Valaika an unassuming, hard-working All-Star [Sports]

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By Josh Cook

Chris Valaika didn't know that he had a Wikipedia page. 

"Do I really?" he asked, surprised, one day last week as he relaxed in the Louisville Bats dugout before a game.

"Yes," I tell him, then add that it also says that he is known for "a wide stance with a small stride."

"Wide stance, huh, that's pretty good," he said.

What would it say if he wrote it?

"Hopefully it'd say he's consistent, you know what you're going to get out of him every day, he gets hits and he helps the team win," Valaika replied.

He's done all of those things this season for the Bats, and because he has he'll represent Louisville in Wednesday's Triple-A All-Star Game in Allentown, Penn.

"He's been rock solid," Louisville Bats manager Rick Sweet said.

Valaika will play second base for the International League All-Star team.

"It's a great honor, especially at this level being so close to the big leagues," Valaika said. "And especially coming off a year like I had last year. It makes me think that all my hard work paid off."

The "last year" Valaika is referring to was his tepid Triple-A debut.

Since the Cincinnati Reds selected him in the third round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft out of Cal-Santa Barbara, Valaika had experienced success at every minor league level. In 2006 he hit .324 in Rookie League in Billings, Mont. In 2007 He batted .307 at Class A Dayton, Ohio. Then in 2008 he hit .317 with 18 home runs as he split time in Sarasota, Fla. and Chattanooga. For that he was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year and was selected to play in the Major League Baseball Futures Game in Yankee Stadium.

He entered the 2009 season rated the fourth-best prospect in the organization by Baseball America, but the law of (batting) averages soon caught up with him.

Valaika struggled mightily in his first month in Louisville. One night in early May after he struck out, dropping his batting average to .161, his frustration boiled over. He returned to the dugout and punched a water cooler, breaking his hand.

"Everything just snowballed," Valaika said. "I had never failed like that before in my life." 

He missed a little more than a month with the injury. It might have been the best thing that could've happened to him.

"It gave me a different perspective about the game," Valaika said. "I was able to really sit and watch it for the first time. It made me a better player in kind of a weird way.

"This game can be a grind, playing day after day, it was nice to just clear my head."

The break - both of his hand, and from the game - seemed to help. He hit .260 in the final 72 games of the season.

"It taught me how to fail," said Valaika, who finished the season with a .235 batting average. "At every level I'd success till I got here last year...But it also taught me that I can play at this level."  

He's proven that this season. While the Bats collectively struggled in April (going 7-15), Valiaka was sublime. He hit .329. He followed that up with a .289 average in May and .269 in June. Through the first 11 games of this month Valaika is batting .270 and takes an overall average of .290 into the All-Star break. He's also tied for the team lead with 91 hits and has 18 doubles, two home runs and has scored 35 runs.

"This year I've been doing alright, I try not to get too high or too low, I learned that the hard way last year," Valaika said. "I'm just trying to keep an even keel and hopefully ride it out the rest of the season."

Even keel definitely seems to describes Valaika, a SoCal boy (yes ladies, he has blond hair and blue eyes, but he also has a fiance) through and through.

The 24-year-old (he turns 25 in mid-August) was born in Santa Monica and grew up in Valencia. The Valaika household in Valencia was big. He is the oldest of five, with three younger brothers (all of whom play baseball) and one younger sister, who were always on the go. 

"My parents were like a shuttle service," he said. "(Growing up) was fun. It was loud a lot of the time...Now that we're all older I think we've grown a lot closer." 

Growing up Valaika played football, baseball and a little soccer, but baseball was his best sport.

As a senior at Hart High School he hit .426. As a freshman at UCSB he was the Big West Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American. His junior season with the Gauchos he hit .335 with a team-high 10 home runs before being drafted by Cincinnati.

He came up through the Reds' minor league ranks with current Cincinnati players Drew Stubbs and Chris Heisey, as well as current Bat Danny Dorn. Throughout that time Valaika played shortstop but this season, with the promotion of highly-touted prospect Zack Cozart, he was moved to second base. The move has worked well and Valaika hopes that he and Cozart are able to stay together.

"I enjoy it over there," Valaika said. "We're doing a lot of great things together. Hopefully that'll continue and we'll be able to play together in the big leagues."

And what's it going to be like when Valaika gets "the call" to "The Show"?

"I don't know what it's going to be like," he said, smiling. "Obviously I'll be ecstatic, I'll probably be like, 'Are you serious? Are you lying?'"

Then they'll have to add something else to his Wikipedia page - Major Leaguer.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com

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