ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Indianapolis Indians leadoff hitter Darren Ford smacked a hard grounder past Lehigh Valley pitcher Tyler Cloyd on May 3 at Coca Cola Park and raced toward first base as if he had tires on his feet instead of cleats.
Ford, a 27-year-old Vineland native, displayed his speed again later in the game by beating out an infield single against IronPigs reliever Justin De Fratus in the triple-A International League game.
He finished 2-for-4 in the Indians' 7-1 loss and would have had three hits if IronPigs left fielder Darin Ruf had not robbed him of extra bases with an over-the-shoulder catch near the warning track.
Ford, 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, raised his season batting average to .271 for the Indians, the Pittsburgh Pirates' top minor-league club. Despite getting caught stealing for just the second time this season, he still leads the team and is tied for second in the International League with 10 stolen bases. His two triples are also tied for second most in the league.
"Darren definitely brings a lot to the table," Indians manager Dean Treanor said after the game. "He's been a little inconsistent with the bat, but he's been playing very well for us. His speed has really helped us because he's been very aggressive on the bases.
"Speed is a great quality to have and I'm hoping to see if he can help us up above (in the major leagues). I absolutely think he will be called up (to the Pirates) at some point this season, but in the meantime, I'm looking forward to having him help us here."
The Pirates could promote Ford at any time but would first need to add him to their 40-man roster.
Ford, a 2004 Vineland High School graduate, has been in the majors before. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants called him up on Sept. 1, making him the first local player to get to baseball's highest level since Bridgeton native and Cumberland Regional graduate Randall Byers appeared in 11 games for San Diego in 1988.
Ford appeared in seven games for the Giants during the regular season and then watched from the dugout as the Giants beat the Phillies in the National League Championship Series en route to winning the World Series. Although Ford was ineligible for the postseason, he still received a World Series ring.
"I keep it in a bank safe in Vineland," Ford said with a smile after the May 3 game. "I only wear it for special occasions. I feel blessed that the Giants thought enough of me to give it to me. A lot of people play for years and never get a ring. I was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time."
Ford has been to a few other places in during what has become a serpentine journey that he hopes will eventually end in Pittsburgh later this season. He is in his ninth season of minor-league baseball and has hit .268 with a .347 on-base percentage and 342 stolen bases on 437 attempts (78 percent) in 792 games, according to baseball-reference.com.
He appeared to have a future with the Giants after he hit .286 in 28 games for them in 2011, but various injuries forced him to the disabled list both in San Francisco and in the minors. Following the season, the Giants removed him from their 40-man roster and he signed with the Seattle Mariners.
He's battling the injury bug again this season as the Indians placed him on the 7-day disabled list this week with a right oblique injury.
He spent last season with the Mariners' triple-A affiliate in Tacoma, Wash. Ford missed the first two months of the season with a broken finger but still led the Pacific Coast League with 26 stolen bases while playing 70 games and hit a respectable .273 for the Rainiers. Ford hoped to be a September call-up for the Mariners but was bypassed and chose to sign a minor-league deal with the Pirates.
"I had a chance to re-sign with Seattle again, but I felt like this was a better fit for me," Ford said. "I played with and against a lot of the guys (on the Indians) in the lower-level minors when I was in San Francisco's system and I felt right at home from the very beginning. We have a great chemistry."
That has helped Indianapolis enjoy a terrific start this season. The Indians entered Friday's game against Toledo in first place in the International League with a 24-11 record. Their .686 winning percentage is tops in the International League.
Like most triple-A teams, the Indians' roster consists of former major-leaguers trying to return to "The Show," and rising prospects. For instance, Indianapolis' starter on May 3 was Charlie Morton, who threw three hitless innings as part of his return from Tommy John surgery last year. Morton has started 88 games in the major leagues since 2008.
Former Phillies reliever Mike Zagurski is in the Indians' bullpen. Second baseman Ivan DeJesus Jr. spent time with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox.
Ford received some good-natured ribbing from some teammates after they noticed one the team's shyest players chatting with a reporter after last week's game.
"Darren's a great kid who fits in very well in the clubhouse," Treanor said. "He's a little quiet, but he gets along great with everyone and works extremely hard. Guys look up to him because he has experience and he's got a (World Series) ring. And he's got that speed, which is a great quality to have. He's a very intriguing player for the organization."
His desire to improve both offensively and defensively prompted him to make an offseason stop in Venezuela this past offseason.
After watching the Giants win another World Series in San Francisco, he spent October and November playing for the Leones del Caracas (Caracas Lions) in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League.
Ford hit .282 with 10 stolen bases in 13 attempts and made big headlines there on Nov. 19, 2012 by belting a game-winning grand slam.
"That was a great experience," Ford said. "Not only is it great baseball, but it's a different way of life over there. Being there taught me to not take anything for granted and to treat each day as if it was your last."
Upon returning to the United States, he spent a few weeks with family in Vineland and then hung out with some friends in Arizona and Florida before reporting to spring training.
The May 3 announced crowd of 9,411 at Coca Cola Park included approximately 25 of Ford's friends and family members from Vineland. He said his mother, Carla Ford, as well as his grandmother, sisters and some nieces and nephews made the two-hour trip to Allentown to see him play.
If everything continues to go well, they may soon need to make a trip to Pittsburgh.
"It's still early in the season, so I'm just going to keep taking everything day by day and keep working to improve on everything," Ford said. "Hopefully, I'll get called up this season, but I'm not worried about that now. All my focus is on doing whatever it takes to help this team win."
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