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All-Star future, check

Hart graduate Chris Valaika played in the All-Star Future’s Game at Yankee Stadium

Posted: July 13, 2008 10:14 p.m.
Updated: September 14, 2008 5:04 a.m.

Chris Valaika, 22, sits in the Yankee Stadium dugout Sunday before playing in the All-Star Future's Game. Valaika, a Hart graduate, plays for the Cincinatti Reds AA affiliate in Chattanooga and is hitting .312 with 12 home runs and 51 RBIs.

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NEW YORK - His jersey neatly folded on a chair in front of New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano's locker Sunday afternoon, 2003 Hart High graduate Chris Valaika smiles and draws a check mark with his index finger.

"Mission accomplished a little bit," he says after playing in Major League Baseball's All-Star Future's Game at New York City's Yankee Stadium. "Maybe not in a big league uniform, but pretty close."

The 22-year-old has already accomplished much in his baseball career.

He played for Team USA's youth and junior national teams in high school, then the college national team while at UC Santa Barbara, and he could possibly be named to the U.S. Olympic Team.

The selection to the Futures Game was another step up the ladder, as only top prospects are selected to play.

The exhibition has proven to be a great indicator of future major-league all-star talent.

Futures Game alumni include Russell Martin, Josh Beckett, Alfonso Soriano and Lance Berkman to name a few.

Valaika came into the game as a defensive replacement at shortstop in the top of the sixth inning. He had one at-bat.

With one on and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Valaika took three big rips against Oakland A's and World Team pitcher Henry Rodriguez and struck out swinging.

"First batter they have a four-pitch walk I was thinking, ‘Let's just see one,'" Valaika says. "Like always, he paints a fastball. I go, ‘OK, here we go,' then look up at the gun and he's throwing 99, 100 miles per hour. OK it's the real deal."

There is no frustration from an 0-for-1 performance. Valaika is just elated to be here.

He understands the meaning of being selected to play; it being the opener of baseball's three-day celebration for the All-Star Game.

But it takes on extra meaning as it is being played at Yankee Stadium in its final year.

The groundskeeper for the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, asked Valaika if he could rip out a couple of blades of Yankee Stadium's grass for him.

"Just being in Yankee Stadium, you feel the environment of it. Getting dressed and walking through the tunnel seeing the grass and Monument Park and everything for the first time is a pretty good experience," Valaika says.

Valaika could see similar experiences in his future. He's hitting .312 with 12 home runs and 51 RBIs for Chattanooga and is considered to be one of Cincinnati's top minor league players.

Up on the Cincinnati Reds, the shortstop position is in a fluid state.

Jeff Keppinger put up impressive numbers early on, but the 28-year-old fractured his patella May 13.

He's struggled since his return from the disabled list June 22. The Reds have started five different players at shortstop this season.

At second base, where Valaika can also play, Brandon Phillips has consistently been one of the National League's top offensive players at the position for the past couple of years.

"There's a lot of good talent in our minor league system. If I get my opportunity, I'll take it," he says. "It's not really my job to worry about moves. When my time's ready, they'll bring me up."

The last couple of seasons has seen a spike in the number of Santa Claritans making the major leagues.
Most notable has been Tampa Bay Rays pitcher and Hart High graduate James Shields. The 2000 Hart grad made his debut in 2006 and has been making a steady climb since.

Jerry Owens, a 1999 Hart grad had a solid season for the Chicago White Sox last season, after debuting in 2006, but has been relegated to the minor leagues this season.

Canyon grad Chris Seddon made his debut for the Florida Marlins last season, but has also spent the entire 2008 season in the minors.

None of those young players, though, have played in such a high-profile All-Star Game as Valaika did Sunday.

"Something like this it really doesn't sink in," he says. "Maybe when I get to the plane I'll say, ‘Wow, did I really just play at Yankee Stadium.'"

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