Growing up red, white and blue

Valaika is thankful that he spent much of his youth playing for USA Baseball

Feb. 24, 2008

Chris Valaika has played at three different levels with USA Baseball over the years, beginning with the Youth National Team and finishing with the National Team, but nothing could quite prepare him for his first Major League experience.

Called up to the big leagues during Spring Training last March, the Reds Minor League shortstop found himself on the field against the Philadelphia Phillies. As if that wasn't enough to begin hyperventilating, the bases were loaded and reigning NL MVP -- and USA Baseball alumn -- Ryan Howard was stepping to the plate. And the infield was in.

"I remember thinking, 'If he hits a line drive at me, I'm dead,'" Valaika recalls.

Alas, Valaika got off the field unscathed. He was returned to Reds Minor League camp a few days later but had gotten exactly what Cincinnati wanted him to get -- a taste of life at the top.

"I was almost too starstruck being on the field," the 21-year-old says. "But the more I played, the easier it got."

The California native has been making it look easy since signing with the Reds as a third-round draft pick out of UC-Santa Barbara in 2006. He hit the ground running -- and hitting -- drilling Pioneer League pitching to the tune of a .348 average that included 10 doubles, two triples, two home runs and 26 RBIs at rookie-league Billings. That earned him 2006 Pioneer League Most Valuable Player honors.

"I was a little surprised, because I was making the transition from aluminum to wood," Valaika says. "We had a great season at Billings, and I think that made it easier for everybody to do well."

Those who know Valaika, however, haven't been surprised at his steady success as a pro. After all, this is the kid who -- despite being one of the youngest players on the team -- blended in seamlessly on the 2004 USA Baseball National Team that featured the likes of Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Jeff Clement, Taylor Teagarden, Drew Stubbs, Mike Pelfrey and Travis Buck among others.

"I was a freshman on that team and a lot of those guys were older than me," he says. "But it was great just to watch them go about their business, even though they were still in college, they were true professionals."

The international game has prepared Valaika for the nuances that come with being a pro ballplayer. For one thing, he's already played in front of hostile crowds. "When you play overseas, you're under fire and everybody wants you to lose," he says. For another, he's already played on the same field with some of the best young baseball talent on the planet.

"From the Youth Team to the Junior National Team to college and now pro ball, it's all been building blocks," Valaika says. "The experience of being able to play with the best guys in the country, traveling to other nations and playing there has been unbelievable.

"I go to the Web site and see all of the names of players in the big leagues that I've come across with USA Baseball, and it's great," he adds. "USA Baseball has done a great job preparing guys for [pro] baseball."

If he needed any further proof that he's on his way in the game, Valaika got the endorsement every kid dreams of: being pictured on a baseball card. Valaika's first cards featured him with Team USA and were released by Upper Deck in 2004.

"To have my first card picture me in a USA uniform was a big deal to me," he says. "I see those cards all the time and I sign a lot of them for people who ask me what the experience was like. I love talking about it; I never get tired of that."

And Valaika has a lot to talk about. With the Olympics approaching in August and the next World Baseball Classic not far away, could there be more to discuss?