placed him at Lakewood this year as the Phils are historically a very conservative club when it comes to promoting their own. Even current Rookie of the Year slugger, Ryan Howard, moved up the organization ladder one step at a time.
Yet, the Phils are wise enough to ignore this organizational dogma when it suits their needs...and they need Mike Costanzo, Jr. much as they needed Chase Utley, another player who was skipped a league on his way to the big leagues. Costanzo, Jr. told me he will "begin the season at Clearwater in the Florida State League and hopes to be at Double-A Reading before the end of 2006." Clearly, here is a player in a hurry and, truth be told, he can't hurry fast enough.
It seems no coincidence that incumbent Phillie third baseman David Bell will probably be moved before the end of the season and incoming third baseman Abraham Nunez has a contract that expires at the end of 2007. If Costanzo, Jr. can make it to Reading by the end of this campaign, he will undoubtedly make it to Triple-A in '07 and would be but a mere phone call from Citizens Bank Park. The Phils will not talk about this publicly but privately, they envision an infield of Howard, Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Costanzo, Jr. becoming a cornerstone of their future success...and soon!
For now, Mike Costanzo, Jr. is busy preparing for the upcoming season. He moved down to Florida so he could prepare in the mild winter weather that is South Florida and credits coaches like "Gregg Gross and Dave Owen" with helping him with his legwork, both offensively and defensively. He is living a dream come true, both as a professional ballplayer and as a member of the team he grew up cheering for. His family roots for the Phillies and would like nothing better than to cheer not only for the team, but their son. This will happen soon enough, and probably by the end of 2007.
Still, the naysayers will have to be persuaded. Baseball America, a respected surveyor of minor league talent, recently announced their top 100 major league prospects and the Phils had but two, lefty hurlers Cole Hamels and Giovany Gonzalez. All well and good, but unless my instincts betray me, they will have to one day apologize for the oversight in not placing Mike Costanzo, Jr. on this list. His pedigree is too impressive, the synchronicity of it all too transparent.
About three seasons ago, when this column first appeared, I spoke of a young power-hitting infielder who was toiling away at Clearwater, far from the bright lights of the major leagues. I talked of his long ball talents and how one day he would be as well known in Philadelphia as he was to opposing pitchers in the Florida State League. His exploits gathered barely a whisper for he was a first baseman in an organization that had slugging Jim Thome as its' star first sacker.
Yet, this was a player who would not be ignored forever and currently he, and not Thome, represents the Phillie future at first base. Ryan Howard is his name and I am as sure of Costanzo's eventual success as I was of young Howard's rise to stardom. Oh, not today nor even this year. But soon enough, and when he takes his place among the likes of Richie Allen, Mike Schmidt, Dave Hollins and Scott Rolen as top flight Phillie hot corner men, he will have continued an amazing trend of reminding one and all that you can become first by being second.
Much like the rest of these great third basemen on the Phillies' "third base express."
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast