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Wednesday, October 27, 2010
In Carlsbad, 'Kids Want To Be Cody'
By Toby Smith
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
CARLSBAD — "Cody just didn't hit balls over that fence," Tom Forni says, pointing to a chain-link barrier nearly 400 feet straight away. "He hit 'em over the light pole."
Forni, who coached high school baseball here for more than 30 years, is standing near home plate in the Cavemen Corral, the Carlsbad High ballpark where Cody Ross played for four years.
Ross, of course, these days plays most of the time in AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Tonight, he'll take his place in right field there in the first game of the World Series, against the Texas Rangers.
How did Ross, 29, get from here to there? To spending seven years in the majors, often marked by injuries and disappointments? To being named MVP Saturday of the National League Series with seven hits, many of them key? To becoming a big star from a small town?
A good leg of that journey started here at the Corral, a tidy, blue-trimmed arena that stands in the shadow of the school's much larger football stadium.
Forni, leathery and likeable, first saw Ross as a seventh grader.
"He had just broken his arm in football and his father wanted him down here to play baseball," Forni said. "If I coulda had him on my team then, I would have loved to. He was always a great contact hitter."
When Ross joined the Cavemen two years later as a ninth grader, and gave up football, he broke the freshman record for home runs, with six. The old mark was set by Shane Andrews, a former major leaguer and a prodigious long-ball hitter, like Ross.
Forni says Ross was a natural. The coach did, however, shorten the kid's swing. Made it more compact, to take advantage of his terrific bat speed, so evident even then. And Forni got Ross into the weight room, where he spent hours.
"Cody worked like a mule," says Bobby Click, a longtime Forni assistant. "He got plenty strong in Carlsbad. Shane could maybe hit farther, but Cody could hit harder. I swear, I once saw him hit a baseball through that chain-link."
As a junior at Carlsbad High, in 1998 Ross led the team to a state championship in Albuquerque. He pitched and he hit. His senior year, he belted 11 home runs. By now, major league scouts had descended upon southeast New Mexico.
"I counted 28 scouts at one game," says Cody's father, Kenny Ross. "And dang, Carlsbad's not an easy place to get to."
Kenny Ross, a tall, former standout athlete at Carlsbad High, initially saw baseball as a means of a college education for young Cody.
"Several college coaches sat in my living room — I can't remember them all. Arizona State, Southern California, you name it."
Cody, who graduated in 1999, wanted to play pro ball.
"He had it all,'' says Forni. "Good speed, good arm, great stick. What he didn't have was height. He's what? Five-ten. Scouts think in a 165-game season only a big, tall strong guy can make it. They didn't recognize Cody's desire."
The Detroit Tigers did. They drafted him in the fourth round and paid him $400,000 to sign. College could wait.
'Kids want to be Cody'
Odd thing: Cody Ross wasn't always a baseball player. Born in Portales, he grew up in Texas where his father, after playing strong safety for UNM's football team, went to chiropractic school and then settled near Dallas to set up a practice, a profession he held for 20 years.
As a youngster, in the suburbs of Dallas, Cody at first wanted to be a rodeo clown, for his dad had long done team roping on the side. Cody went from there to playing soccer as a boy, and was a good midfielder through his early teens until he gave it up.
But he played baseball at the same time — first T-ball at the age of 5 or 6, and then Little League.
In time, baseball became Cody's passion. And Kenny Ross knew it.
The boy played on select teams in Texas, traveling around the country in the fall and winter.
"I didn't get my dream to play in the NFL," says Kenny Ross. "Too many knee surgeries. Cody had his dream, and dadgum he went after it."
To help him get to that dream, Kenny Ross in the mid-1990s moved the family back to New Mexico.
"I wanted a small-town environment," says the senior Ross, who had grown up with Tom Forni. "And I wanted him to be in a good baseball program."
For many years Carlsbad was a football town, helped in great part by a marvelous coach named Ralph Bowyer, whose name the high school football stadium bears.
But football in Carlsbad over the last couple of decades has slumped a bit. Meanwhile, baseball has soared.
"Oh, the town still supports football," says Forni. "You'll get 6,000 people on a Friday night. But I think baseball has had more success. A lot of people now know us as a baseball town. Kids want to be on the high school team. Kids want to be Cody."
It wasn't just Ross who generated the success. As a head coach, Forni helped guide the high school to six state championships and 19 district titles. Moreover, Carlsbad, with a population of only 25,000, produced during a 20-odd year span three Major League players. First came Andrews, a third baseman who reached the show with Montreal 1995 and wound up hitting 86 home runs in a career that ended in 2002.
Then came Paxton Crawford, a pitcher who won five games for the Boston Red Sox during the 2000 and 2001 seasons.
And finally, Cody Ross, who has played seven seasons, like Andrews. Not counting his playoff heroics, Ross has hit the same number of homers: 86.
Several more Carlsbad youngsters, says Forni, have gone on to play minor league baseball, and a few are there now, trying to grab their Cody Ross dreams.
Ross, however, is the only one of the three major leaguers who has performed in the postseason and who will dress out for a World Series.
Kenny Ross shakes his head at that fact. "There are thousands of guys who play forever who never get to the playoffs."
The town hero
Things have been crazy this week, Cody Ross' father says. "Cody's on cloud nine; he's really pumped. He's having trouble sleeping and so am I. I can't answer all the voice mails and texts I've been getting. It's amazing."
Though Cody Ross now lives much of the year in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Summer, herself a Carlsbad girl, and their two small children, Carlsbad is home.
And the town hasn't forgotten. On an exterior wall of the Carlsbad Sports store, facing Canal Street, the main drag, a moving digital sign offers congratulations to Cody Ross. Up Canal Street, a sign in front of radio station KCCC-AM reads, "Go Cody, Go Giants."
Kenny and Janet Ross are surely their son's biggest fans. (Cody is the youngest of four children.) The Rosses attended two playoff games in the National League Division Series against Atlanta and three in the NLCS against the Phillies.
On Tuesday morning, the couple left Carlsbad for San Francisco and tonight's game, as well as the one Thursday night.
The Rosses generally make from six to eight of Cody's games per year. And what they don't see in person they catch on the big-screen TV in the living room of their modest house on Eddy Street.
Indeed, hanging near the television is their own sign, one that Janet Ross puts up each spring: "We Interrupt This Family To Bring You the Baseball Season"