Cunningham aims for big league berth |

Cunningham aims for big league berth

Dale Shrull, Rifle Citizen Telegram

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Deep in the Arizona desert, the dream lives on. It’s the dream that stirs in anyone who’s ever pulled on a glove or swung as hard as they can at a fastball.

For Marco Cunningham, the dream lives on.

Looking fit, chiseled and comfortable in his No. 62 Kansas City Royals uniform, the 1996 Rifle High School graduate has been born again as a baseball player for the 2003 season.

Eager to put behind him a disappointing 2002, Cunningham is thrilled at the prospects for the new season.

” “Last year I didn’t have a great year but now I’m focused and I feel like I’m ready to have a great year.”

Cunningham is currently playing with the Royals’ Triple A minor league team at spring training.

Playing for the Wichita Wranglers, the Royals Double-A farm team in 2002, Cunningham ended the season with a dismal .186 batting average in 77 games, and finished the last few weeks at Single-A Wilmington in Delaware.

Even if his numbers at the plate and his confidence dropped last year, there were other events that lifted the corners of his mouth.

The 2002 year was one of great accomplishment and happiness for Cunningham away from the diamond.

He picked up his degree in family psychology from Texas Tech, then turned his attention to another type of diamond as he slipped a ring on the finger of Olivia, his college sweetheart, who also graduated from Texas Tech in December.

After six months of marriage and a successful spring on the diamond, Marco’s smile is shining brightly.

The haunting baseball memories of 2002 have been buried.

“That’s the great thing about sports, no matter what happens, you always have next year to come back on,” he said smiling.

The game of baseball is all about numbers.

Numbers equate to success and success equals progress. As one of thousands of minor leaguers, there’s only one ultimate goal – to make it to The Show.

Making it to the Major Leagues is something the 25-year-old Cunningham thinks about often. It’s his dream. It’s his ticket to supporting himself, his new wife and their future family. After the disappointments and frustrations of 2002, the dream never faded but reality was a hard pill to swallow.

“For the previous two-and-a-half years I played really good baseball,” Cunningham said.

“Last year I got out of my mental game. I didn’t keep my mental focus at all and everything went down hill for me, and I’ve never had that problem before,” he added.

2003 is the year

With his struggles, Cunningham found himself on the bench much of the time and filling the No. 9 spot in the batting order. Not an easy adjustment for a lead-off hitter accustomed to playing all the time.

Mary Cunningham, Marco’s mother, said it was difficult to see her son struggle, but she also sees 2003 as Marco’s time to shine.

“I think he was hurt and confused last year,” Mary said from her Silt home. “But I think he needed to be out of the spotlight for a while. It will really help his personal growth. I think, this season, he will find balance, and I think this year he’s going to be powerful.”

Marco knows exactly what he has to do to succeed on the baseball diamond. As a lead-off hitter, the speedy outfielder knows he has to get on base, steal bases and set the table for the RBI hitters to bring him in.

“That’s the job I have to do to make it across the street,” Marco said pointing to the big stadium where the Major League teams play. “My ticket to the Major Leagues is getting on base, don’t strike out, be patient and hit the ball all over the ball park.”

He must also play good defense, which he continued to do last season.

For now, Marco is content to be in the minors. He knows that’s part of the game, part of paying his dues. But the dream is always in the back of his mind. The minor leagues is no walk in the park, especially as the years start to add up and life’s priorities start to change.

“I’m married now and we want to start a family, and the minor leagues is not the time to do that,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m still young, well not real young, but I’m happy with where I’m at. I’m in Double-A and I couldn’t ask God for anything more than that.”

Minors provides the training

Marco knows that the minors is the training grounds for making it to The Show.

“The great thing about the minors are the repetitions,” he said.

Every at bat is a little more experience; every double off the wall is experience; every diving catch in the gap is another lesson; every game in the minors keeps the dream alive.

Marco talks often about the mental part of baseball – “baseball is 90 percent mental,” he says. His struggles at the plate caused his confidence to plummet, and the result was something he admits he never thought could happen.

“I had a tough season because I hated the game. Of course, I still wanted to play but I was so mad at the game because I’d never failed like that before,” he said.

Marco walked away from baseball for a few months after the season to clear his head, then re-committed himself to the game and to getting back to focusing on the dream. He worked out some kinks in his swing, tinkered with his batting stance and concentrated on getting his mental focus back.

Entering his fourth season, Marco said he really feels at home with the Royals, and has even played in a couple of Major League games during spring training.

“I feel a little more veteranized,” he said with a smile. “I was intimidated coming in last year. I was trying to do too much and trying to please other people.”

Season of reckoning

During the spring, Marco said he feels strong and has been hitting the ball very well. After years of hard work, work that includes building himself up from a scrawny 145-pound senior at Rifle to his current 195 pounds, this could be the season of reckoning for Marco Cunningham.

“I feel so good about all the work I’ve done in the off season and this is the moment I’ve been waiting for, this is when all the hard work pays off for me,” he said.

But he’s not ready to say he’s done everything possible to make his dream come true.

“I don’t want to look back and say I wished I would have tried harder because I have tried as hard as I can, I’ve busted my butt to get where I am today,” he said. “From Rifle High School to playing Double-A, Triple-A baseball games, it’s been a great experience.”

But he quickly makes it clear that the journey is far from over.

Years of hard work

Even at 25, it’s already been a long road for Marco. From Rifle to Trinidad Junior College to Texas Tech to three seasons in the minor leagues. He confesses, it’s also been an awful lot of hard work.

From early-morning stretching to conditioning, to time in the weight room, to endless hours in the batting cage, shagging flyballs and fundamental drills, the hard work never ends. Once the hard work ends, so does the dream.

Marco half jokingly says that at least “I have my degree to fall back on” if things don’t work out in baseball. Then he allows himself to consider the possibility that the dream may not happen.

“If I come out here and have another bad year, then maybe I don’t need to do it, but you know what, I believe I can play in the Major Leagues. If I really didn’t think that way, and here I am 25 years old and married, then I wouldn’t be here.”

Right now it’s spring time in Arizona and Marco has been born again as an outfielder in the Kansas City Royals organization, and he’s thinking about nothing else than keeping his mental focus, making contact at the plate, playing good defense in the outfield, and keeping the dream alive.

But what if doesn’t happen?

“Even if I never make it, I’ve got some great experiences to tell my kids and grandkids,” he said with a smile.

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