Baseball star takes big step toward big leagues

Not too many folks can say they sandwiched their high-school graduation between two trips to Florida, all within five days.

Even fewer can say they became near-millionaires during that time.

The craziness for Chris Culver began on the night of June 7 as he was watching a telecast of the Major League Baseball draft, hoping he would hear his name announced in the first round. At 9:55 p.m. — Culver remembers the exact minute — he received a call from Damon Oppenheimer, vice president of amateur scouting for the New York Yankees.

"He asked how my day was going, and if I was watching the draft," Culver recalled.

Then Oppenheimer informed Culver that the Yankees, his favorite major-league club, were about to pick him 32nd as the first round’s final choice.

"I broke down in tears," Culver said. "It was probably the best moment of my life. I worked so hard to get where I am now."

Thus Culver was vaulted into a new chapter of his life that could very well end with a major-league career. His selection set off a flurry of activity: on June 16, he traveled with his mother, Gladys Lopez, to the Yankees’ player development complex in Tampa, Fla., to get a team physical and agree to a signing bonus for a reported $940,000. On June 20, he was back home to take part in Irondequoit’s commencement. The very next morning it was back to Florida to start playing for Yankees’ Tampa affiliate in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, which conducts a 60-game schedule from late June to late August.

Culver, who will turn 18 on Aug. 26, stands 6 feet tall and weighs 172 pounds. His nickname, Cito, was given to him by his grandmother and means "Junior." His maternal grandparents were born in Puerto Rico.

It’s rare for a first-round pick to come out of the northeastern United States, where the weather only allows for baseball conditions part of the year. In fact, Culver is only the second first-rounder ever from the Rochester area; the other was Pittsford Sutherland’s Mike Jones by the Kansas City Royals in 1977.

He enjoyed a spectacular senior season at Irondequoit, compiling a .561 batting average. Twenty-four of his 37 hits were for extra bases, including nine home runs. Culver led the Eagles to the Monroe County Division I title and a final record of 16-6.

Culver is an adept switch-hitter. For further evidence of his versatility, consider that he’s a star shortstop but also posted a 3-0 record as a pitcher in 2010 thanks to a blazing fastball.

Shortstop is where the Yankees plan to develop Culver, bringing inevitable comparisons between him and his hero, future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, who has won five World Series in 14 full seasons with the Yankees. However, Culver said he’d rather not be labeled as Jeter’s heir apparent.

"I never look it at as replacing Derek Jeter, because nobody can replace Derek Jeter. I just hope I can end up learning from him," Culver said, adding that it would be the culmination of a lifelong dream simply to meet Jeter.

Another dream come true would be to progress through the minor leagues and play for the Yankees, who are the defending World Series champions and he most successful franchise in major-league baseball history.

"I knew they were interested because they came to a lot of my games, but I just didn’t know it was at that level," Culver said. "It means everything to me. The Yankees have been my favorite team ever since I was little."

In April Culver agreed to a full scholarship to the University of Maryland, but he opted out of that agreement after getting drafted so high.

"Going into (draft) night I knew I was in a win-win situation. Maryland is a great school and I love the coaches there," he said.

Culver acknowledged that his recent success has come on the heels of considerable hardship. His father is in prison for deliberately setting the family house on fire in 2008 — a story line that has surfaced in several news reports but one that Culver would rather not delve into.

"I just try to look forward and not look behind," he remarked. "It’s been a roller coaster, and right now I’m enjoying the ride."

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