The Huskies shortstop is among the top defensive players in the country and has had a bat in his hands nearly from birth tagging along with his father, former major-league infielder Tony Graffanino.
A.J. Graffanino was truly born to play baseball, and his father, long-time major-leaguer Tony Graffanino, has the photos, videos — and memories — to prove it.
There’s A.J. swinging a bat as an infant, running imaginary bases as a 2-year-old, taking fungoes on major-league fields throughout his childhood, sitting on the bench during Triple-A games in Columbus.
“It’s always what he’s done — play baseball,’’ said Tony Graffanino.
And now A.J. is playing for the Washington Huskies, who open their baseball season Friday at Sacramento State. The Huskies, though picked seventh in the Pac-12 coaches poll, have designs on the first College World Series appearance in school history, and the junior Graffanino is a large part of those aspirations.
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Graffanino is regarded as one of the top fielding shortstops in college baseball, and is rated the 75th-best 2018 draft prospect by D1Baseball.com. Graffanino combines with second baseman Levi Jordan to give Husky coach Lindsay Meggs outstanding up-the-middle defense.
Graffanino savors his unique immersion in professional baseball while traveling the country following his father, who played infield for the Braves, Rays, White Sox, Royals, Red Sox, Brewers and Indians in a 13-year career from 1996-2009. A.J. (which stands for Anthony Joseph, same name as his father) vividly remembers being in awe of the massive Frank Thomas in Chicago, and fielding grounders in Milwaukee next to – and receiving pointers from – J.J. Hardy, whom he regards as a mentor. Mike Sweeney and Jeremy Affeldt also took the youngster under their wings.
“Back then, I really didn’t appreciate it, but now, looking back – oh, my gosh. It’s crazy,’’ said A.J with a laugh. “I can remember being at the major-league ballparks. That’s kind of all I knew growing up.”
Of course, at the heart of Graffanino’s baseball upbringing was his father, who had to learn the fine balance of being supportive without being intrusive or pushy. Tony acknowledges that at one point he might have been a little too hands-on, but eventually he realized it was better to let A.J. learn from his own mistakes and forge his own path.
“That improved our relationship,’’ he said. “I was definitely trying not to over-coach him. I enjoy watching him play and go through the process himself.”
But whether it was through osmosis or a gentle word here or there, Tony still managed to imbue his son with a doctorate in the nuances of the game.
“He’s good at letting me do my own thing, but when it comes to the mental side, that’s when he helps me the most — the everyday grind,’’ A.J. said.
Meggs has seen that in action throughout the course of Graffanino’s Husky career, which saw him start at shortstop as a freshman and then earn All-Pac-12 honorable mention last year.
Like many sons of big-leaguers, Graffanino separates himself from his peers by having what Meggs calls “a sixth sense” about where to be on the field. He also is better than most at not dwelling over an error or bad at-bat, another likely result of watching his dad deal with failure along with success.
“Boom, he flushes it and he’s right back on track,’’ Meggs said. “He plays the game like he’s going to play it 162 times a year, not 60 times a year. He’s preparing for the long haul, and it helps him.”
After his career ended, Tony Graffanino settled in the Phoenix area, where he works for a Christian baseball ministry, Unlimited Potential. A.J. became a baseball (and basketball) star at Peoria’s Northwest Christian High School, and caught the eye of Husky coaches while at a tournament in San Diego. They recruited him hard and got a commitment when, unlike other schools that were after Graffanino, they ensured he would play shortstop as a freshman.
But then Meggs had to sweat out the 2015 draft, where A.J. was a potential high pick. The Mariners were particularly interested in him for their second-round selection, No. 60 overall, that eventually went to pitcher Nick Neidert.
Graffanino, however, told the M’s he wasn’t going to sign, so they passed. He eventually was selected in the 26th round by the Indians, mainly as a favor to Tony, who had finished his major-league career with them.
Recalled Meggs, “The Mariners called me the day before the draft started and said, ‘Hey, we think you’ll get him because we threw a pretty good chunk (of money) at him to see if he wanted to go to school. I can’t imagine anyone offering him more than we talked about. I think you’re in good shape.’ ’’
Tony said that in order not to sway his son, he would talk up the benefits of college when A.J. would get excited about going pro, and extol pro ball when A.J. was leaning toward college.
“I wanted it to be his decision,’’ he said.
It was in the end, but A.J. said what resonated the most was hearing his father say he wished he had gone to college instead of signing with the Braves as a 10th-round pick in 1990 out of East Islip High School in New York.
“That’s a guy who made it to the big leagues for 13 years, and so that really stuck with me,’’ Graffanino said.
Neither A.J. nor the Huskies have regretted the union. Graffanino’s glove is his calling card, to the extent that he will probably be a high draft pick in June. Meggs believes he is a major-league-caliber shortstop.
“He’s electric in terms of whatever play you want to see made, athletically, there’s nobody in the country that’s going to make it better than he is,’’ Meggs said.
Graffanino is so flashy, in fact, that his defensive weakness, if there is one, is the routine play. Meggs is confident that will come around with repetition. Graffanino’s pro career, however, will be dictated by how his bat develops. The 6-foot-2, 165-pounder could stand to get stronger, but he has shown encouraging power this fall. Meggs even joked with Tony when he visited campus last weekend that it’s time for his son to learn a home-run trot.
Graffanino batted .250 as a freshman and .269 as a sophomore and has just 16 extra-base hits (no homers) in 337 collegiate at-bats. He came to Washington as a switch-hitter but now hits exclusively from the left side. He is coming off a strong summer showing in the Cape Cod League with the champion Brewster Whitecaps, and Meggs says, “He’s a guy we want up there with people on base.”
A.J. answers quickly when asked if he’s always wanted to pursue a pro career.
“Yes, sir,’’ he said. “That’s just been the dream. My dad was the role model, and that has been the dream from the start.”
The very start.