Ex-Mariner Cirillo is Walla Walla Sweets' big-league connection

And after two forgettable seasons with the Mariners, he looks forward to a better Washington state experience in Walla Walla.



Former Major Leaguer Jeff Cirillo, who played two seasons with the Mariners, mimics batting poses while talking to Walla Walla Community College baseball players earlier this week at the school's indoor hitting facility. Cirillo was in town to help promote the Walla Walla Sweets, the West Coast League expansion franchise that will begin play next summer at Borleske Stadium. Cirillo, who retired following the 2007 season and lives in Bellevue, is one of the Sweets' owners.

WALLA WALLA — Jeff Cirillo can only hope that his second baseball venture in the Evergreen State is more fruitful than his first.

Cirillo, who retired following the 2007 season after 14 years in the Major Leagues, was in Walla Walla this week representing the ownership group of the Walla Walla Sweets, the city’s new wood-bat baseball team that will begin play as an expansion member of the West Coast League in June.

Cirillo, who was a third baseman throughout most of his playing career, figures to be one of the primary faces of the organization due to his celebrity status as a retired big leaguer.

While in Walla Walla, he visited the Whitman College and Walla Walla Community College campuses and addressed both schools’ baseball squads. Communicating with college baseball talent is one of Cirillo’s areas of responsibility in formulating the Sweets’ 2010 roster.

And once that roster is complete, Cirillo, who lives in Bellevue, will be back to share his baseball expertise with Sweets players who will doubtless represent many parts of the country.

"If I was a college baseball player, especially one who aspires to one day play in the big leagues, I would want to know what Jeff Cirillo has to say," Sweets general manager Zachary Fraser said.

The University of Southern California product certainly has the credentials.

After being selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round of the 1991 June draft, Cirillo made his Major League debut in 1994 and spent his first six season in Milwaukee where he enjoyed some of his best years. He hit .325 with 15 home runs and 83 runs batted in 1996, batted .321 with 14 homers and 68 ribbies in 1998 and then hit .326 with 15 home runs and 88 RBIs in 1999.

Cirillo maintained that pace after being traded to the Colorado Rockies.

He had his most productive big league season in 2000, batting .326 with 11 home runs and career-highs of 115 RBIs and 111 runs scored. The following year he hit .313 with a career-best 17 home runs and 83 runs knocked in.

And then he was traded to the Seattle Mariners. It appeared to be good career move since his wife, Nancy, was a Northwest native and the Cirillos had made Seattle their off-season home.

But it didn’t work out.

His average skidded to .249 in 2002 when he his just six homers and drove in 64 runs. In 87 games in 2003, he batted .205 with two home runs and 23 RBIs.

"I knew coming in that (Safeco Field) was not a great place to hit," Cirillo recalled of his first Washington state baseball experience. "For a right-handed hitter, it definitely was not great. It was not the best experience.

"But it was a learning experience, and the fans were great. I just wish it could have been better."

Perhaps most disappointing of all was that the Mariners were very good at that time. Just not good enough.

With players like Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, Jon Olerud, Dan Wilson and Mike Cameron still on the roster, the M’s won 90 games both seasons Cirillo was in Seattle. And they missed the playoffs both years.

"It was bizarre," Cirillo recalled. "Very hard to explain."

Cirillo was traded again prior to the 2004 season, this time to the San Diego Padres. He was then sent back to Milwaukee for two seasons where he rediscovered his stroke, batting .281 in 185 at-bats in 2005 and .319 the following season when he played in 112 games.

He split the 2007 campaign, his last, between the Minnesota Twins and the Arizona Diamondbacks. And when neither the Diamondbacks nor the Brewers made him a contract offer in 2008, he retired.

"Those were the only two teams I was interested in," Cirillo said. "And they were right-hand dominate teams. Those positions were covered."

And like most ex-big league ballplayers, the transition wasn’t easy.

"I still miss it," he said. "The daily routine. The camaraderie."

Coaching his three sons — Cole, who is 11, 10-year-old Carson and Connor, 8 — in youth leagues has helped fill the void.

"With Cole, he is sport of choice," Cirillo said. "Whatever sport is in season, he plays. Carson plays golf, not baseball, and he’s really looking forward to playing the Walla Walla Country Club. And Connor, he really loves baseball."

Cirillo is also a scout for the Diamondbacks and spends time each summer with the Yakima Bears, Arizona’s short-season affiliate in the Northwest League.

And now there’s the Sweets.

"For me, it’s kind of a way of giving back and also a way to be involved," Cirillo said. "And I think it’s cool to own a baseball team, to see it from its inception, what goes into it. It’s a lot more than just what goes on on the field.

"The product is the product, but learning about branding, connections to the city, host families, corporate sponsorships, season tickets ... this is something new."

And it could lead to further involvement in the future, he said.

"We’ll have to see once we get the blueprint," he said. "Right now this is my first go."

In the meantime, he’s eager to spend time with the Sweets players and help them in all ways possible. Cirillo plans to spend at least one five-game home series with the team and one five-game road series.

"I’m going to be around," he said. "There are a lot of facets of the game we can work on. I’ve played this game for so long that, other than breaking down a catcher, I can help pretty much anywhere they need me."


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