MINOR LEAGUE NOTEBOOK / CHRIS FOSTER : Relief Role Soothes Croghan's Ego

Andy Croghan has gone from being an emotional cripple to a happy camper in less than a year.

Croghan, who played at Long Beach State and Servite High School, is a feared closer for Albany (N.Y.), the New York Yankees' double-A team. He has 10 saves and a 1.09 earned-run average.

"I'm having a lot of fun again," Croghan said. "I come in, throw one inning and just let loose. You don't have to pace yourself."

A year ago, all he could do was kick himself.

Croghan was downright depressed at midseason. He was pitching--or rather not pitching--for Prince William (Va.), a Yankee Class-A team, and there wasn't a lot to hum about.

In the stands were his parents, Fred and Loretta, and his younger brother, Brian. Croghan had been demoted from the starting rotation, but couldn't bring himself to tell his family about it.

"I didn't know what to do," Croghan said "I wasn't happy with being in the bullpen. I wasn't too happy with my baseball career. I didn't know if I even wanted to play anymore. Nothing was going right."

Croghan hit rock bottom, then bounced. He got into the game and pitched 3 1/3 innings, no runs, no hits.

His family was impressed. More importantly, Yankee Vice President Gene Michael was at the game and he had been dazzled.

"Michael said I had the potential to be a closer and that's what they were going to make me," Croghan said. "Just like that, everything was all right. In one game, I went for being awful to having a future."

It took Croghan about two weeks to adjust to his new role.

Croghan finished with a 5-11 overall record, but 2-1 with 11 saves as a reliever, giving him a new mortgage on life.

"Something just clicked," Croghan said. "My mechanics were good and my velocity got better. I enjoyed baseball again."

Becoming a relief pitcher has brought Croghan full circle. That was his role in high school and his expected role at Long Beach in 1989.

Croghan made six relief appearances as a freshman, then was stuck into the 49er starting rotation. He finished 12-1 with 3.07 ERA. He won two games in the West I Regional, including a 10-3 victory over Arizona State that put the 49ers in the College World Series.

Croghan was 33-7 in three seasons at Long Beach. The Yankees took him in the 16th round.

"Everything was going great," Croghan said.

It didn't last.

Croghan was 5-4 at Class-A Oneonta (N.Y.) in 1991, but had a lofty 5.63 ERA. He was 10-8 at Greensboro (N.C.) with a 4.49 ERA, then the bottom feel out.

He was 3-10 last season when he was banished to the bullpen.

"They didn't tell me what my role would be so I knew I was going to be a mop-up guy," Croghan said. "How could I be happy with that?"

One game later, Croghan was all grins.

"I tell you who was really glad was my family," Croghan said. "They knew I was upset about something. When I told them what Gene Michael had said, they were the happiest people in the world."

The happiest?

"OK, I was," Croghan said.

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Ups and downs: Greg Pirkl was shocked at first when the Seattle Mariners sent him back to Calgary, Canada, their triple-A team.

He had been doing well with the big club. Pirkl was hitting .261 with six home runs and 11 runs batted in while platooning at first base.

"I was surprised when it happened, then I sat down and thought about it," said Pirkl, a graduate of Los Alamitos High School. "They needed an 11th pitcher and I had to be the one to go."

Pirkl was the right-handed bat at first base. Tino Martinez, who hit 17 home runs in 1993, was the left-hander. Third baseman Mike Blowers, a right-hander, then was moved from third to first.

Of the three, Pirkl was the only one with options.

"They knew they couldn't lose me," Pirkl said. "I can't become a free agent and no team can claim me. Sometimes that's the way things work. The only thing I can do is keep a good attitude and try to improve."

Pirkl, The Times player of the year in 1988, hasn't wasted any time. He is hitting .297 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in 18 games at Calgary.

It's a little reminder to the Mariners of his abilities. He hit 21 home runs and had 91 RBIs at Calgary last season.

But he watched as others were called up by the Mariners. When Marc Newfield was promoted, Pirkl turned a little sour.

"When they called Marc up, it was a shock," Pirkl said last season. "I was a little upset. But I just tried to trust whoever was in charge."

Pirkl did get called up after Martinez was injured. His first home run was off Angel pitcher Mark Langston. But Pirkl hit only .174 in four games and was sent back to Calgary.

It was a valuable lesson that keeps him from being too impressed with his numbers this season.

"Yeah, I was hitting OK up there, but I don't think you prove yourself until you do it over an entire season," Pirkl said. "Who knows what would have happened? I could have gone 0 for 50 or 50 for 50. It could have gone either way."

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State of Staton: Dave Staton is trying to recover from his brief stint with the San Diego Padres.

Staton, plagued by injuries and illness throughout his career, couldn't find a cure for his anemic .182 batting average. So it was back to Las Vegas, the Padres' triple-A team.

He is on the mend now. Staton, who played at Tustin, Orange Coast College and Cal State Fullerton, is five for 12 (.417) in six games with Las Vegas.

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