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Over here! Check out this kid!

By JOHN ROMANO
Published July 8, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - If he wore another uniform, maybe there would be outrage. If he played in another market, perhaps there would be indignation.

Alas, Jorge Cantu is a Devil Ray. He plays in a nearly empty stadium for a mostly inept franchise. Which is why no one is crying for him today.

And that's a shame because he deserves better. He's worthy of a buzz. He's overdue for an ovation. He is, bottom line, deserving of far more All-Star debate than we have heard since the team was announced.

All-Star? Devil Ray? Yes, it can be like arguing for extra lard in your McDonald's order. And, granted, we have seen greater injustices in the game. Heads need not roll over Cantu's All-Star snub.

But shouldn't there at least be a ripple? Shouldn't we at least be wondering how it was he came to be ignored?

"If you're not playing on a team that is competing for a division and you're a new name, you get overlooked," manager Lou Piniella said.

So it is for Cantu. A quiet young man on a team going nowhere. Even here, in the land of perpetual tomorrows, he has not always received his due.

We anticipated the day Carl Crawford arrived. We were waiting for Rocco Baldelli. We argue, even now, about the promotions of Delmon Young and B.J. Upton. They are high draft choices. Old-style bonus babies.

Cantu? He was a 16-year-old free agent in a Mexican town just across the border from Texas when the Rays signed him seven years ago. He nearly put in as much time in the minors as Crawford and Baldelli combined and watched as they were promoted ahead of him. Yet here's the rub:

Halfway through his first full season in the majors, he is putting up better numbers than his more celebrated teammates.

And, at 23, he is younger than both.

"He's got a good, live bat. The ball jumps off his bat. He's got good, quick hands," Piniella said. "It's not an accident what he is doing."

What he is doing, essentially, is performing like an All-Star. And don't scoff, because the numbers back it up.

Cantu's playing time has been split nearly evenly between second and third base, so he could easily have been considered for either position.

The backup at second base is Texas' Alfonso Soriano. He is hitting .274 with 52 RBIs. The backup at third base is Baltimore's Melvin Mora. He is hitting .300 with 47 RBIs. Cantu is hitting .291 with 53 RBIs. That doesn't mean Cantu deserved to go ahead of either, but it certainly means he is equally deserving. Particularly since the Rays are not exactly overflowing with qualified candidates.

The problem is All-Star rules that require every team to be represented while also restricting the number of position players the manager is allowed to choose. So once Boston skipper Terry Francona chose Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney, he was then obligated to take a pitcher from Tampa Bay.

Cantu is far too polite to say Francona might have made a mistake. And he is too good of a teammate to suggest he deserved the honor more than closer Danys Baez. Instead, Cantu talks of how nice it will be to return home for the three-day All-Star break.

But press him enough and he will admit the idea of an All-Star Game was rolling around in his head.

"I did think about it before they announced it," Cantu said. "I thought, I don't know, maybe I do have a chance to go to the All-Star Game. And that would be awesome. But I wasn't thinking, "Oh man, I deserve to go.'

"I talked to my dad about it and said, "Can you imagine if I would be an All-Star? What would you think about that?' He said he didn't want to think about that. So that's how I looked at it. I wasn't going to worry about it."

And so the buzz has passed him by. Just as it did in the offseason when the Rays brought in Roberto Alomar to play second base because no one was sure Cantu was ready to be an everyday player in the majors.

Just as it did in the spring when he was not listed among the American League's Rookie of the Year candidates because he had exceeded the rookie limit by 44 at-bats in 2004.

Just as it did a few weeks back when he was moved from second to third base so the Rays could get Nick Green's bat in the lineup. And don't be surprised if another move, to first base, may eventually be in Cantu's future.

It's amazing to think, on a team as dedicated to youth as Tampa Bay, that Cantu's first half has not been celebrated more. I suppose there have been so many bizarre stories, so many spicy subplots, so much losing, Cantu's contributions have somehow slipped by us.

Yeah, he's not an All-Star.

He's just playing like one.

[Last modified July 8, 2005, 01:03:16]


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