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Big stage beckons ex-Ram

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published February 28, 2007


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NEW PORT RICHEY - The photographer asked for his name Mike R-A-B-E-L-O and his affiliation (Detroit Tigers) and the former Ridgewood star couldn't help but smile.

It sounded good.

"It's nice," he said.

While Rabelo is hoping to start the season in Triple A as Toledo's No. 1 catcher, his future is as bright as it has been since being drafted by the Tigers in 2001.

He is working out in Lakeland - the Tigers played Florida Southern in their opener Tuesday - hoping to impress manager Jim Leyland while rehabbing a few nagging injuries.

"Basically my goal is to not get hurt," Rabelo said. "I'm still rehabbing this shoulder (loose capsule) and elbow (strained ulnar collateral ligament), and hopefully when April rolls around and I go to Toledo, I'm healthy and ready to compete."

Rabelo was in New Port Richey Friday to throw out the first pitch at his alma mater's game against River Ridge, which eventually became coach Larry Beets' 500th win. He was a star pitcher and shortstop for Beets.

"I didn't even catch here," Rabelo said. "They converted me my first year at (the University of) Tampa, and I was ...awful. Awful."

By his second year, he was very good, and by his senior year an All-American and fourth-round major league draft pick. Now he's on the cusp of becoming a regular on a major league roster.

"Mike's where he is because he works hard," Beets said. "There may be more talented players out there with more natural gifts, but that guy made himself a ball player."

Ivan Rodriguez is the Tigers' starter behind the plate and Vance Wilson is expected to be his backup, but Rabelo likely will make a few trips between Toledo and the Motor City. He is one of six catchers in camp. While he didn't play Tuesday, he said he expects to see some action when the Tigers travel to Port St. Lucie to meet the Mets.

Rabelo is not considered one of the Tigers' hot young prospects - he turned 27 last month - nor do many see him as an everyday starter in the majors. But the New Port Richey native continues to improve and show that while not being blessed with Grade A tools, he is hard-working, determined and not a player to write off. Last year, Rabelo had his breakthrough, hitting for a solid average while finally flexing some of the power he had shown as the Times Player of the Year and a college All-American.

After hitting .274 with nine homers and 50 RBIs between Double and Triple A and helping the Mud Hens win a second straight International League championship, he received a September callup to Detroit.

"Everything went up last year, my RBI numbers and power and extra base hits," said Rabelo, giving credit to hitting coaches (and former major leaguers) Leon Durham and Larry Parrish.

"They helped me with a lot of little things, like my mental approach and putting myself in the right situations."

In his only at-bat last year in the majors, Kansas City's Jimmy Gobble struck him out. That taste of the big leagues, he said, "makes you hungrier. Makes you work harder because you've seen first hand how it is at that level.

"It's the most amazing thing."

What Rabelo remembers most, however, was the 40,000 fans screaming and cheering when he walked onto the field for the first time.

It sounded good.

John C. Cotey can be reached at johncotey@gmail.com or (727) 869-6261

[Last modified February 28, 2007, 00:26:51]


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