Leader Blues

Saturday, September 27, 2008

SPORTS>>Not done yet

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

All in all, Terry Tiffee would rather be hitting .226 in the big leagues than . 378 in the minors.
He would know. He’s done both.

The former Sylvan Hills baseball star got a shot with the Minnesota Twins over a three-year span that ended in 2006, then was called up ever so briefly with the Los Angeles Dodgers in June of this year.

But other than four official at bats during that 3-week stint with the Dodgers, Tiffee has spent the better part of the past three seasons laboring in the minors.

And yet, the disappointment of playing AAA ball, of taking buses instead of planes and of staying in Holiday Inns instead of Marriotts, may have proved to be worth it.

Tiffee blistered the ball this summer for the Dodgers’ AAA Las Vegas 51s, winning the Pacific Coast League batting title and earning the notice of U.S. Olympic baseball coach Davey Johnson in the process.

From a pool of 60 players originally selected, Tiffee not only survived the final cut to make the 25-man roster that traveled to Beijing for the Olympic Games last month, he was a mainstay on the bronze medal American team. Tiffee, in fact, led the U.S. team in at-bats, hits (12) and doubles (6). His .324 batting average was second among the Americans.

The first baseman/third baseman also handled 80 chances in the field without an error.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” Tiffee said shortly before talking to a group of young pupils at Cato Elementary in Gravel

Ridge on Monday. “I would say it was right up there with playing in the big leagues.”

For Tiffee’s mother, Sherry, a teacher at Cato Elementary, it may have been an even bigger deal.

“Its just unbelievable,” she said. “It’s such a major honor. Terry’s so nonchalant about it. He told my husband at the (AAA) All-Star Game that he might be picked for the Olympics. He’s been so low-key about everything throughout his career.”

At 29, Tiffee might have been considered too old to participate in the Olympics. But he said Johnson was looking to fill the position roles on the roster with more veteran players to counteract the veteran competition in Beijing.

The USA team reached the semifinals before losing to Cuba for the second time. They rebounded to beat Japan and take home the bronze medal.

The thrill of being an integral part of an Olympic-medal winning baseball team behind him, Tiffee will now once again turn his focus to finding steady work in the major leagues. His age works against him, of course, but that PCL batting title — he hit .378 with nine home runs and 39 doubles in just 93 games — has not only boosted his confidence but elevated his prospects as well.

“It was my best year hitting overall so I’ll have some teams interested, no doubt,” said Tiffee, who will become a minor league free agent in October. “But a lot of teams, when you get my age, they just want you for Triple A. And I’m wanting to get back in the big leagues.”

Tiffee spent two years at Pratt (Kan.) Community College after graduating from Sylvan Hills, and had just signed a letter of intent to play at LSU when the Twins drafted him in the 26th round in 1999. He spent his first two seasons at Quad Cities, the Twins Class A affiliate, before moving up to Advanced A Fort Myers in 2002. There, he hit .281 with eight home runs.

Tiffee advanced to AA New Britain the following season, belting 14 home runs, driving in 93 and compiling a .315 batting average.

Those New Britain numbers earned him a spot on the Twins’ roster late in the 2004 season, where he saw limited action but made a splash in his third game when he belted a walk-off home run against the Kansas City Royals.

“It was great,” Tiffee said of his first major league home run, exhibiting the nonchalance his mother says has always characterized his demeanor. “I was playing every day then and had played every day in AAA and it was going pretty well.”

But that playing every day would prove to be an anomaly in Tiffee’s big league career. He hit .273 in 2004 in 44 at bats. But while cracking the starting lineup only occasionally and pinch hitting the rest of the time in 2005, Tiffee’s hit only .207 with 15 RBI in 150 at bats. His plate appearances dropped all the way back to 45 in 2006, when he hit .244.

His run with the Twins ended after that season.

“I could see the writing on the wall,” Tiffee said. “I wasn’t really getting a shot at the big league level and it was just time to move on and get a shot with someone else.”

Tiffee moved on but never got the shot. Baltimore signed him in 2007, but he never made it past the minors with the Orioles.

Finally, the Dodgers signed Tiffee in the winter of 2007.

“It’s frustrating,” Tiffee said of not being able to get a consistent chance in the majors. “But it’s just the way it is. You play two or three times a week or you pinch hit. It’s a tough situation. Being a young player, I wasn’t used to that role. And when they did put me in there on back-to-back days, I was already under water with my average and mentally, I was already beaten.”

Tiffee’s outstanding season at Las Vegas has him feeling a lot more confident these days. He says he changed his stance and his approach at the plate, focusing on just making solid contact and hitting line drives.

“I’m trying not to worry about anything else,” said Tiffee, who describes himself as more of a line drive hitter with occasional power. “Fifteen home runs is probably about max for me. I try to hit 30 to 50 doubles a year, 100 ribbies and hit at least .300.

Those are my goals.”

The dream remains alive, but Tiffee, who has a wife and three young children, recognizes he can’t chase it forever. The plan is to try to get another shot with a major league team or, barring that, heading to Japan where good ball players who haven’t caught on in the bigs in the U.S. can make a much better living than in the minor leagues in the states.

Tiffee, his wife Kelli, who he met while playing fall ball in Liberal, Kan., 3-year-old daughter McKinley, and twin 2-year-old sons Talan and Brennan, live in North Little Rock. When he is traveling during the season, Kelli and the kids will sometimes spend time with her parents in Liberal.

Whatever happens, Tiffee seems content with where he’s at and whatever the future may hold.

“I definitely think I can still play at (the major league) level,” he insists. “I’d like to go with anybody that’s going to give me a chance. It’s still fun, definitely a good way to make a living.

“But it’s getting to the point where, either you get back to the big leagues, or you stay in the minors and make fairly good money. It’s just a matter of whether you want to do that. I’m not planning on giving it up right now, but I don’t see myself doing this past another three or four years if I don’t get back in the big leagues.”