Baltimore Would Be Close Enough to Home

Lifelong Philadelphia Fan Costanzo Hopes to Jump From AA to Majors

"I feel like I'm ready," said Mike Costanzo, 24, hitting .297 with two homers while playing three positions. He's battling for the Orioles' final roster spot.
"I feel like I'm ready," said Mike Costanzo, 24, hitting .297 with two homers while playing three positions. He's battling for the Orioles' final roster spot. (By Doug Benc -- Getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008; Page E04

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., March 19 -- The hard part was telling his parents about the trade. Minor league slugging prospect Mike Costanzo got the news last November while eating dinner with four buddies from the Arizona Fall League. Costanzo had been sent to the Houston Astros by his hometown Philadelphia Phillies, the organization he grew up adoring and which had drafted him in 2005.

In shock, Costanzo immediately called his mother and father, both raised in South Philly with such devotion to the local ballclub they had carried Mike, their only son, home from the hospital swaddled in a miniature Phillies jacket.

"Obviously," said Costanzo, now with the Baltimore Orioles, "all the women in my family were crying."

They had been so happy when the Phillies drafted Costanzo from Coastal Carolina University in the second round of the 2005 draft. Now this? The gloom was so heavy that Costanzo's father, Mike Costanzo Sr., spent hundreds of dollars purchasing Astros gear to give to family members for Christmas. He figured they could all laugh, don their Astros jerseys, and move on.

But not long after the orders had been placed, Costanzo got another call. Just over a month after the first trade, he had been sent to the Orioles in the blockbuster Miguel Tejada deal.

"After the second one," Mike Costanzo said, "they started being happy again, because I was getting closer to home."

The good news left two challenges in its wake: exchanging all the Astros stuff for Orioles stuff, and making the Orioles' Opening Day roster. The former proved considerably easier than has the latter. (Costanzo Sr. reported from his home in Glen Mills, Pa., that facilitated the clothing exchange.)

When one considers the obstacles, the second goal seems almost out of reach this spring. Costanzo, 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, hit 27 home runs last summer for Reading, but has never played above Class AA ball. He's facing competition from a handful of veterans, he's jockeying for the very last roster opening and Orioles Manager Dave Trembley seems to be leaning toward dispatching him to the minors.

"He's one guy looking at the 25th spot," Trembley said Wednesday before Baltimore's 12-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. "If he doesn't make the club, I see him hitting in the middle of the lineup in Triple-A Norfolk. I think the key thing for him is to play. . . . I would not keep him here if he's not going to play."

But when one considers the spring Costanzo has had, the fact that Jay Gibbons will be sidelined for the season's first 15 games serving a drug suspension, and the fact that, well, Costanzo is still here, it's hard not to wonder. He has hit .297 with a pair of home runs and a .540 slugging percentage, while playing three positions: first base, third and -- a new one for him -- catcher. He has become known for his pre-dawn arrivals at the ballpark.

And plays like the one he made in the ninth inning of Tuesday's 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins, when he crashed into a metal bleacher outside the Orioles' dugout to make a catch in foul territory, have become commonplace.

"Of course I feel like I'm ready," Costanzo said in the dugout after Tuesday's game. "If I don't feel like I'm ready why should anybody else?"

A mere 15 minutes with Costanzo provide insight into what drives him and how hard he steams forward. He calls his parents, who spent 11 days here watching games earlier in the spring, his "best friends." He is so close to his sister Ashley, 22, that they share an apartment in the offseason. When he was in college, his parents bought a condo in Myrtle Beach so they had a place to stay when they drove down for his games.

The family that taught him to value closeness also empowered him to dream big: His bedroom was all but wallpapered with posters of the Phillies' 1993 pennant-winning team -- Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton and others.

He wants to be on somebody's wall, and the sooner, the better.

"It stinks not playing for the hometown team, but to me, making it to the major leagues, that's my 24-year dream," Costanzo said.

It is, of course, a happily shared dream.

"The day he's called up to the majors, we don't care where it is, we're on a plane," Costanzo Sr. said. "We're going anywhere. We will absolutely not miss that."

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