San Diego Padres call up South Kitsap grad Aaron Cunningham, cut his homecoming short

Aaron Cunningham has made several stops en route to living his dream.

The 2004 South Kitsap High School graduate was at Cheney Stadium last week for a series against the Tacoma Rainiers.

But that was interrupted when outfielder Will Venable was placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday with a lower back strain. Cunningham, 24, was summoned from Tacoma to take his place.

He left the Triple-A Portland Beavers, who were in last place in the Pacific Coast League Northern Division with a 32-52 record through Monday, to join San Diego for a second time this year. The Padres had a 49-33 record through Monday and were first in the National League West.

“It’s exciting enough just to be in the big leagues,” Cunningham said via e-mail. “But to be in first place makes it even more exciting. I have always dreamed of being able to play in the playoffs and be in line to win the World Series. You can’t beat it.”

It was an opportunity few would have envisioned during the offseason. Many baseball publications picked the Padres, who finished 75-87 last year, to place last in their division this season.

It could have been different. Since he was selected in the sixth round in 2005 by the Chicago White Sox, Cunningham has been traded three times. The latest came on Jan. 16 when Oakland sent him along with outfielder Scott Hairston for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and second baseman Eric Sogard.

None of his three original organizations — Chicago, Arizona and Oakland — are higher than third place in their respective divisions. Cunningham said his first trade from the White Sox to the Diamondbacks for infielder Danny Richar on June 16, 2007, was difficult because he did not understand the business side of baseball at the time.

He since has come to embrace it, though.

“As soon as I began to figure out how everything works I grew to learn that it’s a good thing to be traded,” he said, adding that the frequent moves have allowed him to meet more people and see many places. “That team needed you and that’s why they traded for you.”

That was particularly true during Saturday’s win against Houston when Cunningham entered the game in the eighth inning as a pinch hitter and doubled. He later scored on a throwing error by pitcher Gustavo Chacin to lead the Padres to a 1-0 victory.

“It always feels good to contribute, especially at the major-league level,” Cunningham said. “It was a walk-off win, which made it even better.”

He has a .316 batting average in 38 at-bats with San Diego. Cunningham hit .211 in 133 at-bats the last two seasons in Oakland, but he said those struggles should help him now.

“You really have to get used to the atmosphere,” he said. “You’re playing in front of thousands of people every day. As soon as you get past all of that stuff you begin to realize that this is the same game you have played your whole life. Then you get rid of those nerves and get back to business.”

Portland Beavers hitting coach Orv Franchuk, who also served as a scout for the Cincinnati Reds from 1977-84, said Cunningham has the skills to play in the major leagues. He said Cunningham has an average arm and speed with “power to all parts of the ballpark.” Cunningham started slowly at Portland before raising his average to .247 before his promotion.

“We spent a lot of time on being more consistent with his rhythm and timing,” said Franchuk, who praised Cunningham’s work ethic. “He needs to be consistent. If he’s able to do that, he has a chance because he has all the tools.”

Franchuk said he would project Cunningham’s future in the major leagues as a reserve outfielder right now, but added that could change depending on the team’s needs and his development.

Cunningham said he has learned from his stints in the major leagues that it is all about opportunity.

“A lot of the time it’s just who is ahead of you,” he said. “It’s a matter of if the team needs you and is willing to give you a chance.

"When you get that chance, you have to take advantage and run with it.”

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