Aurilia, who was voted the starting shortstop in last week's All-Star Game, is making San Franciscans forget all the other guys who have played short in that city. That's not hard, considering the position has been home to more itinerants than a Polk Street flophouse. Since Daryl (Big Dee) Spencer first anchored the infield in 1958, shortstop has been manned by such immortals as Eddie Bressoud, Jose Pagan, Tito Fuentes, Hal Lanier and Jose Uribe.
Until now Aurilia has been only slightly less anonymous. "There's a big piece of me that likes that," he says with a wry smile. "I can go about my business without anybody bothering me. But a small piece of me feels good to be recognized. It's bound to happen if you have a decent amount of success." He can be painfully modest. Informed that Padres skipper Bruce Bochy calls Aurilia the best overall shortstop in the league, he practically averts his eyes in embarrassment.
The soft-spoken Aurilia may have the most expressive body language in baseball. "He can argue loudly with an umpire without saying a word," says Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow. Unhappy with a call, Aurilia will let his shoulders slump, kick the dirt and whip his head from side to side.
Aurilia is not only quietly demonstrative but also quietly generous. When Hall of Famer Willie Stargell died during spring training, Aurilia bought Pops's old teammate, Giants hitting instructor Gene Clines, a round-trip plane ticket from the Giants' camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., to the funeral in Wilmington, N.C. "Rich said, 'Don't argue—you've got to be there, and I'm making sure you are,' " Clines says. "In today's game, that attitude's a rarity."
San Francisco leftfielder Shawon Dunston describes Aurilia as a "bad story because he's a good person. You don't hear about him staying out until five in the morning before a game." Yet when Aurilia steps up to the plate at Pac Bell, he is often serenaded by the strangled strains of the Beastie Boys' No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn. "Any time we need an interpreter for The Sopranos, we call Rich," cracks Kuiper.
The son of a nurse, Lorraine, and a stockroom worker, Rich, Aurilia grew up in an Italian enclave of the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, home to one of the country's oldest cemeteries. His youth was misspent playing stickball on the streets. "I can't even tell you how much money my parents must have spent replacing windows," he says. The one neighborhood home Aurilia never hit-and-run from belonged to mafia don Carlo Gambino. "If I had broken his window," Aurilia says, "I would have apologized."
Because of his strong arm Aurilia was turned into a shortstop at 15 by his coach at Xaverian High, Ed Murach. "At that age, if you're a guy who can catch grounders and throw across the infield on a consistent basis, that's a good thing," Aurilia says. "I guess I was one of those guys." He still is. Although he's so slow that teammates jokingly call him Speedy, Aurilia positions himself well and catches everything he can get to.
Drafted out of St. John's in the 24th round in 1992 by the Texas Rangers, Aurilia was handed a $5,000 signing bonus and a plane ticket to Butte, Mont., where he began his pro career in the rookie Pioneer League. He hit well at Butte (.337) and the next season at Charlotte (.309) in the Class A Florida State League, but he sputtered at Double A Tulsa (.234) in '94. "I didn't know how to deal with failure," he says. The Rangers dealt with it on Christmas Eve of that year, swapping him to San Francisco. Aurilia was heartbroken. "I was thinking, Why doesn't Texas want me?" he says. "I should have thought, Some other team wants me more."
For four seasons he quietly waited his turn, in Triple A Phoenix or in San Francisco, while the Giants brought in a conga line of seasoned shortstops to play in front of or with him: Dunston, Jose Vizcaino, Rey Sanchez. Not until 1999 did Aurilia win the job outright. "Maybe the Giants couldn't get anybody else," he muses. "Maybe that's why they gave me the job."
They almost took it back. Last year, with Aurilia mired in an early-season slump, the buzz was that he might be traded to the New York Mets. Encouraged by those 22 homers in '99, he had been trying to park every pitch in the bleachers. "Next thing I knew," he says, "I was hitting .230 in June." He worked his way out of his funk by "just going out and having fun," he says, and he ended up hitting .282 in June and .363 in July to raise his average to .271 by the end of the season. Typically, Aurilia says he's prouder of having dug himself out of that slump of 2000 than of having put up the gaudy numbers of 2001.