12 Apr Welcome Back: Cito Culver
Defensive Player of the Year “Going to Be A Hitter This Season”
He was a first-round draft pick of the New York Yankees and he’s played ball at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. With the Miners in 2019, he was a leader both on and off the field, and he was the Can-Am League’s Defensive Player of the Year.
But, Cito Culver still feels those old-fashioned opening night jitters as he looks ahead toward the Miners season opener at Skylands Stadium on May 27.
“No doubt, I’m already feeling some butterflies about that first game,” he said by phone from his home in Rochester, N.Y.
“I’m excited to get there and get going. Right now, I’m working out non-stop. I’ve got a workout plan that I follow and I’m also in the batting cages almost every day. I can’t wait to get down there and get out on the field.”
Culver loves baseball, that’s for sure. And, besides the actual play on the diamond, the slick-fielding shortstop was happy to be returning to Sussex County to play for Miners manager Bobby Jones.
“He’s put together a whole culture of how things are supposed to go for this team,” Culver said. “Because of Bobby, there’s a culture of winning and team chemistry. It was a great experience for me and I’m looking forward to seeing everybody again.”
Growing up just outside of Rochester, in Irondequoit, N.Y., Culver was a natural switch hitter from his earliest days in the batter’s box. Once he was with the Yankees organization, however, he was instructed to hit only as a right-hander.
And he remained a right-handed hitter for the Miners in 2019 until he hit a dry spell at the plate in mid-July.
“I was hitting the ball hard, but the hits weren’t coming,” Culver said. “Out of the blue, Bobby told me to go up there and hit left-handed. “I got a hit and went one-for-four. The next day, batting left-handed, I went three-for-four with a triple.”
So, it’s no surprise that Jones lists Culver as a switch hitter on this year’s roster.
Last summer, when the Covid virus cancelled the Frontier League season, Culver came back to town to suit up for the Miners in the impromptu All-American Baseball Challenge, playing in all 22 games and hitting an incredible .395.
“He’s going to be a good offensive player,” Jones said. “Maybe not .395, that’s a crazy number, but he’s going to be a hitter this season.”
The manager predicted that Culver will raise his batting average from the .242 he posted over 69 games in 2019, but, of course, there was another topic to discuss.
“He didn’t win that defensive player of the year award for nothing,” Jones said.
“You keep your eyes on him for a few days and you’re going to see some great plays. He is slick out there. That’s the word we’ve always used in baseball. He’s fun to watch, he makes some great plays and he definitely saves us runs with his defense.”
“I take a lot of pride in it,” Culver said. “I work at it. Some of it comes naturally, but you’ve still got to work at it.
“I want the pitcher on the mound to know that if he can get a guy to hit a ground ball, then I’m going to do everything I can to turn it into an out.”
But, what happens when he’s struggling at the plate? Doesn’t that affect his play at shortstop?
“Luckily, I’ve always been able to separate those two things,” Culver said.
“Hitting can be very frustrating sometimes. You just can’t let that carry over to the other part of your job. You can’t do it. No matter what, you’ve got to go out on the field ready to play defense. For whatever reason, I’ve been able to do that, to separate the two things.
“When I’m at shortstop, playing defense is the only thing I care about in the world. My last at-bat is ancient history when I take the field.”
Culver was a defensive star wherever he went in the Yankees minor league system, playing for the Charleston River Dogs, the Trenton Thunder and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders. In 2017, he played 103 games for Triple-A Scranton, but a .223 batting average was disappointing, and he opted for free agency after the season.
The Miami Marlins picked him up for the 2018 season and sent him to the New Orleans Baby Cakes, their Triple-A affiliate, where, again, his lack of hitting overshadowed his defensive mastery.
He played 19 games for Rockland in the Can-Am League in 2019, then moved here to the Miners for the bulk of the season.
Jones believes that Culver might be just coming into his own at the plate.
“Even in that one year, I could see his hitting coming along,” Jones said. “He got hits. It’s not like he didn’t get hits. We’d just like to see more, so would he, and I think we’re going to see more this year.”
Culver said he enjoys the Sussex County atmosphere. He said that once he gets here, he just hunkers down and concentrates on the job he loves.
“It’s an awesome place,” he said. “When I’m there, I think baseball 24-7. I don’t need nightlife or clubs or anything like that. I was never into that whole scene.
“I’m an old soul when it comes to baseball. I’m always talking about baseball.”
On offense or defense, count on Culver to be in the middle of the action when the Miners host the New Jersey Jackals, then the Washington Wild Things to open the season, followed by a road trip that includes a quick weekend series across the border in Ottawa.
Carl Barbati was sports editor of the New Jersey Herald from 2012 to 2017. Before that, he was sports editor of the Daily Record and The Trentonian, where he subsequently was named editor of the daily newspaper.
By Carl Barbati. Former Sports Editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and Trentonian.