When Rich Aurilia steps out of the dugout, every Giants fan knows what his walk-up music is.
That one clip from the Beastie Boys is indicative of Aurilia’s career, one that may soon be coming to a close.
Aurilia went on the disabled list again before Wednesday’s game, diagnosed with “ankle tendinitis.”
This marked the second time in less than two weeks that the San Francisco Giants put their veteran infielder on the DL with arguably a phantom ailment, putting him on the shelf on July 21 with a “big toe infection.”
If it were anyone else on the Giants roster, like a Dave Roberts or Keiichi Yabu, he would have been designated for assignment and released. But Brian Sabean, and the rest of the Giants organization, just can’t let that happen.
Aurilia is the final link to the Giants of the 1990s, the positive link outside the BALCO scandal and the bad blood between the team and former second baseman Jeff Kent and, of course, Barry Bonds.
Rich Aurilia, born in Brooklyn and drafted by the Rangers in 1992, was acquired by the Giants in 1994 along with Desi Wilson for John Burkett.
He made his major league debut the next year in September as a defensive replacement against the Montreal Expos. In 1996, the Giants saw fit to make him their everyday shortstop after trading starter Royce Clayton to St. Louis during the Winter Meetings.
The rest is history. Aurilia quickly became a fan favorite in San Francisco, playing great defense at short and becoming regarded as the epitome of a “hustle” type of ballplayer.
Through the Sabean-Bonds years of building around the slugger with experienced veterans, Aurilia brought that youthful yet mature hustle to his game, running out grounders when other guys would rather Cadillac it out. He would square around to bunt when the defense was playing back.
He got angry too. There was nothing better than watching a pitcher brush back Aurilia and sit him in the dirt, because it seemed every time he would get up, adjust his helmet, brush himself off, and then rip the next pitch to the wall or in the gap.
But he also was one of the friendliest and most approachable Giants once he was out of uniform. On a team that featured Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, both of which played up a love-hate relationship with the media, Aurilia was a constant, having regular segments on local radio shows, showing up at Giants luncheons, and generally just showing that the hard-nosed player on the field can be accessible off the field.
When you think of the last 50 years in San Francisco, there aren’t many other names (aside from Omar Vizquel’s three-year stint) that stand out at the shortstop position. When making the all-time Giants roster, I’d expect to see Aurilia up there with Alvin Dark (of the '50s) and George Davis (of the 1910s) for shortstop.
Statistically, Aurilia had his best days in the early millennium, right when the Giants moved to Pac Bell Park. He hit second in that lineup, helping set the table for Bonds, Kent, and J.T. Snow, the 3-4-5 team for San Francisco at the time.
In 1999 and 2000, he hit .276, with 20-plus home runs both years. He also pounded out almost 160 RBI out of the second spot in the order and led into one of the most prolific and underappreciated seasons in Giants history.
2001 belonged to Barry Bonds. From start to finish, it belonged to the home run chase, and that was it. That team rode Bonds to a 90-72 record and finished second in the West to Arizona, who ended up winning the World Series. He led the league in homers, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and won the first of four consecutive MVP awards.
But hidden in that 2001 season was Rich Aurilia. Once again out of the second spot in the lineup for most of the year, Aurilia launched 37 home runs. That means he and Bonds combined to hit 110 homers between them. Add in Jeff Kent’s 22, and those three had 30 more home runs than the Giants did in 2008.
For Bonds, that season was special. Kent was just coming off an MVP season, and 20-plus homers were expected. But for Aurilia, the 37 dingers were a completely unexpected outburst. What’s more, he also led the league in hits (206), knocked in a career-high 97 runs, and also had a career-high .324 average.
An All-Star selection and a Silver Slugger award topped off that career year for Aurilia, but he was never truly recognized for what he did. He played another two years for the Giants, putting up respectable numbers, before being granted free agency in October of 2003.
The Giants struggled through that year, platooning Deivi Cruz and Neifi Perez at shortstop, and Aurilia signed a deal with the Seattle Mariners. Later in the year he was traded to the San Diego Padres, playing a utility role around the infield.
He then spent 2005 and 2006 with the Cincinnati Reds, once again playing around the infield, primarily on the corners. But every time he came to San Francisco, he was never booed, never jeered, and always embraced.
When the news broke about him re-signing with the Giants to provide infield depth in December 2006, it was like the return of a prodigal son. A stiff neck sidelined him for more than 50 games, but he was still productive as their primary first baseman.
His versatility has kept him around the team, and his shortstop background translated well to first base and third base, in terms of the instincts. His willingness to switch positions also allowed him to stick, and after he was moved from his natural position of shortstop, he made it his goal to make wherever he played look just as natural.
Last year marked the return of a healthy Aurilia, and he showed a renewed energy and grit that hearkened back to his earlier days with the team. He batted a solid .283, hitting lefties especially well (.321). He split time between third and first and played in 140 games.
A couple years older, and much more the grizzled veteran, Aurilia has provided Bruce Bochy with an experienced bat that can work the count and continues to lead in the clubhouse. His injury limited his effectiveness in 2007, but much like this year, his time in the big leagues has provided him with the knowledge that begs to be imparted to younger players.
He’s a gamer and would do anything if it meant that it would make his team better. That’s why he has gone on the disabled list again this year. His struggles at the plate have often put him as the odd man out in the infield, but the Giants front office is reluctant to cut him loose.
Aurilia’s strong history with the team (he’s the longest tenured Giant outside of Sabean himself and Ron Wotus) and his genuine clubhouse contribution make him almost indispensable. He has also expressed the desire to stay with this team as they make the postseason push it looks like they are capable of.
His experiences with the Giants range from highs (1997, 2002) to lows (2007) and everything in between, and he can see that this might be a final chance to be part of something great in San Francisco.
San Jose Mercury News beat writer Andrew Baggarly stated that Aurilia is even willing to stay on the DL until the rosters expand in September, making him basically a role player who is only along for moral support.
That kind of commitment is rare these days, and his long tenure makes it an especially hard decision for the front office. Any other team would have no problems cutting a veteran with team history (see Braves and Tom Glavine/John Smoltz), but not the Giants, and not Rich Aurilia. After that first time cutting him, Sabean just doesn't have the heart to do it again.
Aurilia has a future with this organization. He could either go the Mark Gardner route and become a coach or take the J.T. Snow route and coach as well as head into the broadcast booth. His personality makes him perfect for TV or radio, and the Giants recognize his value and devotion to the organization.
If the Giants decide to keep him on in some capacity, they will be making the right decision. His playing days may be over, but he still has a lot to offer.
Aurilia will always have a place in the hearts of Giants fans, and whatever he goes on to do, the city of San Francisco will always support him. His contributions to all of the Giants teams he has played on, as well as off the field contributions, like his family’s generosity with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, will bring warm memories to all who he comes into contact with.
His time may be over playing for the Giants, but Rich, I hope you don’t decide to head back to Brooklyn. San Francisco will always be your town.