Rooker Chasing Russo (Get To Know Paul Russo)
Image courtesy of Linwood Ferguson (photo of Brent Rooker)Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, I was able to go back through MLB Drafts, trying to find out who has been even close to that number. This decade, there have been two other players drafted who hit double-digit homers during the year they were drafted. There were four players who hit ten or more homers in that initial season between 2000 and 2009. Between 1991 and 1999, six players did it. Finally, hours into the research, I got to the Twins 1990 draft. That’s when I found a player who has equaled and exceeded Rooker’s 18 home runs (so far) in his draft season. Today, we’ll get to know a little bit more about that man.
But first, let’s take a look back and remember some of the others who have hit 10 or more home runs in the minor leagues during the year they were drafted.
That certainly is an interesting list of names. If you’re like me, and you’ve been following the Twins minor league system for the last 15 years or more, some of these names likely bring back a smile to your face. I remember writing many articles about the power prowess of Kevin West, right up to AAA. I remember writing about Augustana (SD) grad Deacon Burns who came compared to Kirby Puckett, but left-handed, and not as strong. Erik Lis hit a home run for Ft. Myers off of Roger Clemens in one of his starts before joining the Astros during the years he joined the team midseason. Maybe other names on that list will be more familiar for you.
These guys were all drafted out of college, and most of them spent that entire first season adjusting to pro ball in Elizabethton.
As you can see, Brent Rooker has become the first player since fellow first-round pick Todd Walker in 1994 to hit ten (or more) home runs for the Miracle in his first season. Walker went directly to the Florida State League after the Twins made him the eighth overall pick out of another SEC school, LSU.
Twins Vice President of Player Personnel Mike Radcliff has been around the Twins organization a long time, and he’s seen a lot of players. Of Rooker’s pro debut, he says it has been quite impressive, “What is most impressive about Rooker’s home runs is he is still hitting them in Ft. Myers. It’s hard to hit homers in the Florida State League. Lots of guys can hit home runs in the Appy League—not that easy in the Florida State League—especially in your first year of pro ball.”
Consider Zander Wiel who currently leads the Miracle with 12 home runs this season. Wiel has approximately 350 more plate appearances than Rooker does with the Miracle.
On Monday, Rooker was also named the Florida State League Player of the Week for the second time in the last month.
Who Is Paul Russo?
In the 16th round of the 1990 draft, the Minnesota Twins selected catcher Paul Russo out of Division II University of Tampa.
Radcliff recalls, “Russo was a good college hitter who played for Team USA the summer before. (He was) more of a line-drive, hit the ball hard type of swing and hitter.”
Last Saturday, we caught up with Paul Russo on his 48th birthday. As he described his E-Town days, “I truly loved being in Elizabethton. I met some wonderful people there. The Church family comes to mind right off the top of my head. Their family, his wife, their daughters.”
As you will hear from most players, it seems, who have played in E-Town the last three decades, he learned a lot from Elizabethton manager Ray Smith. “Playing for Ray was a great experience because he is such a great guy. He made playing fun. He made it relaxing.”
His hitting coach that year was former Twins player Jim Lemon. Lemon played in 12 big league seasons between 1950 and 1963. He missed the 1951 and 1952 seasons because of military service. He played for the Twins in their inaugural season in Minnesota in 1961 and stayed with the Twins into the 1963 season.
“I learned so much from Jim. His ability to teach me and stay with me and stay on me was probably one of the greatest reasons I had so much success there.”
Russo was much more than “just” a home run hitter during that 1990 season in E-Town. He was the Appy League MVP. He hit .335/.433/.706 (1.139) with 10 doubles, three triples and 22 home runs. He drove in 67 runs. He struck out 56 times (21%), but he also showed a good approach at the plate with 39 walks.
The numbers were remarkable, but Russo wasn’t totally surprised by his success. “I wasn’t surprised because that year in college and the year before I hit 22 home runs in college. I was the Division II Player of the Year two years in a row. I knew I could hit home runs. I always could.”
Ray Smith completed his playing career - which included parts of three seasons in the big leagues with the Minnesota Twins (1981-1983) - in 1986. In 1990, he was just 33-years-old and managing already. 2017 marks his 31st season with the E-Twins and 24th as the team’s manager. He has seen a lot of young players.
While Russo was drafted as a catcher, Smith recalled, “Russo primarily played first and sometimes third for us.”
Smith finds several similarities between Rooker and Russo. “Saw where Rooker has been hot with the long ball. He was streaky here too. Russo was somewhat of a streaky-type guy too. Both have/had tremendous power with the ability to carry the club when going good. Some contact issues, but both could hit the ball out of any part of the ballpark when squaring it up. They could even hit homers when NOT squaring it up,” Smith continued, “Different body types. Russo more along the ‘Killebrew’ mold. Somewhat stocky and strong, where Rooker is taller and thinner. He will fill out some with maturity. Strong too. Both blessed with tremendous whip and bat speed and good makeup and work habits.”
One of Russo’s teammates on that 1990 Elizabethton team was a name familiar to Twins fans. Denny Hocking was a utility guy with the Twins for 11 seasons, 1993 through 2003. In six of those seasons, he played in over 100 games.
Hocking was the Twins 52nd round draft pick in 1989. He was a draft-and-follow guy, so he made his professional debut in 1990 in Elizabethton. Recently, Hocking talked to Twins Daily about Russo. “Paul Russo had this Paul Bunyan stature to him. Tons of power to all fields and he loved hitting balls into the pool over the RF fence. He pretty much dominated the Appy League.”
Russo continued to play well after that 1990 season, and he continued to show a lot of power. In Low A Kenosha in 1991, he played for manager Scott Ullger (who he says he still communicates with sometimes). He hit .271/.369/.475 (.844) with 20 doubles, three triples, 20 homers and 100 RBI. In 1992, he skipped a level and jumped right to AA Orlando where he played for Phil Roof. There he hit .255/.329/.452 (.781) with 13 doubles, 22 homers and 74 RBI. He struck out 122 times and walked 48 times. In 1993, he moved up to AAA Portland. In 83 games, he hit .281/.341/.483 (.823) with 24 doubles, ten homers and 47 RBI. He played first base and third base.
Those are numbers that should have put him on the radar for a big league call up. In 1993, Kent Hrbek played 123 games, most at 1B. Mike Pagliarulo played about half of the team’s games at third base. Terry Jorgenson played quite a bit of third base that year. David McCarty and Gene Larkin were the backups at first base. So, some of it was about opportunity, and some was about just having several other options. Russo split 1994 between AA Nashville and AAA Salt Lake. He was still just 24 years old and hit 13 homers that season as well.
Russo said, “I tell people I was a couple of decades too early, or a couple of decades too late. I could never tell you what kept me out of the big leagues. I can tell you this. The only guy who hit more home runs than me in the Twins organization was Bernardo Brito. He was a tremendous home run hitter. He didn’t get enough credit as he should have. He was a pretty good player. But at the time, the Twins had some superstars in the outfield. They had Kirby (Puckett) and Shane Mack. Brito could have hit home runs anywhere. At least he got up there.”
Russo went to the Padres where he played in AA and AAA in 1995 and 1996. He played AAA ball for the Yankees in 1997. He then spent two seasons in AAA for the Astros, but he never got The Call.
“I always felt I should have had an opportunity to get to the big leagues. I hit a lot of home runs when I was there. They just never gave me the opportunity. I had a lot of success over my career. I had a good career. I don’t regret anything. And I truly enjoyed the coaching staff with the Twins. That is one thing I will always remember. Most of the coaches there were good people that were there truly to help you get better.”
Russo is still very active in baseball. In fact, it remains his career, just in a different way now. He and his brother Pat Russo (who went undrafted, but spent two seasons pitching in the Twins system) own the Hit Factory Baseball in Tampa. They have players from eight to 18. “We’ve got a broad range. We have 16 travel teams, so that’s basically what I do.”
“Helping kids is the best part because I can take the knowledge I’ve learned through high school, through college and into pro baseball and teach kids that there’s different things that people look for. Professional baseball is not for everybody. Professional baseball is completely different than college baseball. You meet a lot of different individuals in pro baseball. The one thing I stress to all these boys is get your education. The better you do in your education, the more it will help you in baseball too.”
They have helped develop good players and good young men, and provided them with opportunities. “We’ve sent over 250 of our players to college. We’ve had some pro draft picks, a couple of first rounders. I get more pleasure out of that than anything. It’s great to see them move on. It’s great!”
Russo also does a weekly radio show called Hit The Cut which you can listen to often on Facebook Live in which they talk baseball and youth baseball and more. Be sure to “Like” their site and check it out.
Baseball and family are what keep him busy. He and his wife will have been married 23 years in October. His oldest son Paul is a senior, playing baseball at South Alabama. His oldest daughter is a junior at Tampa Catholic high school, and she recently verbally committed to playing softball at South Florida. His youngest daughter is a sophomore in high school.
Russo summarized, “They’re all good memories. I was able to do something that 99.9% of people who played baseball could never do. It has helped me later on in life to do what I do now. I have nothing but fond memories of playing my career.”
With a week to play, Rooker is four home runs behind Russo’s mark. Can he get there?
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