By PJ Potter
It's Opening Night at Historic Hicks Field in Edenton, North Carolina. The fans are still filing into the grandstands as the Steamers are coming up to bat for the first time of the Coastal Plain League season.
While people were still getting settled, Rich Ciufo was already locked in. On his very first swing, everyone in the ballpark stopped what they were doing. They looked up as Ciufo crushed the ball over the double deck of advertisement signs in left field, and he was met by a roaring ovation while rounding the bases.
And just like that, crossing home plate with a huge smile, Ciufo became a star in the CPL.
"It was a great way to open the summer. It felt like a lot of hard work paid off," Ciufo said, a Medford, NY native attending Brown University.
Jumping into the summer, Ciufo was not expecting to be the center of attention. Coming off surgery almost one year ago on his right ACL, he was just seeking improvement after a lackluster sophomore year with Brown.
"I struggled in the spring hitting .241, so I just wanted to keep it simple here and work on squaring the ball up and having fun," Ciufo said.
At Brown, Ciufo was still dealing with the post-surgery difficulties, which had limited his potential on the field. He injured the knee with the Mystic Schooners of the New England Collegiate Baseball League in June of 2017 after snagging a groundball that took a bad hop.
The recovery lingered into his 2018 season, but he kept a positive attitude. Stretching an extra 20 minutes daily has made him feel even more flexible than before the injury, which may have a part in why he is tied for first in the entire CPL in extra-base hits, legging out 12 total.
"I finally feel like I'm getting back to my normal self again, maybe even better," Ciufo said.
He has roped eight two-baggers and four home runs this summer through his first 17 games. Coming into the season with a different approach on offense, his previously untapped power now puts him second in the league with a .662 slugging percentage entering Saturday night.
"I'm really focusing on just trying to clear my head when I'm at the plate," Ciufo said.
His new attitude and flexibility has made him even more versatile on the defensive end. Playing all four infield positions already with Edenton, Ciufo may have found a new home at third base.
"I like it. It's new since I've never played third base before. I'm beginning to enjoy it as I get more comfortable over there," Ciufo said. "My teammates have also given me a lot of support with the move. Being around a group of guys as good as them has made the transition easier."
Steamers head coach Russ Burroughs has made him the mainstay at the hot corner because he believes that when minor league teams coming knocking on Rich Ciufo's door come draft time, they will select him from that position.
"He has the prototypical build of a guy at third base. He has an excellent glove with great reaction, so when he is drafted, he will be seen as a third baseman," Burroughs said.
Ciufo's success recently put him on the CPL Select Team, an elite group chosen to play the USA Collegiate National Team coming up on June 27 in Cary, NC. This opportunity will give Ciufo the chance to work out and play in front of MLB scouts in hopes of increasing his draft stock.
After falling victim to one of the worst injuries in the world of sports, Rich Ciufo's baseball career is getting back on track with an exclamation point.
"It's all coming together now. There's still some way to go," Ciufo said.