Prado looks for his happy place in Arizona

PHOENIX – Nearly a quarter of the baseball season gone, and still not all of Martin Prado’s belongings have caught up to him on the move west.

The box containing his career .292 batting average must be in transit from Atlanta. A few pieces of the top-of-the-order swing are obviously on order.

But it took only one pass through the Arizona Diamondbacks circular clubhouse to come across unmistakable evidence that he did not forget to bring his intangibles.

For instance, arriving teammates passing Prado’s cubby had better be prepared for a long bro hug. And the gesture is contagious. The sound of back-slapping is a regular part of the background music of the Arizona clubhouse, the percussion of a team that is more than holding its own in the NL West.

A stranger to these parts asked if such displays were common before Prado got here by way of the big-noise trade that brought Justin Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta.

“Not so much,” said Diamondbacks outfielder Jason Kubel.

“Martin’s all about the hug,” said Eric Hinske, Prado’s Braves teammate for three years before latching on to a pinch-hitting gig in Arizona. Within a couple weeks after Prado arrived, after players loosened up a little around him, they were all hugging like every day was a fraternity reunion. In other words, like they do around Prado’s former home for more than five seasons, the Braves dugout.

Braves fans will not be surprised to hear that Prado already is a popular figure on the largely rebuilt Arizona roster. His gung-ho style, his willingness to attack any challenge (he already has played at four different positions for the Diamondbacks), his upbeat personality plays well in any park.

Those were many of the same attributes that fans in Atlanta fretted losing when Prado was shipped here along with a fistful of prospects in the off-season blockbuster. Along with an impressive body of work with the Braves, he possessed so many non-statistical qualities — you know, the human stuff that gets lost in baseball’s flood of integers — that appealed to the soul.

When the Braves begin a three-game series here Monday, they will have no trouble recognizing the guy who still is the first on the dugout steps to greet a teammate after he scored or moved a runner over, and who thinks it is a wonderful idea to dump dirt down the jersey of anyone who just came up with a walk-off hit.

Hinske laid some serious groundwork here last month when, speaking to another writer, he called his teammate “the best player in baseball.” He was just that taken with the spirit Prado brought to the park. “He just enjoys playing baseball; it’s what he loves to do and it shows every day,” Hinske said Thursday.

But, dude, really, the best player in baseball? “Hey, the last year in Atlanta he was pretty much the best infielder on the team and he was playing the outfield (119 games in left),” Hinske said.

Here very well may be the most popular .230 hitter in the game at the moment. Prado built up so much goodwill so quickly that grumbling about his slow start has been held to a strict minimum.

Besides, there are some signs that he may be getting his legs beneath him — he was hitting .270 in May going into Sunday’s game against Philly.

“He keeps trying to hit 1.000,” joked Prado’s agent, Peter Greenberg.

The trade came as a particular jolt to the system of a player who only knew one organization. Prado was in south Florida training when the deal broke in January, and it was the kind of news that can really ruin an off-season on the beach.

“I heard some rumors,” Prado said, “but I got a couple phone calls from (GM) Frank Wren and some of the guys, like B Mac (Brian McCann), and we actually were talking about what we needed for the team. And all of a sudden the next week I just heard I was traded.

“It’s a part of baseball, you know. Not everybody can be Chipper (Jones, a lifelong Brave); he’s a special guy. I’m glad people there understand what I did and that I have the respect from all the teammates and people who actually knew and watched my work.”

He felt a wave of appreciation from Braves fans who were sad to see him go, some who questioned the trade simply on the basis of a gut reaction. “It was pretty overwhelming,” Greenberg said. “I don’t think even Martin realized how popular he was.”

One of his favorite fans in Atlanta was a 10-year-old girl with whom he had traded letters, photos and wristbands. “Her family appreciated it because she actually started acting good after we built that friendship,” he said. Now Prado had to explain to her the painful realities of baseball, that it was a business over which he had no control.

The best part about playing so long for the Braves, Prado said, was the comfort level he had built there. He knew that they knew no matter what he might be hitting at the moment, he ultimately would produce in the end.

Now, with a new team, Prado said it was like “I went all the way back to when I signed when I have to prove myself all the way from the minors to the major leagues.

“It’s like you’re starting from zero.” To complicate matters, the guy he was traded for was the National League’s player of the month in April. There was no keeping up with Upton.

“He’s not one to make excuses (for his slow start) but I do think he was a little unsettled by the trade. Atlanta is all he’s ever known. He felt uncomfortable with a new team, a new city,” said Greenberg, his agent.

The best part of playing for the D’backs is that Prado now enjoys his first substantial slice of financial security, after Arizona signed him to a four-year, $40 million deal.

He certainly has the unqualified support of management. My, how they do go on about him.

Prado had ‘em at hello.

“It started from our first conversation we had. I asked him where he wanted to hit in the lineup and he said wherever you want to put me,” said Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers.

“I asked, ‘Do you feel more comfortable at second, left or third,’ and he goes, basically, all of the above.”

It has been Prado’s history to try to find his answers by working harder, that there was no issue on the field that couldn’t be settled by more time in the cage or the weight room. The Braves sometimes tried to get him to throttle back; and already Arizona brass has invoked the same uncommon advice.

Prado remains hard to convince. “The numbers will come. I feel like everybody here, they are not panicked. But my personality, I worry about everything,” he said.

When he was acquired, Prado was characterized as the perfect “Kirk Gibson-type player,” that being heady and determined, as was the Diamondbacks manager back in his day.

“I don’t think it’s a Kirk Gibson type, I think it’s the Diamondbacks type,” Gibson said. “We together have a picture of who we want to be and how we want to get there, and (Prado) certainly fits that, yes.”

Here with a season not yet in the second quarter, the Diamondbacks are waiting on Prado’s production to catch up with his method, for his bottom line to be as energized as he is. In the meantime, the embraces seem to go both ways.

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