KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ After a year of playing in Italy, Mark Funderburk was prepared to give up on professional baseball, but now he’s getting another shot with the Minnesota Twins and batting coach Tony Oliva thinks he could develop into one of the game’s top power hitters.
Funderburk, who had a very brief stint up with the Twins in 1981, appearing in eight games, was released by them after the next season at Orlando, then signed with the Kansas City Royals, who also released him.
He played in Mexico in 1983 and then for Rimini in Italy last year, but figured he’d be back home in Orlando this summer working as a self-employed carpenter.
Funderburk was in Orlando, all right, but playing again for the Twins’ Double A farm club, and doing it well enough to catch the attention of Ray Miller, who became Minnesot’s manager when Billy Gardner was fired in June.
″I looked at the stats and asked who this guy was,″ Miller said Sunday after the 28-year-old Funderburk drove in three runs in the Twins’ 7-3 victory over the Royals. ″I said, well, if he continues to hit, we’ll take a look at him. Everybody told me he was an overswinger who was up here before. I said, ’He must not be overswinging now. He’s not striking out.‴
Funderburk, who hit 34 home runs and drove in more than 100 runs for Orlando, as called up to the Twins Sept. 1.
″This is a second chance not many people get,″ said Funderburk.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound slugger has made adjustments in his hitting style, fighting against the big swinger’s tendency to strike out and learning to become a better contact hitter, using the whole field.
After hitting one home run Saturday night, his second since coming up, and just missing another when a ball bounced off the top of the wall and back into play, he did strike out to end the game in the 10th inning as the Royals won 6-5.
″In that situation, I was trying get something to hit out of the yard and was taking too big a swing,″ Funderburk said. ″I wasn’t really staying with the game plan I planned for this year. I should have tried to make more contact instead of trying to hit the ball out.″
He fanned again his first time up Sunday, but then came through with a bloop single to center in the fourth to drive in the Twins’ first run, and had two more RBI singles in the fifth and seventh.
″The first time, I struck out, and I wasn’t satisfied,″ he said. ″The second time, I told myself to stay in on the pitch. I didn’t mean to stay in that long. I got jammed and blooped one up the middle, and I got lucky. The next time I hit a line drive into left field.″
Oliva, a three-time American League batting champion who spent six seasons as the Twins’ minor league hitting instructor, says Funderburk is a much better hitter now than he was three years ago, which he attributed in part to his experience seeing different types of pitching in Mexico and Italy.
″Before he had a hard time going away,″ Oliva said. ″Now he’s a little bit older, and more mature. He’s shown he’s got a chance to stick in the big leagues for a few years.″
Oliva likens him to the Royals’ Steve Balboni, another power hitter prone to strikeouts. Balboni languished in the New York Yankee farm system before finally getting his chance to play regularly with the Royals last year and developing into one of the top home run hitters in the American League.
″I’d put him in the same class as Balboni, if they give him the same opportunity,″ Oliva said. ″He’ll strike out a few times, but he’ll probably hit 25 or 30 home runs.″