Breakfast, we learned as schoolchildren, is the most important
meal of the day, and Jeff Cirillo takes the maxim seriously. It's
shortly before the Colorado Rockies' new third baseman, acquired
from the Milwaukee Brewers on Dec. 13, is due to report to spring
training in Tucson on Feb. 23, and he and his wife, Nancy, and
their sons, two-year-old Cole and three-month-old Carson, are
spending the morning in a rustic-looking cafe near their
off-season home in Redmond, Wash. Jeff and Nancy are discussing
their upcoming hunt for a house to rent in Denver. "Hopefully we
can get a place like we had in Milwaukee," Jeff says between
forkfuls of French toast and sausage. "We had a two-block walk to
a great breakfast spot. Almost every morning we would get up, put
Cole in the stroller, stretch our legs and get something to eat.
It was a very, very good setup."
It was so good that Cirillo tried to re-create it when the
Brewers were on the road. Instead of sleeping in, ordering room
service and then heading to the ballpark, as so many players do,
Cirillo would bounce out of bed early, ride an exercise bike in
the hotel workout room and then convene one or two teammates for
the morning meal. "For four years it was always me and [second
baseman] Mark Loretta, and last season we added [leftfielder]
Geoff Jenkins; it was the poor man's version of Michael Jordan's
Breakfast Club," says Cirillo, referring to the morning
weightlifting sessions His Airness used to host for teammates at
his house. "I hate sitting around. I like to get my day started."
Even if Cirillo finds a quaint breakfast nook in Colorado and a
Rockies breakfast bunch on the road, there won't be much else
that resembles his days with the Brewers. As the centerpiece of
a four-team, nine-player trade that delivered him and Tampa Bay
Devil Rays righthander Rolando Arrojo to Denver and sent Rockies
third baseman Vinny Castilla to the Devil Rays, Cirillo crossed
baseball's economic spectrum overnight. After six years with
small-payroll Milwaukee, Cirillo, 30, joins a team with a
state-of-the-art stadium, rabid fans and a free-spending owner
who expects his team to stay in the pennant race long past Aug. 1.
It's a sudden shove into the spotlight for the six-year veteran.
Last season, despite leading National League third basemen in
hitting (.326), finishing third best in the league in hits (198)
and playing his usual stellar defense, Cirillo continued to fly
under most fans' radar. Now, however, he is the poster boy for
Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd's retooling of the Rockies,
who finished last in the National League West in '99 with a 72-90
record. O'Dowd has taken what looked like a slo-pitch softball
team and rebuilt it around defense, speed and timely hitting.
Since taking over in September, in fact, O'Dowd has gutted the
Rockies' roster, trading such fan favorites as Castilla and
outfielder Dante Bichette and importing 17 new faces. "We
identified the type of player we wanted to add to our lineup:
someone whose on-base- and slugging-percentage sum was elite for
the position he played [Cirillo's figure, .862, was better than
Castilla's by 53 points] and someone who's consistently a tough
out," says O'Dowd, who has certainly noted Cirillo's .375 average
in 48 career at bats at Coors Field. "Jeff never gives away any
at bats, and that breeds a certain type of hitting on the club in
However, O'Dowd didn't do Cirillo any favors by immediately
giving him Castilla's cleanup spot. Never mind that Cirillo, who
spent most of his career with the Brewers hitting second, reached
his career highs in 1999 with a mere 15 home runs and 88
RBIs--well below Castilla's average of more than 38 homers and 112
RBIs over the past five years. O'Dowd produced the printout of a
computer projection showing that Cirillo would have batted .353,
bashed 25 homers and driven in 115 runs in Coors Field's
hit-happy atmosphere. "When he came out with those numbers, I
thought, Hey, that's cool. I could do that," Cirillo says. "But
since then every interview I've done focuses on that, and it
makes you nuts. You start thinking, If I hit .310, am I failing?
During the season if I think about how many RBIs I have, I'll go
a week without driving in a run."
Even without O'Dowd's proclamations, Cirillo would likely feel
his stomach churning. When he made the big leagues in 1994, three
years after being drafted by the Brewers in the 11th round, he
quickly developed a reputation as one of the game's most intense
players. Often, after going 3 for 4, he would seethe over that
one unsuccessful at bat. "Is he a perfectionist to a fault?" asks
Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner, who guided the Brewers for
eight seasons before being fired last August. "If you're a
psychiatrist and talking in terms of overall mental health, then,
yeah, he is. But in terms of having people on a club who will
drive to succeed, he's the guy you want."
Never did Cirillo's molars grind more than during the 1997
season, the year that, on paper, should have been his most
enjoyable. After hitting .325 in his breakout '96 season, he
started the following year by driving in 52 runs before the
All-Star break. That June he received a four-year, $12.65 million
contract extension, and he was named to the All-Star team. Still,
after most games he would stay up until 3 a.m., surfing the
Internet or playing hearts on his computer and ruminating on what
he had done wrong on the field. "I was miserable," he says. He
finished with a .288 average. It was the only full season after
his rookie year in which he has failed to hit .320 or above.
Cirillo says he has since learned to take it easy, a change he
attributes to the arrival of Cole and Carson. "Being a parent has
relaxed me," he says. "It's a welcome distraction from baseball."
The trade to Colorado, Cirillo hopes, will eliminate something
else that ate him up in Milwaukee: the gnawing feeling that the
Brewers would never have the resources to compete for a playoff
spot. He was further bothered by his relationship with the
Brewers' new general manager, Dean Taylor. Cirillo says that even
as trade rumors swirled, Taylor didn't tell him anything about
his future with the club. Cirillo spent the first part of the
off-season trying to get a handle on his situation through the
Internet, reading out-of-town papers to find out if and where he
might be going. At one point, frustrated by his inability to
communicate with Taylor, he even called Brewers owner Wendy
Selig-Prieb. "She assured me I wasn't going anywhere," Cirillo
says. "A few days later I was traded."
Now the success of O'Dowd's rebuilding project depends largely on
how many National League pitchers Cirillo, regardless of his
breakfast plans, eats for lunch. "I think Jeff will lead the
league in hitting with the Rockies," says Garner. "He's a
legitimate .360 hitter in Colorado."
Not to put any pressure on him.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH FRISHMAN Hackin' away Cirillo honed his stroke last week near his off-season home in Washington.