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PRO BASEBALL / JEFF WONG : Hankins Does It His Way in Winnipeg

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For the first time in a long while, baseball is fun for Mike Hankins.

The Simi Valley High and UCLA graduate, now with the Winnipeg Goldeyes, is batting .354, second best in the independent Northern League, and has started all 45 games at shortstop this season.

Hankins, 26, was granted his release from the New York Yankees’ organization after he was told in spring training he would be sent to double-A Albany in the Eastern League.

It would have been his second consecutive season at Albany, for which he was a part-time player in 1993.

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“I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said from a hotel room in Sioux Falls, S.D. “They just had their bonus babies and their favorites. I wasn’t one of them, and when I saw I was going back down again I asked for my release.”

Hankins, a minor league veteran, knew what he was getting into when he signed with the Yankees in 1990. His father, Terry, spent five years in the Atlanta Braves’ farm system (1968-72).

“The minor leagues are rough,” Terry said. “I built Mike up for it. There’s no glamour until you get to the big leagues.”

Maybe that’s why Hankins’ younger brother, Ryan, turned down an offer from the Philadelphia Phillies and will play at Nevada Las Vegas next season.

Ryan was selected in the 33rd round by the Phillies after batting .483 with nine home runs and 27 runs batted in for Simi Valley High. He was selected the 1994 Ventura County player of the year by The Times.

Meanwhile, Mike seemed stuck in the New York organization. He enjoyed his best year in 1991 with Class-A Prince William, batting .263 with 37 RBIs, but a second year at double-A seemed daunting, especially if he wasn’t assured of starting.

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Leaving a big-league organization for the uncertainty of life with an independent team seems like a gamble, but Hankins says the guaranteed playing time is worth the risk.

“I think I’ve had some good years,” Hankins said. “It’s a little different (in Winnipeg). I’m having a lot more fun, and having fun has helped me play better.”

Maybe another organization will notice, or so Hankins hopes.

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Fast fact: One player battling Hankins for the Northern League batting title is familiar to Los Angeles fans: Pedro Guerrero. The former Dodger is playing for the Sioux Falls Canaries, batting .343 (sixth in the league) with five home runs and 33 RBIs (fourth).

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Face in the crowd: Keith Smith of Newbury Park might be the leading high school passer in state history, but at Bristol, Va., in the rookie-level Appalachian League, he is just another prospect trying to get noticed.

Smith had no trouble attracting attention during his high school career. He threw for 9,971 yards in his football career and hit .352 with three home runs and 19 stolen bases to lead Newbury Park to the Marmonte League title last season.

He turned down a football scholarship at Arizona after being drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the fifth round. The 6-foot shortstop signed for $200,000 on June 18.

“It’s going pretty good,” he said from Bristol. “I’m slowly starting to get used to it. The pitching out here is pretty good. I’ve never seen some fastballs like the ones out here. It’s just crazy.”

Smith has struggled in the 22 games he has played, batting .210 with eight RBIs in 76 at-bats. He has one hit in his last 18 at-bats.

“I’ve just accepted that it was going to be tough,” he said. “I haven’t played this game for a while. A lot of these guys are 21, 22 years old and I just turned 18.”

Things could definitely be better for Smith, not the least of which is the weather.

“If it was raining in California the way it was here, we would have been rained out for three days,” he said. “But here, we just played. It just clears up.”

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Just his luck: After waiting for what seemed like an eternity to be promoted to the San Francisco Giants’ Phoenix affiliate in the triple-A Pacific Coast League, former Ventura College standout Brent Cookson has had to wait just a bit longer to get a chance to really play.

Cookson, 24, was promoted to Phoenix on June 20 after finishing the first half of the season with double-A Shreveport, but the outfielder aggravated an injury to his right hand and was put on the disabled list Tuesday.

His first stint on the disabled list was July 2-14 after he injured his right hand while batting against Las Vegas on July 1.

“I have some ligament damage but it’s nothing serious,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where all you can do for it is give it a little rest.”

Cookson has played 14 games at Phoenix, batting .279 with one home run and six RBIs in 43 at-bats. He should be able to play again by early August.

“I’m right where I want to be right now,” he said. “I know I can do well up here. I’m anxious to show everybody what I can do.”

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In today, out tomorrow: Former USC catcher and Notre Dame High graduate Bobby Hughes was moved back to Class-A Stockton in the California League on July 20 after getting called up to the Milwaukee Brewers’ double-A affiliate at El Paso on July 6. Hughes was filling in for injured El Paso catcher Mike Stefanski.

When Stefanski returned to the lineup, Hughes was demoted. Hughes is batting .266 with 11 home runs and 52 RBIs.

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Best of the minors: The most recent issue of Baseball America highlighted the best minor league prospects in every class and league according to skills (best batting prospect, best defensive first baseman, best breaking pitch, etc.) in a section called “Tools of the Trade.” Nine area players were mentioned.

Triple-A: Chatsworth High graduate Rich Aude was named the American Assn.’s best defensive first baseman. But he’s not too shabby offensively, batting .299 with 14 home runs and 62 RBIs for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ affiliate at Buffalo.

Pittsburgh traded first baseman Brian Hunter to the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday, which might clear the way for Aude to make it to the big leagues.

In the International League, Tim Laker (Simi Valley, Oxnard College), was named best defensive catcher. In 79 games, he has batted .308 with six home runs and 41 RBIs.

Rochester’s Damon Buford (Birmingham) was selected the International League’s best defensive outfielder. In 75 games, the former USC standout is batting .265 with 12 home runs, 43 RBIs and 24 stolen bases.

The list must have merit. Jeff Cirillo and Andrew Lorraine are now in the big leagues.

Cirillo (Providence), now playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, was selected best fielding third baseman in the American Assn.

Lorraine (Hart) was best pitching prospect in the Pacific Coast League. He is now in the starting rotation for the Angels and was the losing pitcher Thursday when Kenny Rogers of Texas pitched a perfect game.

Double-A: Joe Rosselli (Alemany) was chosen the best pitching prospect in Texas League. At Shreveport, he was 7-2 with a 1.89 earned-run average in 14 starts. In 90 2/3 innings, he gave up 67 hits and 17 walks while striking out 60.

Rosselli since has been promoted to the San Francisco Giants’ affiliate at Phoenix in the triple-A Pacific Coast League. In six starts, he is 1-3 with a 4.26 ERA.

Mark Loretta (St. Francis), who is playing for the El Paso Diablos, was chosen the Texas League’s best defensive shortstop before he was promoted to triple-A New Orleans in the American Assn. on July 11.

With New Orleans, he is batting .213 with five RBIs in 13 games. At El Paso, he batted .315 with 38 RBIs in 77 games.

Class-A: Scott Richardson (Cal State Northridge) was named best baserunner in the California League. Richardson is batting .268 with 37 stolen bases in 95 games.

Ray Ordonez, a Cuban defector who lives in Sylmar, was selected best defensive shortstop in the Florida State League while he was with the St. Lucie Ports.

Ordonez is now with double-A Binghamton in the Eastern League. At St. Lucie, he batted .309 with two home runs and 40 RBIs in 79 games. With Binghamton, he is batting .250 with eight RBIs in 13 games.

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Short hops: Garret Anderson (Kennedy) had two hits in his major league debut with the Angels on Wednesday after he was promoted from triple-A Vancouver. . . .

Jeremy Hernandez (Poly, Cal State Northridge), who underwent surgery June 6 for a herniated disk in his neck, will not begin throwing again until next spring.

The Florida Marlins’ reliever had a 2.70 ERA with nine saves while filling in for the injured Bryan Harvey.

Hernandez is wearing a neck brace and said his toughest task is trying to drive a car in reverse.

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