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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Distant dream real for Riggans
A backup in high school, the recent Rays callup has endured doubts and the death of his mom.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published September 8, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - On the long road to the big leagues, one mile marker in the course of a player's development seems nearly universal: an all-everything baseball career in high school.
It's the place where dreams take shape and scouts take notice, launching hotshot prospects to collegiate heights or right into the pros.
And then there's the path taken by new Devil Rays catcher Shawn Riggans, who made his major-league debut Tuesday night in storybook fashion with a pinch-hit single.
That moment - for professional reasons and a very personal one - represented his own mile marker on a journey filled with challenges.
To begin with, he couldn't even crack the starting lineup of his high school varsity squad.
Riggans, 26, brought up this week from Triple-A Durham, barely swung a bat at St. Thomas Aquinas High in his native Fort Lauderdale. Not that he didn't want to, mind you. He simply had the misfortune of playing for one of the top prep baseball programs in the nation, backing up a star and being a late bloomer physically.
"I wasn't that big; I graduated high school at 5-7, maybe 150 pounds," he said. "I didn't have the size, but I had ability. I just couldn't use it much because I was never on the field. With a program like that, they're going to play the guys who can help them win, not just because they see that eventually one day you're doing something good. I wasn't the guy and it wasn't my time."
But a funny thing happened to Riggans after graduating from high school. He grew, not just a few inches, but to 6 feet 2, filling out to 190 pounds. And the kid whose high school baseball years were a washout was on his way to becoming a hit.
His 2006 season with the Bulls was enough to convince the Rays he was ready for a closer look. He hit .293 (122-for-417) with 26 doubles, 11 homers, 54 RBIs and a .444 slugging percentage and was named the International League's top defensive catcher.
Not bad for a guy who got about a dozen varsity at-bats for St. Thomas Aquinas. In fact, the notion of making a living in baseball seemed like a long shot at best when Riggans enrolled at Florida International University and tried to make the team as a walk-on.
"The coach called me in and said, 'You didn't make the team,' " he said. "He said, 'You can come back out and catch bullpen if you want.' So I sat down with my family and I talked to my dad about it and he said, 'Why don't you just stay at it.' "
It was good advice. Two days before the FIU season, during an intrasquad game, Riggans got a chance to play and impressed his coach by getting two hits and throwing out two baserunners. "The next day, he told me that I'd earned a redshirt spot on the roster," he said. "I felt like I'd climbed a mountain."
Still, a new pitfall awaited. His next season - officially a freshman redshirt year - he played poorly. So Riggans decided his best move was to switch to junior college ball, transferring to Indian River Community College. "One day the catcher came in and said he wasn't feeling good, so I played - and I never sat again after that," he said.
He was almost off the radar in the 2000 amateur draft, but the 2-year-old Rays decided he was worth a 24th-round pick (706th overall). That began a steady rise in the minors, capped by a strong Double-A campaign in Montgomery (.310) and his stellar season in Durham.
Not surprisingly, Riggans was ecstatic this week when he learned the Rays were promoting him to the parent club for the final month of the season. "It's just been smiles all day since I woke up," he told reporters Tuesday by his new locker. "It was tough sleeping last night."
He talked about his excitement of having his father, John Riggans, and girlfriend Aimee Guevara in the stands, even though manager Joe Maddon told writers that Riggans would not start against any contending teams and mostly observe at first.
As he changed into his Rays jersey, large tattooed numbers could be seen on his shoulders. What did they signify? "That's the date my mom passed away - 3-5-01," he said without hesitation. His mother, Patricia, had a drinking problem, he explained, and needed a liver transplant.
"We were playing a game in Gainesville against Santa Fe Community College and I called her up and told her how the game went, and she sounded so-so, but she was home from the hospital and on the road to recovery," he said. "I told her I loved her. Then my sister called me. She said she had found her. She'd passed away from a major liver malfunction."
Riggans has carried the sadness with him on his climb up the ranks, but always drawing strength from her memory. "It's been tough, but she's a big driving force and she's always with me and definitely is looking down on me tonight," he said. "I say a prayer to her every day during the national anthem. I wish she could be here, but I know she's in a better place and not suffering."
In the stands behind home, John Riggans couldn't believe his eyes when he saw his son striding to the plate to lead off the ninth, batting for Rocco Baldelli. He had just started to leave his seat to get bottled water. "You can tell every parent their heart will race, and I don't think I took a breath during the entire at-bat," he said. "It was unbelievable. I'm still pinching myself."
The shot to left-center dropped just before it could be caught. It made the proud dad think. "Shawn's mom never missed a game, and she didn't miss this game, either, I promise you," he said. "When that outfielder was running down that ball, she tripped him up, I guarantee you."
After the game, father and son hugged. "It was hard not to be emotional about it," John Riggans said.
The next day, Maddon talked about the young catcher: "He's a wonderful fella. He's going to be good. You don't have to play in high school to be good here." Still, though some of the majors' foreign players may not have competed in high school, it's unusual for U.S. players not to have been stars at that level.
And what about his old high school coach? Paul Herfurth, now a hitting instructor in the Texas Rangers organization, couldn't be happier. He says he uses Riggans as the ultimate example of perseverance when he talks to young players.
"He had the ability but just not the physical tools or strength at that age, but he never gave up," Herfurth says. "I'm sure Shawn doesn't have fond memories of high school. He didn't play much, and I was hard on him to keep him focused."
Riggans was a three-season backup to a star catcher named Scott Massucco, who was drafted out of high school by the Yankees. But in baseball, you never know. He played in the Gulf Coast League in 1998 and '99, while his former understudy rolls on.
"Shawn is just an amazing story," Herfurth says. "He's a great kid and I'm so proud of him."
And now the journey continues for the once-small catcher with the big-league dream.