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Stassi sails into Stockton
STOCKTON — Max Stassi's baby face is infested with stubble. He crosses his arms when answering questions now and puffs out his chest a little too. He's no longer a star among high schoolers — he's a prospect among prospects.
His demeanor is hardened, forged through 487 minor league at-bats where he's flailed at all kinds of nasty: 97 mile-per-hour fastballs, curve balls and sliders that seem to cloak themselves on their 60-foot, 6-inch journey.
He's attended spring training twice with the Oakland A's and rode all-too-many buses in the Midwest. He's weathered homesickness and admitted he struggled — for the first time in his life. He currently has shoulder and strikeout issues.
Stassi's growing up, starting to embody the big-leaguer role he so badly wants to play. Only now, the requisite experiences are unfolding less than two hours from home. He's a Stockton Port, and even forgettable nights like Thursday's home opener can't dilute the benefits to his current situation.
"It feels great just to be back in California in general, about an hour and a half away from home," he said before the Ports' 3-1 win over the Modesto Nuts. "It feels good to be back in California."
He can't say it enough: "California." There's a brisk delta breeze here at on-the-water Banner Island Ballpark. No more Kane County humidity to make going 0 for 3, wearing an 85 on-the-gun pitch and getting thrown out at home, like he did on this night, worse.
Here, support is always close by. Stassi can have a home-cooked meal when the hankering arrives and flee to comfortable confines when it all becomes overwhelming. His parents can watch, too. On this night, his mother walked the concourse carrying blankets, ready to hunker down like a fan at a Friday night Tri-County Conference game at Winship Field. As for all the others he wowed for so long in our area? There's plenty of empty seats at this gem of a Class-A facility, and the marketing gurus here are plenty aware of the Mid-Valley's proximity.
"Yuba City Night" at the Ports' park, anyone? It's a seriously possibility. And besides, he's already drawing in fans. Robbie Coker's freshly-bought New Era Ports hat clashed with his brown and gold Yuba City High sweatshirt, but he was going to show as much support for his former schoolmate as possible. He made the trip from Marysville to catch the game. Same for Joey Forkey, YCHS class of 2007. He too was rocking new headwear to support Stassi, who naturally wears No. 10.
But Stassi doesn't want everything to be about location. For him, just getting reps is the most important part. Stockton's hitting coach, Brian McArn echoes that too. Last season playing for the Kane County Cougars is when Stassi hit his first true wall. He hit .228 and struck out 141 times in 411 at-bats. During phone interviews he sounded drained and projected brutal honesty.
"First year in pro baseball he's just getting used to the wood bat and travel," McArn said. "Couple years in big league camp has helped him a lot and he's a real mature kid for his age. He works his butt off in the cage."
Thursday though was more of a throwback to 2010 in Geneva, Ill. (two strikeouts). But the Ports' staff is confident in their fourth-round pick with the seven-figure signing bonus, calling him a "student of the game." Stassi entered Thursday hitting .304. He's battling some shoulder issues and has been playing DH, but said he expects to be back catching in the next two weeks.
"It's a just a matter of time before he gets that progression of being a major league hitter," McArn said.
And besides, Stassi isn't completely grown up yet. As he sauntered down the dugout steps after going down swinging, his face appeared on the video screen in left-center field. It was a short clip where Stassi shared his favorite songs with the 4,008 in the stands. Among his top-3: Selections from N*Sync and Katy Perry. It was a throwback of sorts to his playful side he displayed at Yuba City, where on senior night he had the announcer say his favorite subject in school was calculus.
Here, he feels just as comfortable being a joker.
"It's pretty exciting to be close to home," Stassi said.