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Starkey: Pirates prospect a different breed

| Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010

When was the last time you heard a professional athlete sound as thrilled as you would be if somebody paid you millions of dollars to play a sport?

After 20 years in this business, I found one.

Before I say who, don't get the wrong idea. Most of the athletes I've dealt with in this town are intelligent, friendly people. But they have a tendency to be guarded — often with reason — and sometimes jaded.

Way too many have mastered the art of the pre-packaged, predictable quote and are schooled to repeat those words like parrots.

Every once in a while, a joy-filled sort such as Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury comes along, but even he would have to dial it up 10 notches to match the unbridled zeal and flagrant gratitude of Pirates prospect Tony Sanchez, the team's first-round pick last year.

I've spoken to Sanchez, a catcher, twice in the past week. I have no idea if he'll make the majors anytime soon, though he's off to a good start. I don't know if he'll become jaded with time, either, though it's hard to believe he will.

I just know this: In both conversations, the kid sounded as if he'd just won the lottery. Which, of course, he had. The Pirates gave him a $2.5 million signing bonus upon drafting him out of Boston College.

The amount was nothing special as far as bonuses go. In fact, the Pirates were criticized for not taking a higher-rated prospect who might have commanded more money. But have we become so numb to athletes' salaries that a $2.5 million bonus fails to move us?

It sure moved Sanchez.

"I would never even dream of getting paid two-and-a-half-million to play baseball," Sanchez said during our first conversation, an interview on 93.7 "The Fan." "I would have taken, like, anything. When the Pirates told me they were going to take me with the fourth pick and give me that (money), you should have seen me. I could barely breathe, I was so nervous."

He nearly passed out when the first payment arrived.

"The first day they direct-deposited that check into my account, it went from, like, $200 to $365,000 and I was like, 'Oh my God!' " Sanchez said. "The first thing I did, I went to the mall — I never do this — and bought anything I liked. When I got back, I was like, 'Oh, no, I spent way too much.' Then, I looked at my account on-line, and I was like, 'Holy (cow).' It was exactly the same."

After buying his dream car — a Range Rover — and making sure his family shared in the windfall, Sanchez, 21, got back to baseball.

He can scarcely believe the perks at his first spring training.

"You should see me in the locker room," he said. "On my first day, I'm about to grab my catcher's bag, and one of the equipment guys grabs it, and I'm like, 'What's going on?' He's like, 'We're taking the catchers' bags to the field.' I'm goin', 'I don't have to carry my bag?' He's like, 'No,' and I'm like, 'Oh my God!' "

Yes, he says that a lot.

When we hung up, Sanchez did something I'd be willing to bet was a first in sports history. He asked the producer if he could stay on the line and keep listening.

Are you serious• An athlete who wants to listen to talk radio?

The interview stayed with me for days, to the point where I had to call Sanchez on Tuesday and ask if that was really him on the line last week and if he really kept listening.

"Yeah, I like sports-talk radio," he said. "I even listened when you were talking about the Pitt game."

I wondered if any of his teammates had yet looked at him askew, given the culture of major-league clubhouses, where too much giddiness — especially with the media — can be frowned upon. Jason Kendall and Brian Giles, remember, used to mock Jack Wilson for his enthusiasm.

"I know there's a line that needs to be obeyed, I guess," Sanchez said. "I'm not going overboard. But this is who I am."

Thank goodness for that.

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