Small frame holds big-league dreams

Twins selected Louisville's Cates in 38th round of draft

(L.G. Patterson/AP)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | June 15, 2007 3:48 PM

OMAHA -- Chris Cates figures he's heard just about every short joke there is. Yet he smiles when someone gets off a good one, never really getting angry that most folks who aren't fans of Louisville baseball take exception to his height.

You see Cates, who fittingly plays shortstop for the Cardinals, is the most diminutive player in Division I baseball. He stands 5-foot-3 and his weight checks in somewhere just shy of 150 pounds. At first glance, if you didn't know better, you might think he was Louisville's batboy.

Far from it.

He may be small, but he certainly packs a great deal into his slight frame. Cates has a .302 career batting average, including a .294 mark this year. He's driven in 102 runs over four seasons, smacked a few homers and has hit safely in 11 of his last 14 games after going 1-for-5 in Friday's loss to Rice during the opening game of the College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium.

While some folks might be put off by Cates' size, the Twins knew better than to be fooled by his stature. They selected him in the 38th round of last week's First-Year Player Draft and have big plan's for Louisville's little man. So who's laughing now?

"Everywhere we go, I hear it," Cates said. "I get 'oompa loompa' a lot and 'Webster.' I got 'Mow the grass so the shortstop can see.' It's fun, though. I don't ever let it get to me. I chuckle a lot. In Houston, some lady asked me if I shopped at Baby Gap. I lost it on that one.

"Sometimes if I've made an error or just made an out I get kind of fed up. But most of the time it fuels me to make a spectacular play or go out and get a big hit. It really shuts people up. And I just tell people to watch me play. It's easy to judge me by looking at me. While a lot of people criticize me, probably 50 percent of them come up to me after the game and tell me that I'm a great player and hope I wasn't offended."

Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff says that Cates' height was an obvious issue, but that Minnesota was eager to see what he could do. He adds that as far as intangibles go, Cates rates high, and that could make all the difference -- negating whatever drawbacks caused by his height.

"His size is always going to be a problem offensively," Radcliff said. "He's never going to have great strength or the ability to have an impact bat. But he has intensity and he does maximize the skills he has. Obviously, he's very small and obviously, that's part of the equation when you talk about who he is.

"You can't name too many people who look like that who have played in our league. But he's always been successful wherever he's played. And we hope he'll do the same once he gets into our employ. We have a lot of belief in his intangibles."

There have been a number of 5-foot-3 Major Leaguers, the most recent of which was shortstop Harry Chappas, who appeared in 72 games for the White Sox from 1978-80. Cates has done some research on diminutive players, only learning last year of Freddie Patek, the 5-5 shortstop who played 14 seasons in the big leagues.

Cates has naturally gravitated to reading about players like Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto and has always had an affinity for Cardinals 5-7 shortstop David Eckstein. Throw in 5-9 Chone Figgins of the Angels -- they're friends, having both attended Brandon High School in Florida -- and Cates has no shortage of role models.

Include his brother, Gary, in that group as well. Gary Cates is a 5-7 second baseman in the Cubs' system, playing for the Double-A Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League. A former 39th-round pick by Baltimore [1999], Gary Cates signed with Chicago as a Minor League free agent in 2005.

Still, Cates admits he thought his size might work against him when it came time for the draft.

"You don't see a lot of small guys get drafted," said Cates, who committed a pair of errors on Friday. "But you can't control the draft or what happens. Just play your hardest and let God take of the rest.

"All my life, I've wanted to play pro ball. You see the draft going on and it's hard not to wonder. You look at the Internet and see your friends getting drafted. It's something you've always wanted. And it turns out to be a dream week because I got drafted and then we came here [Omaha]."

When Cates eventually signs, Radcliff said he'd be headed to the Twins' Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton, adding he believes the youngster will become the smallest player in pro ball. It should make for an interesting scene because Elizabethton also is scheduled to have Dutch right-hander Ludovicus Jacobus Maria Van Mil [Loek for short] on its roster. At 7-1, Van Mil is the tallest player in pro ball.

Wonder if he's heard any good height jokes?

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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