Before he was the Hack Man of Pac Bell Park, before he became San Francisco's gentlest Giant, before he turned as golden as a certain Bay Area bridge, Rich Aurilia was the Phantom of the Metropolitan Opera. To supplement his meager wages in the minors seven years ago, the Brooklyn-born shortstop spent an off-season in Manhattan as a stagehand at the Met. Three nights a week he lugged scenery and struck sets, haunting the famous opera hall until the squeak of dawn. While punching in for the late shift, he would sometimes catch the last act of I Pagliacci or La Traviata. "It seemed everybody in the theater knew what was going on but me," Aurilia recalls. "I had no clue."
Asked to explain his bravissimo performance as a batsman this year—through Sunday he ranked fifth in the National League in average (.346), first in hits (123) and eighth in doubles (24)—the 29-year-old Aurilia is equally clueless. "I really don't know," he says, lifting a bemused eyebrow. "I just hope it lasts a whole season."
After a little more than half the season Aurilia has a shot at becoming the first Giant to win a batting title since Willie Mays in 1954 and the first National League shortstop to win one since Dick Groat of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960. "He has good bat control, and he's not afraid to hit the ball [anywhere] in the count," says San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who has won eight National League batting crowns. "He [used to] wear us out, but then he'd play somebody else and go 1 for 8. This year he's hitting everybody."
Everyone but Aurilia seems to have a theory about why the average of this career .270 hitter is suddenly as lusty as Carmen. "If you asked five different people," he says, "you'd get five different answers."
So we asked five people, and we got these five answers:
?It's his slot in the batting order, insists Florida Marlins pitcher Chuck Smith. Until this season Aurilia mostly batted seventh, which meant his job was to clean the table, not set it. Following a 22-homer, 80-RBI season in 1999, he again led all National League shortstops with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs last year. That made Aurilia the senior circuit's first shortstop since Ernie Banks in 1960 and '61 to have back-to-back 20-homer seasons. Ever since spring training, however, manager Dusty Baker has been penciling him in as the number 2 hitter, ahead of Barry Bonds. Smith believes the prospect of facing the homer-binging Bonds has caused pitchers to feed Aurilia a steady diet of fat heaters. "You're not going to pitch him as carefully when you've got somebody like Barry up next," says Smith.
?It's his ability to hit to all fields, insists Baker. Strictly a pull hitter in previous seasons, the righthanded-hitting Aurilia has been slapping the ball the opposite way, spraying it from foul line to foul line. He has accomplished this by shortening a stroke that was as long and looping as a Jerry Garcia solo. "Look at the guys who have won batting titles—the George Bretts, Tony Gwynns, Rod Carews and Pete Roses," Baker says. "Those guys were perennially on top because they used the whole field. Now you see Richie hitting triples into right center and singles to left, up the middle and down the lines."
?It's his patience at the plate, insists Giants first base coach Ryan Thompson. "After five full years in the league Richie has learned to treat every at bat like it was his last," he says. "For the first time, he's not afraid to go deep in the count." Aurilia has learned to lay off not only sliders that are balls but also sliders that are strikes. Impatient and impetuous, he had a habit of hacking at the first acceptable pitch he saw. By working the count, he has cut down on his strikeouts—from one every 6.6 at bats over the last three years to one every 9.2 this year. "I realized they give you three strikes, and you don't have to swing at the first one," he says. "I used to think the first strike might be the best I'd be thrown. Now I wait for a pitch I can drive."
?It's his maturity, insists Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper. In the past, one of the joys of watching Aurilia was to see how far he'd fling his helmet after making an out. "Richie led the league in helmet tossing," Kuiper says. "He'd go 0 for 4 and throw four helmets." From their redoubt on the mound, pitchers would watch Aurilia snap and knew they had a psychological edge on him. This year he hasn't flipped his lid once. "It was too Little League," Aurilia says. Kuiper thinks Aurilia has become a player who can mask his on-field emotions and remain focused. "As you get older," says Aurilia with a small shrug, "you realize you can't get a hit every at bat or every game." Part of that equanimity may come from the fact that his wife, Raquel, is now in the seventh month of pregnancy. Says second baseman Jeff Kent, "There's nothing like having a baby to mature a man and give him perspective."
?It's his approach, insists Kent. "Rich comes to the plate knowing what he wants to do," he says. "He has a game plan and, more often than not, follows it." To date, Aurilia's plan has worked almost 35% of the time. "Thirty-five percent will get you fired in a nine-to-five job," says Kent. "In baseball, it gets you into the Hall of Fame."