Tuesday, July 12, 2005 | BURLINGTON, N.C. – John Drennen, pro athlete, was the first identity I saw from the Rancho Bernardo High alumnus upon arriving last weekend at Burlington Athletic Park.

The Burlington Indians center fielder, not yet a month into his professional baseball career as a Cleveland Indians farmhand, was the lone player working overtime following pre-game warm-ups at the quaint ballpark. His teammates had escaped the South’s heat and humidity for the comfort of a cool, brick clubhouse behind the third-base line grandstands.

Dennis Malave, the Burlington bench coach, and Drennen worked on a footwork drill, striving to improve his mechanics. Such attention to detail is how a kid evolves into a pro.

But the next identity I saw was John Drennen, high school kid. He’s not yet a month removed from graduation.

Drennen sucked on an orange Popsicle, the kind that squeezes out of a clear tube, as we sat at a picnic table in the shade.

“We’re working on transferring (from fielding to throwing) to get that extra step to throw guys out,” Drennen explained. “It’s about staying down with a quick transfer; I was coming up, standing straight up, and then throwing. It’s been mentioned to me in the past, but now I have the opportunity to work on things every day.”

Later, in the game against the Bristol White Sox, I saw another example of John Drennen, pro athlete.

The 6-foot, 190-pound lefty hit his first professional home run, a two-run blast, with the crack! of a wood bat rather than the ping! of aluminum. After looking at a snaking curve ball for a called strike, Drennen reset himself in the batter’s box and pounced on the next pitch, a fastball, sending it 350 feet over the right-field scoreboard.

“He’s got a very mature approach at the plate,” said Sean McNally, Burlington’s manager. “I think he’s going to be a special hitter. The biggest adjustment he faces is playing every day. There is nothing you can do to get ready for the physical and mental grind of coming out here every day prepared to work and get better. But from what I’ve seen, he’s a hard worker.”

Drennen, the first California high school player drafted, was the Indians’ first pick with the 33rd choice overall in the compensation phase of the first round. But the CalHiSports.com State Player of the Year is struggling at the plate. Through Sunday night’s game – Monday was the first of only three days off in the 68-game season from mid-June to Aug. 30 – Drennen was hitting only .161.

As a senior at Rancho Bernardo, Drennen hit .463 with 17 home runs while leading the Broncos to the CIF San Diego Section Division I title and No. 2 state ranking. His 47 career home runs set a state high school record.

“I’m not hitting the ball the way I expect, but that’s normal,” Drennen said. “I’m not getting discouraged. I’m coming out here and working harder. Swinging a wood bat is different, but I like wood. I’m seeing better pitching, but it’s not anything I can’t handle eventually. That’s how baseball works; it’s a mental game and you have to stay mentally tough.”

The Appalachian League is a Rookie League, but that’s a misnomer. Many players are in their second year of pro ball and some previously played in college or professionally in Latin America. Drennen is one of only three 18-year-olds on Burlington’s roster, but McNally says that’s a circumstance a pro works to his advantage.

“It’s not a disadvantage to be one of the youngest guys in this league,” McNally said. “It forces you to more quickly make adjustments. It may take some time to make the adjustments, but the faster you show you can compete against older guys, the faster you’re going to get moved up.”

Drennen’s kid-like enthusiasm for the game has been evident every night when he sprints to center field to start the inning or to the dugout at the end of the inning.

“He’s that way every game,” said Greg Tobbin, the Burlington play-by-play radio announcer, looking down from his broadcast booth above the field.

But there was one time I caught Drennen taking his position in a casual trot. It was during player introductions, when Burlington players were joined by two area youth leaguers as they took their positions. When Drennen’s name was called out, his trot veered toward the youth leaguers lined up and he looked back with an engaging smile to make sure his two escorts confidently followed him.

He handled the moment with such aplomb he looked like a pro, not a kid.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). His features on high school athletes and coaches can be seen on the cable television show “School and Sports Stars” on the San Diego County Office of Education’s ITV Channel.

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