Simply Baseball Notebook: Cover Stories

Cirillo's comeback

May/June 2005

Jeff Cirillo rises from the dead


MILWAUKEE – To a major league ballplayer, the uniform is a sacred object.

Outwardly, it represents the team and city for which he plays. But deep down, it also symbolizes his unyielding passion for the sport, a childhood dream fulfilled and, most importantly, his livelihood.

It’s no wonder, then, that a player will often say the only way he’ll give it up is if someone rips it off his back.

In a word, the uniform is precious. And to Jeff Cirillo, it’s no different.

After spending five full, productive seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers and another two with the Colorado Rockies, the two-time All Star’s career hit rock bottom on August 4, 2004 when he was released after hitting .213 in 33 games with the San Diego Padres.

Finding his name on the waiver wire for the first time in his career also came on the heels of two sub-par years -- especially by his stringent standards -- with the Seattle Mariners, the Redmond, Wash., resident’s "hometown" team.

To most people, Cirillo’s days in the big leagues appeared over. But this past winter, he decided to give it one last shot.

The lure of possibly wearing a big league uniform one more time was too tempting to pass up.

"I just wanted to keep playing," Cirillo, 35, said. "You want to keep playing until you can’t play anymore. It’s a tough pill to swallow for a player when his career is done."

To demonstrate just how badly he desired a return to the majors, Cirillo played winter ball for the first time since 1994 and posted a .312 batting average with one home run, 12 RBI and a .453 on-base percentage for Los Mochis of the Mexican League.

He then placed three phone calls to Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin pleading for a non-roster invitation to spring training. During his prior tenure as the Texas Rangers’ GM, Melvin had fielded similar calls from Kevin Elster and Ruben Sierra, who after each being given second chances by Melvin, both went on to record successful comeback seasons.

Plus, with the Padres still on the hook for his $7 million salary and the Brewers only liable for the league minimum of $316,000 if he made their 25-man roster, Melvin decided there wasn’t any reason not to grant Cirillo’s request.

He could have called any of the 30 GMs in the game, but Cirillo felt he had really only one option: to rejoin the Brewers, the team he broke in with and that shaped him as a big leaguer.

"I just figured I had a lot of success here and if I was going to be able to get back and be a productive player that I needed a comfort zone, especially in spring training," said Cirillo, whose first stint with Milwaukee began in 1994 and ended when ex-GM Dean Taylor dealt him to Colorado after the 1999 season (when he hit .326) – a trade that outraged Brewers’ fans.

"I knew that probably the best opportunity I was going to get was probably here.

"Milwaukee’s always been the team that I’ve always watched and followed….I really didn’t want to leave (the first time)."

After a few struggles early in the spring, a pep talk from his wife, Nancy, lit a fire under Cirillo, who went on to hit .347 with one homer and eight RBI in 28 exhibition games in Arizona.

"She’s always been very supportive in that regard," Cirillo said of his wife. "She’s been a rock for me. She’s definitely eyeing the future when baseball’s going to be done, but she knows that this is something that I’ve got to do until this is out of my system."

Though he said he initially viewed his chances of heading north with Milwaukee as a "long shot," that’s exactly what Cirillo – the Brewers’ career batting leader (.307 average) entering the 2005 season (based on a minimum of 2,000 at-bats) – did by securing one of the final roster spots coming out of camp.

Had it not been for his stellar spring, Cirillo said he probably would have reluctantly retired. It didn’t take long for Brewers’ manager Ned Yost to realize that would have been a mistake.

"I had an open mind and was anxious to see what he was still able to do," Yost said of his thoughts regarding Cirillo entering spring training. "You could see real quick that he still had some game left, and the way in his approach and the way that he went about his work habits early in the spring and watching the way that he played the game defensively and watching how he put together quality at-bats time after time, you could see where he’d fit in real good."

However, Cirillo’s uplifting comeback story didn’t conclude with him making the club.

In a last-minute move, Yost decided to start Cirillo at third base for the season opener April 4 at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park against Pirates’ left-hander Oliver Perez, one of the National League’s budding star pitchers.

Cirillo rewarded Yost by doubling in Milwaukee’s first run, belting a solo homer to deep center and robbing Pittsburgh’s Jason Bay of a potential extra-base hit in a 9-2 Brewers’ victory.

A week later, at the Brewers’ home opener – also against the Pirates – Cirillo received two thunderous standing ovations from the sold-out crowd at Miller Park. The first came in pre-game introductions, and the second preceded a pinch-hit appearance in the eighth inning in which he drew a walk.

"That was unbelievable," Cirillo said of the warm welcome-back reception from the home fans. "That’s just something that I will always enjoy and savor. Like I said, I just always have loved the Brewers. They molded me when I was just a young kid, and they gave me the opportunity to get up here quick and provide a nice living for me and my family."

Through the season’s first month, Cirillo has platooned with Russell Branyan at third base – starting mainly against lefties – while otherwise serving as Yost’s top pinch-hitting option off the bench.

The hits haven’t materialized as often as he would like – through May 1 he’s batting .191 (9-for-47) with two doubles, one homer, six RBI and a .333 OBP – but he has committed only one error and provided veteran leadership that has been sorely missing in Milwaukee in recent seasons.

"This year, my average isn’t as good, but I’ve had some quality at-bats, and I’m working the count and drawing (10) walks," Cirillo said. "That was always my game – that I’d have a high on-base percentage and hit. Obviously, I’d like to get a few more hits. That would be nice.

"But for me, my job is to get on base any way I can and move the guys around – a situational hitter – and play great defense and be a good influence in the clubhouse. That’s what I see my role being."

Milwaukee right fielder Geoff Jenkins’ first glimpse of Cirillo came when Cirillo was a teammate of Jenkins’ brother, Brett, at the University of Southern California from 1989-1991.

What stood out about Cirillo all those years ago?

"He was a guy that used the whole field when he was hitting, sprayed the ball around and was real consistent defensively," Jenkins said. "He pitched back then, too. He was a pretty good pitcher, too. Don’t tell him I said that, though."

It’ll be our little secret, Geoff. Other than giving up pitching, not much else has changed about Cirillo’s game in the last decade-plus.

"(There are) some things that I’m probably not as able to do anymore that I was able to do when I was younger. I’ve just kind of accepted that, but there (are) still a lot of things that I can do to be productive and help this team win," Cirillo said.

"I think that fundamentally I’m sound. I’m going to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. I’m not going to wow you with power or anything like that, but I’m going to work my at-bat, and I’m going to play exceptional defense."

Jenkins was a rookie with the Brewers in 1998 when Cirillo was coming off his first All-Star campaign.

Now their longest-tenured player (eight seasons), Jenkins conceded that he’s glad to have the fellow USC graduate as a teammate again.

"He’s a great guy, and he’s fun to have around," said Jenkins, who credited Cirillo with helping teach him how to prepare for certain pitchers and games, and how to survive the rigors of a 162-game season.

During his first go-around in Milwaukee, Cirillo received similar advice from former Brewers’ third baseman Kevin Seitzer.

"Seitzer was a big help to me when I came up," Cirillo said. "He was kind of in the role (where) he was the veteran and I was the young kid coming up. He was like a big brother, really. He stayed on me, but he stayed on me in the right way."

Yost hasn’t lost sight of the fact that Cirillo has taken some of those early-career lessons and passed them on to his current teammates.

"He definitely does his part in that department," Yost said. "He’s helped (rookie shortstop) J.J. (Hardy) out a lot, and you see him talking to Wes (Helms) and Branyan. He’s been around, so he’s got a lot of valuable experience."

Cirillo, who is now wearing No. 6 after sporting No. 26 in his first stint with the Brewers, readily admits that the day is approaching – sooner rather than later -- when he’ll have to hand in his uniform for good and call it a career.

That won’t be easy.

"It’s definitely winding down," he said. "I want to just keep playing and hopefully play well. The next time, when (retirement) comes around again, I’ll probably be a little more willing to accept it at that time."

-Jeremy Reeves is a sports reporter for the Kenosha (Wis.) News

Cirillo's page @ Baseball-Almanac.com

Cirillo's page @ MilwaukeeBrewers.com

Simply Baseball Notebook