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Riding into Rays' plans

Jorge Cantu is putting off his goal to retreat to his New Mexico ranch as he continues to impress at second base.

DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published September 14, 2004

He wants to be a cowboy.

This is not a fantasy told by a wide-eyed child. This is 22-year-old Jorge Cantu, leaning back in his chair in the Devil Rays locker room, talking about life in Reynosa, Mexico, where his family has a 6,000-acre cattle ranch.

"The best part of that life is it's so laid-back," Cantu said. "You invest your money and you work hard and the ranch just grows and grows."

The worst part?

"It's just so hot down there. It's ridiculous."

But before Cantu puts on a pair of chaps and starts riding fences, his priority is to continue solidifying himself in Tampa Bay's long-term plans, which tentatively have him as next season's regular second baseman.

Cantu, whose second callup from Triple-A Durham began Aug.13, is batting .282 in 35 games with one home run and eight RBIs. And he has some pop. Of his 35 hits, 15 are doubles, just two fewer than slugging first baseman Tino Martinez has in 280 more at-bats.

Cantu has struggled his past nine games, batting .182 (6-for-33) to drop his average from a season-high .319. He has only two fewer strikeouts than hits, and with six errors he can be sketchy in the field.

But that hasn't dampened manager Lou Piniella's enthusiasm.

"We've had more kids with more hullabaloo and notoriety," Piniella said. "But this kid has come in and gotten an opportunity and made the best of it. He's put together a nice little resume. Once in a while his inexperience as a player shows, but that's to be expected."

So little was expected of Cantu this season, his sixth in the organization since being signed as a 16-year-old by sharp-eyed scout Rudy Santin, that he was not invited to spring training.

Cantu ascended with a bat that quickly gets through the strike zone and causes balls to jump.

The quirk is he entered this season with 18 home runs in 1,983 minor-league at-bats. But with 22 home runs in 95 games at Durham, the expectation is he will hit home runs in the majors.

"I'm going to hit home runs," Cantu said. "I'm making really hard contact with the ball. If you hit the ball good, anything can happen."

Cantu doesn't lack confidence. He said he needed it growing up in an atmosphere in which self-sufficiency is paramount. He also watched his idol, Cal Ripken Jr., "carry himself with so much strength on and off the field."

That confidence should grow as Cantu plays winter ball in Mexico with the main purpose of improving his fielding. Cantu already spends pregames working with infield coach Tom Foley.

"I like him," shortstop Julio Lugo said. "He's acting like he should. He's playing like a veteran and acting like a rookie. He's going about it the right way. He's going to be a good ballplayer."

"He has a lot of potential and composure," Martinez said. "He's been having great at-bats, taking pitches and hitting the ball all over the field."

He hit the ball over the 408-foot mark in centerfield at Yankee Stadium last week for his first major-league home run. Still, his thoughts never were far from Reynosa and the ranch, just across the border from McAllen, Texas.

"My future might be there," Cantu said the next day. "I'd love to go back home and live the country life."

A cowboy at heart. Then again, he said, "It's satisfaction for me to be here doing the job I'm doing right now."

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