Just getting warmed up

This story was originally published in the May 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine

Step into the circle with Evan Longoria. It's an imaginary place he goes to before every pitch, a place where expectations and ramifications and past failures are not allowed, a place where the only thing that matters is the challenge before him. And his challenge right now, in the bottom of the ninth inning at Fenway Park in the Rays' third game of the 2009 season, is to do all he can, with his glove, to finish off the Red Sox. He has already blasted a home run over the Green Monster this afternoon, a two-run shot in the third inning, but his work begins anew every time he steps into the circle.

With a 4-3 lead, one out and American League MVP Dustin Pedroia at the plate, Rays closer Troy Percival gets the sign from catcher Shawn Riggans. At third base, Longoria steps into the circle, a place that demands total focus. His eyes are unblinking, his knees and elbows bent, his weight shifted to the front of his spikes. His mind is embedded in this moment, because this is the only moment he can influence. Percival throws a fastball on the inner half of the plate, and Pedroia scorches it low, toward leftfield. Right into the circle. Longoria's glove flashes open as he reaches to his left; the ball takes one hop, then disappears into the webbing, and he finishes the play with an easy throw to first. Sox manager Terry Francona sees it all from a corner of the dugout and says aloud, "Wow." At field level, it feels as if Longoria had just gloved a Tiger Woods drive 30 yards in front of the tee box.

Beneath the gracious veneer, Longoria is sure he'll figure out a way to kick your ass.

For the young third baseman, it's just another out. Longoria is only 23, and he hasn't played even a full season's worth of games in the big leagues, but if the managers and general managers of all 30 teams were to redraft the players in the majors, like in a fantasy keeper league, he'd be the first guy taken by many of them. "No question," says one longtime GM. "He's an impact player offensively and defensively at a position where there aren't a lot of great players." Longoria arrived in Tampa Bay last season, and not coincidentally, the Rays went to the World Series and he was the unanimous pick as the AL Rookie of the Year. This season he's already wrecking the league, with five homers and 20 RBIs in his first 20 games. His potential as a hitter is unlimited, and he seemingly intercepts everything that comes within a couple of miles of his position. His ability to backhand the ball cleanly is absurd. "I don't think I've seen a better third baseman, and I played with Mike Schmidt," says Tom Foley, Tampa Bay's infield coach.

But there's something more: The quiet SoCal kid exudes an innate confidence, much like Woods does. It's a competitive ruthlessness lurking just beneath the gracious veneer. Longoria is sure he'll figure out a way to kick your ass. "The thing about Evan is that he likes the stardom, he likes all the pressure on him," says Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who shared a college suite with Longoria at Long Beach State. "That's what a superstar has to do, because everybody is looking at you. You've got to want to be special."

And Longoria has always wanted that, even when no major league organization wanted him.

Step into the circle with Evan Longoria, junior college transfer. In his first year at Long Beach State, he slept on a futon in Tulowitzki's suite. The coaches remember him as remarkably quiet, comfortable in his space as Tulo's sidekick. Tulo was the star, the leader, the shortstop, so Longoria became a third baseman. When Ken Ravizza, a sports psychology consultant for the baseball team, first met Longoria, he suspected the teenager didn't see the merits of working on his mental approach, but in time he turned out to be the perfect sponge. "Looking back, if I didn't have the training I had with Ken ... I can see why some guys lose it completely," he says.

Ravizza counsels players to forgive themselves for failure -- and Longoria was far from perfect. In the 2003 draft, 1,480 players were selected; Longoria, then a senior at St. John Bosco High School, in Bellflower, Calif., was not among them. He didn't even get a scholarship offer from a Division I program. He wound up at Rio Hondo Community College, about 12 miles from his house, in Downey. Longoria didn't see that as an obstacle. The summer before classes started, he called coach Mike Salazar two or three times a week: Hey, Coach, you want to go hit? You want to go work out?

Longoria has never known any other way. As kids, he and his three siblings (a younger sister and two younger brothers) each had a sports equipment bag, and when Michael Longoria came home from his job as a school maintenance worker to take them to practices, Evan's bag was already packed. "He always wanted to practice," his dad says. "He was always ready to work."

Evan also played water polo in high school, but when he was 15, he told his father, "I want to dedicate myself to baseball." He joined a summer league wood-bat team in nearby Maywood, concentrated on hitting drills and lifted weights to strengthen his skinny frame. Michael couldn't help but notice that his son seemed naturally predisposed to fixing his perceived weaknesses without any prodding. During the 2003 draft, Evan wasn't so much worried about getting picked as he was focused on getting better. "I didn't feel like I would be left out completely," he admits. "You have dreams in high school, and playing in the big leagues is the ultimate dream. But when you don't get any scholarship offers and you have to play at junior college, you start to think you might have to come up with something different in the real world -- having to get a job, get my education."

But Longoria clung to baseball, worked at it. In pickup basketball and golf games, Salazar smack-talked him, challenged him, and Longoria answered by producing under pressure. "He thinks of himself as someone who is clutch," Salazar says. When Longoria transferred to Long Beach State, in 2004, he had no presumption of stardom, only the desire to get there. "He knows himself," Ravizza says. "He's not worried about being a success. He's more concerned with the process."

Ravizza taught Longoria how to use structure to find mental relief. Everything is done through the prism of preparing for success: the way you get ready for at-bats, the way you walk to home plate, the way you forgive yourself after making an out or an error. There will be times, Ravizza told him, when you are feeling good and you can just go with it, but on the difficult days, this structure will be there for you. "A lot of times I'd be sitting at home after a game thinking, What the hell just happened?" Longoria says. "My mind would be going so fast." To slow himself down, he performed a relaxation drill he learned from Ravizza. "I would have my focal point," he says. "I'd look out there and let everything go."

Following his first season at Long Beach State, Longoria played in the 2005 Cape Cod League against the nation's best amateurs -- with the wood bats he'd been using for years. He led the league in homers and RBIs and won the MVP award. Now all the scouts wanted him, and in June 2006 he was the third pick in the draft. He reached this point, Michael Longoria believes, because in Evan's daily search for what eluded him, he made himself into a special player. "He doesn't do it for the fame," Michael says. "He does it for the challenge."

Step into the circle with Evan Longoria, rookie phenom. He was getting more attention last spring than guys who had been playing with the Rays for years, so he was in the perfect position to offend the veterans -- just as Delmon Young, the No. 1 pick of the 2003 draft, had done. But Longoria thrived. "He impressed me from Day One," says leftfielder Carl Crawford. "Somebody must've schooled him before he got up here, because he definitely carried himself well. If you'd watched him last year, you would've guessed that he'd been in the big leagues for 10 years. He fit right in. He doesn't want to be the guy with a lot of talent everybody hates. It was refreshing to see someone with that kind of talent act that way."

But it didn't come easy. Longoria started 2008 at Triple-A Durham and struggled at the plate. Disappointed and frustrated, he punched out a text to Tulowitzki: I am never going to get called up to the big leagues. I'm screwing myself. A week into the season, though, Longoria got called up and went to work. He asked veteran Eric Hinske about his pregame workout routine, and when Hinske told him that he did his weightlifting and physical conditioning early in the afternoon, Longoria started arriving early at Tropicana Field. After plays in the field that felt awkward to him, he asked Foley what he might have done differently. They worked together daily, and at the end of every session, Foley hit 10 balls as hard as he could at the 6'2", 210-pound third baseman. If Longoria bobbled one, he had to make a smoothie for Foley in the clubhouse, and if Longoria fielded all of them cleanly, then Foley made the smoothie.

Longoria quickly became a team leader. Rays VP Andrew Friedman walked into the clubhouse one day and saw him caught up in a moment of Guitar Hero genius, his teammates gathering around as he played at stunning speed. "Longo, is there anything you're not good at?" Hinske asked. Of course there is. But when Longoria struggles, he leans on structure. Last August he got hit by a pitch, broke his right wrist and was on the disabled list for a month while his teammates tried to hold on in the AL East. Ravizza was watching the Rays on TV and caught a shot of Longoria in the dugout pulling his batting gloves out of his pocket. Later, Ravizza called with a question: "Were you mentally preparing for your at-bats?" Longoria told him yes, that each time his replacement came up, he would put on his gloves and visualize the entire at-bat, pitch by pitch. And when the AB was over, he'd take off the gloves.

If the big league execs could redraft the players in the majors, Longoria would be the first guy many would take.

Step into the circle with Evan Longoria, in his first postseason. He smashed a home run in his first playoff at-bat, against the White Sox, and then again in his second. He homered in four straight ALCS games against the Red Sox. But then pitchers started executing the scouting report, moving his feet off the plate with inside fastballs before spinning breaking balls low and away. Longoria descended into a postseason abyss and went hitless in his first 17 at-bats in the World Series against the Phillies. Slowly, however, he tunneled his way out. There was no rookie panic, no drowning in the tidal wave of the postseason. The wind cost him a home run in Game 3, and he singled in a run in Game 5, the Series finale. Mike Weathers, his former Long Beach State coach, watched Longoria conduct TV interviews and was struck by how the introvert had evolved. "I think he's someone who wants all the answers now," Weathers says.

Step into the circle with Evan Longoria, at the outset of his second season. It's early in spring training, and a reporter has stopped by Rays camp in Port Charlotte, Fla., to ask Longoria questions about himself. Teammates are sitting nearby, within earshot, and 20 minutes into the interview, his answers become clipped, and he glances around the room. It becomes clear: He's not comfortable talking about himself in front of the other Rays, out of respect for them. "He understands his place in the game already," says manager Joe Maddon. "He's one of the best young talents, and he's someone all of major league baseball can look to as a champion of how to do things properly. He's very capable of all that."

Longoria knows it, too, in a good way. Last summer, Salazar bumped into him after a game in Anaheim, at a time when the rookie was rocketing hits all over the place. The coach, who had prodded Longoria in his juco days, wasn't surprised. "You are raking," Salazar said.

Longoria broke into a huge grin. "I am raking," he answered. And then he stepped back into the circle.