Stanton striving to be big name in hitting
Marlins slugger working, studying to become elite batsman
CLEVELAND -- Let's start with the name."Mike" was too prevalent, too pedestrian to last as a suitable representation of a man built with the body of a superhero, with the power to propel a baseball 500 feet. More than four million people in the United States are named Michael. It is the fourth-most popular men's name in the country. So while anyone named Michael can certainly distinguish himself through great feats, the exceptionality will come in spite of the name, not because of it. "Giancarlo," on the other hand? Well, put it this way: More than 17,000 players have suited up to play in the Major Leagues since the late 1800s, and none of them had the first name Giancarlo. Not until Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton -- the Miami Marlins' outfielder of Irish, Puerto Rican and African-American descent -- righted a wrong, discarded "Mike" and reclaimed the Italian-influenced first name printed on his birth certificate. "It's such a unique name, and I like being different," he says. "I don't need attention, but I don't like doing what everybody else is doing." Evidence of this point exists mere minutes earlier, when Stanton, his long legs outstretched and a black Marlins hoodie hiding his head, is sitting at a table in the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field, his eyes fixed on an iPad. The setting around him is typical pregame fare. Some guys are napping, some are yapping. Some are playing video games, others are discussing the Preakness. But then there's the 22-year-old Stanton, his attention to detail apparent. For 50 minutes, he stares at the iPad, playing back video of his at-bats and of that day's opposing pitcher. He watches intently, slowing down the images, frame by frame, looking for tendencies and weaknesses in both his approach and that of the man he'll be facing in a few hours. Major Leaguers are professionals and creatures of habit, and none of them would be here if they didn't put in the work to maximize their raw talent. But this obsessive study by Stanton is not something you see every day. "Everything he does," says Marlins hitting coach Eduardo Perez, "he does with purpose." And that purpose is simply stated. "I want to be a hitter," Stanton says. "I don't want to do the whole .230-with-45-homers thing. I didn't have year-round baseball growing up, so I didn't learn how to hit. I just knew how to hit the ball hard." Stanton was a three-sport star at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and his time spent as a tight end and power forward trumped his baseball at-bats. He accepted a full ride to play football at USC, but an eye-catching performance at the Area Code Games put him high on the baseball scouting radar, and a $475,000 bonus offer from the Marlins in 2007 was enough to sway him to a sport that had been more afterthought than attraction. The move up the ladder came quickly, largely because of Stanton's raw power. He hit 39 homers at the Class A level in his first full professional season, and he was brought up to the big leagues midway through his third, skipping Triple-A entirely. So for Stanton, the education comes on the game's greatest stage. "When this kid learns how to hit," says manager Ozzie Guillen, "he's going to be very dangerous." Stanton is not there yet, and the Marlins, who have sprung back to life in the National League East after an awful April, still have a lineup in need of a stable veteran in the middle of the order to help him out. But when it comes to upside and impact potential, there are few players in the big leagues on par with Stanton. This month is proof positive. Stanton's slow April was attributable to the knee injury that robbed him of Spring Training. But in May, he has seven homers and a 1.078 OPS, both among baseball's best. His game-winning grand slam on Mother's Day was an attention-grabber, but Stanton is displaying his brute force in other ways as well. "We were playing the Mets the other night, and they were in no-doubles [defense]," teammate Austin Kearns says. "He hit a line drive about five feet off the ground, just to the left of the shortstop. It looked like a single, but it went all the way to the wall on one hop." That's destructive power. "He will hurt somebody before his career is over," Guillen says, half-joking. But how much will Marlins Park, shaping up to be a pitcher's paradise, hurt Stanton in the long run? Stanton hit 56 homers before his 22nd birthday (in the past 40 years, only Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez hit more before turning 22), but it's telling that six of his eight home runs this season have come on the road, not in the new park. "It will make me a better hitter, overall," Stanton says. "There's only so many fly balls to the warning track that you're going to put up with before you change something." Stanton wants to be known for more than just home runs, anyway. And he wants to make the most of his ridiculously athletic 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame. "He's got a body," says teammate Mark Buehrle, "that I think every guy would love to have." And now Stanton is going by a name much more suitable to his skills. Stanton comes from a family full of interesting appellations. His brother is Egidio, his sister is Kairice. His mother calls him "Cruz," one of his two middle names. But the mass mispronunciation of "Giancarlo" (the true Italian pronunciation is "john-CAHR-loh," but people would call him "Gene" or "Carlos" or "Gionne-carlo," to name a few) had forced him to adopt the more easily understood "Mike." After establishing himself at the big league level, however, Stanton decided this year to re-establish his real name. "Still, now, most people don't say it right," he says. "It's still taking a while for even me to get used to introducing myself like this." Not to worry. If Giancarlo's potential and attention to detail are any indication, people all over the country are going to know his name before long.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.