PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — A couple of things strike you when Nick Ciuffo enters the meeting room at the Tampa Bay Rays spring training site after a recent day of baseball in the Florida heat.
The kid is big-boned. There are 205 pounds of well-distributed muscle packed on his 6-foot-1 frame. He speaks in complete sentences, his syntax void of the “likes” and “you knows” normally associated with a teenager. He has a good head on his shoulders. He is a millionaire.
As you might have surmised, this is no ordinary 18-year-old.
The South Carolina area scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, who recommended and signed Ciuffo to a $1,972,200 bonus, says the young catcher is mature beyond his years. So, too, does Ciuffo’s manager for the Tampa Bay’s Gulf Coast League team.
Yet for all of Ciuffo’s advanced development, he admits to having been a little unprepared for his first foray into professional baseball. Since he graduated from Lexington High in June, Ciuffo has – in quick succession – attended the Major League Baseball Draft in New York City, where he was selected in the first round and met baseball commissioner Bud Selig; conducted print and TV interviews; flown to St. Petersburg, Fla., where he signed the hefty bonus; and been indoctrinated over the past seven weeks in what can only be described as baseball boot camp.
“I didn’t expect to wake up at 6 a.m. every day,” Ciuffo says. “Wake up at 6, at the ballpark by 6:45, practice in the morning, play a game in the afternoon, and leave at 4 o’clock.
“It’s not glamour. It’s not playing in a big stadium, or playing in front of 10,000 people. We play in front of 15 people. I went from playing in front of 7,000 (for Lexington High’s state championship game at Carolina Stadium) to playing in front of seven.”
Welcome to rookie ball.
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Jim Morrison is manager of the Gulf Coast League Rays. Morrison played 12 seasons in the major leagues and has been coaching or managing in the minor leagues ever since. He will turn 61 next month, and strikes a fatherly pose with the 34 young men who wear Rays jerseys under his guidance.
Like his 15 counterparts in the rookie-level league, Morrison has one of the most difficult and challenging jobs in all of baseball. He is charged with developing the baseball skills of the youngest and least-experienced players in the organization. He also is there to help each grow as young men. Many of them are away from home for the first time and about half are learning about baseball and life in a foreign country.
“Dealing with the front end of it, I try to keep a balance,” Morrison says. “We try not to allow them to fail too much because it’s a real struggle. Our instruction, our work, the way we go about our business helps them to grow up and understand what they need to do.”
The Bryce Harpers of the baseball world are the exception. The wunderkind of the Washington Nationals barely got his feet wet in the minor leagues before making his major-league debut at age 19. Most players at that age – even the highly regarded Ciuffo – must work their way through the minor leagues step by step, fully expecting their apprenticeship to last three to five years.
It starts with rookie ball, where players learn to eat, sleep and drink baseball from the day they sign a contract in June or July through the end of August. When Morrison greets his kids at the beginning of camp he has a couple of simple questions for all.
“Hey, who likes baseball?” Morrison says he asks.
They all raise their hands.
“OK, who loves baseball?”
Morrison then seeks to find out.
Ciuffo, like his teammates, is taking part in a crash course on how to play ball the Tampa Bay Rays way and how to live life the Tampa Bay Rays way. Upon signing his contract at Tropicana Field, the Rays home stadium in St. Petersburg, on June 21, Ciuffo was driven one hour south to Port Charlotte by Brian Hickman, the South Carolina area scout who signed him. Rob Metzler, the Rays’ assistant scouting director, followed in a car behind the two.
Ciuffo was introduced to Morrison and the Rays coaching staff, and he watched a couple of innings of that day’s game, which like all of those played in the Gulf Coast League was staged on a minor-league practice field adjacent to the spring training stadium of the big-league club. There is no admission for the games, yet fans rarely fill the 50 or so seats available on five rows of aluminum bleachers.
Ciuffo was then taken to his new home, a two-bedroom apartment at Palm Manor Resort. There he would live with another pair of recent high school graduates, second-round shortstop Riley Unroe of Arizona and fourth-round second baseman Kean Wong of Hawaii.
The entire team is housed in the apartment complex and each player’s $360 monthly share of the rent is deducted from his paycheck. Ciuffo is paid $1,100 monthly by the Rays, but only for the three months of the season. That is a standard salary for the rookie league.
After rent, taxes and clubhouse dues – $50 a month – Ciuffo is left with about $400 a month to cover a $44-a-month cellphone bill, a few tanks of gas for his truck, $8 a month for Netflix, and as many DVDs as can be scrounged out of the $4.99 bin at the local Best Buy.
Of course, most of Ciuffo’s expenses are covered by the club. Breakfast and lunch are served six days a week in the clubhouse, where the Rays can begin to teach their athletes about proper diet. Another meal is available after home games. On Sundays, the players are on their own for meals.
Ciuffo also will earn another month’s pay when he remains in Florida following the Gulf Coast League season to participate in Tampa Bay’s instructional league. Thereafter, he plans to return to Lexington to live with his mother, Kim, work out in preparation for spring training in March, and presumably get by spending as little of his bonus money as possible.
Fifteen days after signing with the Rays, Ciuffo had a check for $657,400 deposited in his bank account. On Dec. 10 and again when he reports to spring training, Ciuffo will receive checks in the same amount. After taxes, Ciuffo will clear about $1,380,540 in bonus money.
With the initial payment, Ciuffo wanted to purchase a used truck. But his father, Tony, had different ideas.
“If you’re going to get it, you’re going to have it for a long time,” Nick recalls his father saying. “You’ve worked hard your entire life, for 18 years, to get to this point. This is kind of a reward. Go out and get something you really want, something really nice.”
Ciuffo purchased a spiffy, 2014 black Chevy Silverado truck for $52,000. Upon learning that the Rays enforce a dress code off the field that includes khaki pants or shorts, belts, collared shirts and tennis shoes (no sandals) with socks, Ciuffo dropped about $1,500 to upgrade his wardrobe during one trip to Craig Reagin Clothiers in Lexington.
Ciuffo also padded the bank accounts of his mother and grandmother, and plans to help a childhood friend from Charleston with her tuition costs at College of Charleston. The two met when they were 6, and Ciuffo left quite an impression even then.
“I’m Nick Ciuffo and I’m going to be a professional baseball player,” Ciuffo remembers telling her.
While watching a recent game in Port Charlotte, Kim Ciuffo talked about the many summer days when her young son played Dixie Youth Baseball on the fields in Charleston. Mom worked the concession stand from noon until late into the night. Nick occupied his time by jumping from one team’s practice to another, all day and night.
During Nick’s youth, his father served as the sports information director at College of Charleston. That connection allowed Nick access to batting cages and provided him with baseball idols. While his friends were practicing their swings in baseball video games, Nick was taking his cuts in a batting cage with college players.
By age 14, Nick had played enough travel ball to catch the eye of college scouts, and he committed to play for South Carolina before ever playing a high school game. His catching skills were off the charts for his age, and his swing from the left side of the plate was a thing of beauty.
Over a four-year high school career – two at Wando and two at Lexington – Ciuffo batted .401 with a .537 on-base percentage. In 2011, he was a member of the USA 16-and-under national team that captured a gold medal in Mexico. During his senior year at Lexington, Ciuffo batted .468, strung together a 25-game hitting streak, and was not charged with a passed ball behind the plate.
Naturally, professional scouts took notice. Hickman, the Rays’ area scout, moved from Oklahoma to Fort Mill and first saw Ciuffo during a 2012 tournament at Blythewood High. Hickman liked what he saw and urged other scouts from within his organization to come take a look.
Ciuffo was projected to be a first-round pick, and when a club is prepared to offer millions of dollars to a prospect, it conducts a thorough evaluation of the player and the person.
“What we’re trying to do as scouts is to look for a few good men,” Hickman says. “Most of these guys probably need to go to college. We’re looking for a few of these guys that are going to be good enough and mature enough and tough enough, mentally and physically, to be able to handle the rigors of professional baseball.
“Without question, Nick Ciuffo is one of those kids.”
With the 21st overall pick in the first round, Tampa Bay selected Ciuffo, whom Hickman says rated major-league average or above in nearly all of baseball’s five tools. The club could not wait to get him into rookie camp and begin the process of nurturing his development.
Ciuffo says the Rays have primarily worked on his catching skills. He is not allowed to move his glove /as he learns to “frame” a pitch for the umpire, because the Rays want their young catchers to simply “hold” pitches.
“He’s handling all various kinds of pitchers with a lot of different movements on their fastballs, sliders and changeups, coming at different angles and left-handers,” Morrison says. “Then you’ve got base runners, and you’ve got plays out there to remember, and different things we want to do. There is a lot that goes into it.”
The daily morning workout includes instruction and strategy sessions, which range from learning how to execute run-downs to practicing to catch pop-ups. Morrison says the Rays will not change anything about Ciuffo’s swing during the Gulf Coast League season. When it comes to hitting, the Rays like to use the rookie season strictly for evaluation. Changes will come later, if needed.
Ciuffo catches three games a week and is the designated hitter in two others. Through his first 28 games as a pro, he carried a respectable .269 batting average and was tied for the club lead with 17 RBIs.
His first two at-bats in a recent game were likely representative of where Ciuffo is as a professional player. He faced 18-year-old Twins right-hander Damian Defrank. With a one-ball, two-strike count, Ciuffo reached out and served a ball through the left side of the infield, clearly an advanced piece of hitting for rookie ball. The next time up, Ciuffo swung and missed at an 0-2 pitch that sunk and tailed away from him. He was clearly overmatched on the pitch.
When asked about it later, Ciuffo confirmed that he had never before seen an 0-2 pitch quite like that one. Heck, he said, he could not recall a time when he had an 0-2 count in high school.
Ciuffo then concluded his interview and returned to the clubhouse for a weight-lifting session. He later met with his mother for dinner at a Port Charlotte restaurant, then went home to crash for the evening.
Baseball boot camp can be tiring, even when you’re 18.