Friday, May 01, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Next generation: VT's Steve Bumbry continues to pursue major league dream

"Hello?"

"Hey, keed! Happy birthday!"

"Thanks. Who is this?"

"It's Man-ny!"

"Who?"

"Man-ny! Manny Ramirez!"

"Ohhhhh, heyyyy Manny!"

Virginia Tech center fielder Steve Bumbry understands that he is fortunate. He knows that not many college baseball players have gotten birthday wishes from one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time.

Not many have played video games in a minor-league clubhouse with CC Sabathia, who's now the highest-paid pitcher in the game.

Not many have shagged flies in the outfields of major-league ballparks, chatting with big-league players.

"It's just been a great experience," he says. "I really don't think I would trade anything for it."

But entitlement? There is no sense of entitlement for Steve Bumbry. And that might be the best thing about him.

Oh, there are other good things. For one, he's leading the Hokies with nine home runs this season. He's batting .311 with 37 RBIs. He's playing a sparkling center field, much like his father, Al, did during a 14-year major-league career, all but one season of which was spent with the Baltimore Orioles.

In other words, Steve Bumbry is enjoying a breakout year for the Hokies. But it's not because of who he knows, or who his dad is, or even the genetic gifts bestowed upon him by the 1973 American League rookie of the year.

It's happening because he's worked. Learned. Refined. And most of all, it's happening because Steve Bumbry has identified his weaknesses, and he's attacked them head on.

Not long ago, what happened last Saturday at Miami might have bummed Bumbry. After striking out in his first two at-bats, he might have written the day off as a failure. But this time, he shut out the past and ripped an RBI single in his third plate appearance, helping the Hokies to a 7-4 victory. He also made a diving catch in center field reminiscent of the plays his father used to make at Memorial Stadium.

"Really, it's just been all in my head," said Bumbry, a junior who hit .271 and .266 his first two seasons. "Because I know I've had enough talent to play in the ACC since my freshman year. You've heard the quote: 'The game is 90 percent mental and the other half physical.'

"It's a mental game, baseball. That's part of what's made me turn the corner this year."

Before the season, Bumbry read several books on sports psychology, including "Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence" by Gary Mack and David Casstevens, and "The Mental Game of Baseball" by H.A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl.

In those pages, he found helpful tips that he hadn't picked up watching his father instruct professionals. He learned how to shut out distractions.

"I can tell him things he should do and things he should look for, but the actual step-by-step mental approach to the game, I wasn't very good at explaining that to him," Al Bumbry said. "The game can be very difficult mentally. That's more than half the battle."

He would know. Al Bumbry ranks second all-time among Baltimore base-stealers behind Brady Anderson and is widely considered the fastest player in Orioles history. His son is quick -- Steve has swiped eight bags in 12 attempts this year -- but not as quick. Still, Steve has some edges over his father.

"He's about 5-10. I'm 5-8," Al Bumbry said. "He's a lot more developed than I was at his age, and he's a lot stronger than I was at his age. People ask me all the time, 'Does he run like you?' And I say, 'No he doesn't run as fast as I did, but at his age, he's further along in other aspects of his game than myself.'"

Part of that comes from tagging along with his father. Al Bumbry worked as a coach and roving instructor for the Red Sox, Orioles and Indians after his playing career ended in 1985. Little Steve would join his dad at the ballpark whenever he could. That's how he wound up in the batting cage with Ramirez and in the clubhouse with a young Sabathia.

"The one thing I can say he was never lacking growing up was baseballs, baseball bats and baseball gloves," Al Bumbry said with a laugh. "Those guys, they always took care of him. When I was throwing BP or whatever, they'd look out for him in the outfield. Every time we'd leave a city, it seemed like he had a glove from somebody."

Al Bumbry is retired from coaching now -- in part, so he can attend Tech games -- but perks remain. Just last December, Steve and Al traveled to Arizona together and spent some time at the Indians spring training complex. There, Steve got to work out with Cleveland stars Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta and Victor Martinez, among others.

As helpful as those experiences have been, though, Steve Bumbry is happier with the things he's picked up on his own.

"Just learning how to deal with adversity and failure and not letting my emotions get the best of me," he said. "Worrying about things I can control, not worrying about umpires' bad calls or if I miss a ball in the outfield or pop up a ball on a pitch I know I should hit.

"I just worry about having quality at-bats every time I come up there. I'm not really focusing on results; I'm just letting things happen. If I put a good swing on it and I hit a line drive at somebody, so what? That's part of the game. So I've learned to take things as the come to me, and I've slowed the game down a lot mentally."

Bumbry hopes to follow his father into the major leagues someday. But first, he'd like to help the Hokies make the ACC tournament. With two conference series to play, including one that starts today at Florida State, Tech is 27-17 overall and 10-13 in the conference. That's a vast improvement over recent years but still leaves the Hokies 112 games behind Duke and Boston College for the final postseason spot.

Bumbry is eligible to be drafted in June -- the Orioles have seen him play more than anyone -- but he'd be happy to stay his senior year, too. Already he's helped turn around a program that had struggled, and he'd like to earn his degree in business management and entrepreneurship.

Most of all, he'd like to join Manny and CC in the show. But even if he has to wait, he knows he's fortunate.

"Each calendar year turns, and I just love the game more and more every year," he said. "So I really don't want to stop playing. I just want to keep going."

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