Sergio Proved Size Isn't Everything
Feb. 11, 2011
RALEIGH, N.C. - His entire life, Tom Sergio heard he was too small to reach baseball's greatest heights.
He spent his entire career trying to prove his doubters wrong, earning All-America, Team USA and All-ACC honors along the way and advancing all the way to the Triple-A level in professional baseball. He may never have gotten over that final step to the major leagues, but his tenacious career is a testament that there will always be a place in baseball for a little guy with a big heart.
"Size was always something to me that put people off," Sergio says. "I was never looked on as a player, because I wasn't a 6-2 second baseman with 6.3 speed. I was always the smallest guy on the team at NC State.
"For me, I wanted to prove people wrong. I had to somehow prove that I was just as good as that bigger guy. There was always that kid coming out of school that was bigger and could hit just as well and run as fast. I felt like I had to always produce."
Throughout his Wolfpack career, Sergio produced unlike any other leadoff hitter in school history. Friday night, he will join Turtle Zaun and Brian Bark as the newest members of the NC State Baseball Hall of Fame.
Sergio considers it the pinnacle of his baseball career.
"I always viewed my time at NC State as the most memorable and most fun I had in baseball throughout my career," Sergio says. "I can't put into words what this means to my family and me. You focus your whole career and you don't think about your stats. This opportunity has given me the chance to sit back and take in what I did accomplish. Now that I'm a 35-year-old man with bad knees and a sore shoulder, it feels pretty good to look back and view some of the successes.
"And to be inducted with guys like Turtle and Brian, who were always held up as the benchmarks of success, is a great honor for me."
Sergio's career is a collection of little-guy stories, rolled into big successes. His small stature - liberally listed at 5-9, 165 pounds - at Bishop Kendrick High in Philadelphia didn't exactly have college recruiters beating down his door, even though he was the city's Catholic League Most Valuable Player.
Had it not been for the Carpenter Cup Games, a high school all-star baseball tournament that at the time was played at Veteran's Stadium, Sergio might not have been noticed by then-NC State assistant coach Jim Toman. He probably would have stayed at home to play for one of the local colleges and never made his way south. And that would have deprived the Wolfpack of its all-time hits leader.
"The thing I remember about Sergio - and I wasn't there for his senior season when he started hitting home runs - is just what a tremendous catalyst he was at the top of the lineup," Tanner says. "He had a really good freshman season, but his second year, that's one of the best years I can ever remember from a leadoff hitter. He was on base every time you looked up.
"From a perspective of hitting, getting on base, moving runners, running and stealing bases, he was about as good an all-around player as you'll find, especially for a leadoff hitter. He just made the offense go. Serge was certainly the best leadoff hitter we had in all the years I was there, and I can't imagine they've had any better than that."
There was an opening at second base when Sergio arrived and he stepped immediately into the vacant spot. Hitting mostly leadoff, Sergio batted.366 and was second on the team with a .441 on-base percentage. He became the first player in NC State history to with the ACC Freshman of the Year Award.
He later became a two-time first-team All-ACC selection and a two-time All-American. He set the ACC record with 290 runs scored in his career and finished his career with the second most hits in league history with 362.
Sergio spent the summer of 1995 traveling the country with the Team USA, and was one of five college players invited to the Olympic Trials in 1996 in Millington, Tenn. It was there that Sergio first heard that Tanner, an assistant to Skip Bertman for Team USA, might be leaving NC State for South Carolina.
Sergio was devastated when Tanner accepted an offer he couldn't refuse to leave NC State and even more disappointed when he was not taken in the 1996 baseball draft.
Like always, the professional scouts were concerned about his size.
He returned to NC State as a doubly motivated senior, eager to prove that he could be one of the best players in the country.
"It was a little bit of bitterness because I didn't get drafted," Sergio says. "I kind of had a sour taste in my mouth because of that. I added 15 pounds and some of those balls that were caught on the warning track my first two years, turned into home runs.
"It ended up being a blessing for me, because I had a chance to break some records."
Perhaps more importantly, he filled the shoes of veteran leader that new head coach Elliott Avent needed to help make the transition from the popular Tanner.
"I remember when I took the job, it was very late in the year and we were scrambling," Avent says. "I got a call from Dave Snow at Long Beach State, who had been with the Olympic team and saw Tom play. He told me that Tom had definitely been one of the leaders of our team and he didn't even play that much.
"People just sort of gravitated to him. He was a competitor. Dave told me to make sure I had him on my side and everything would go smoothly. And that's what he did."
Sergio was spectacular in his final season, hitting .412 for the year, with 14 doubles, 16 homers, 68 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. He earned first-team All-America honors from Baseball America and the National College Baseball Writers Association.
He not only finished his career with a school-record 362 hits, he had the second-most hits in ACC history. When the league selected its top 50 players during its 50th anniversary in 2002, Sergio was one of seven Wolfpack players on the list.
"Tom was probably the best game player I've ever had in my life," Avent says. "He played the game harder, more competitive, more to win than anyone I've ever coached. He could beat you in so many ways."
Sergio's final season earned him a shot with the Texas Rangers, who picked him in the 11th round of the 1997 draft of amateur players. He spent six seasons in the minors, twice reaching the AAA level for the Rangers (2000) and the Red Sox (2002). He retired from professional baseball in 2002 and returned home to Philadelphia.
"In professional baseball, I was always trying to be better than all those guys who were bigger than me," Sergio says. "I had to keep putting up numbers to keep moving up. And I did that, because there were always bigger guys pushing me."
Then he got hurt in 2000, and things were never completely the same. He was cut by the Rangers, spent 2001 playing in an independent league and re-signed in 2002 with the Red Sox. He split time between Boston's Double-A and Triple-A teams that season, but retired when it was over.
He wouldn't trade those times for anything, because he enjoyed the long bus rides, the interminable card games and the locker-room loafing between games.
And those are the things he remembers most about his Wolfpack career, much more so than the multiple-hit games, the big wins and the school records.
"I was never a stat guy and I don't remember a lot of the games," Sergio says. "My fondest memories of college were the down times, the cheap hotels and bad food at 1 in the morning. I remember Toman going into the stands after a fan at Clemson. I remember the little room in the basement of Reynolds Coliseum, where we would watch television and hide so we didn't have to go to class.
"When I'm talking with my friends, we're not talking about what we did against Carolina. It's more along the lines of `Remember the time the bus got pulled over?' Those are the stories you take with you."
After Sergio moved back to the Philadelphia area following his professional career, his former American Legion baseball coach asked him to start helping with his team, and Sergio discovered how much he enjoyed working with kids. He also found he made a strong connection with them because of his professional baseball experience.
When the head coaching job at his former school, Kennedy-Kenrick High, came open, he applied for it. He's about to begin his fourth year of coaching baseball at his alma mater.
Two years ago, he coached the best high school player in the state of Pennsylvania, corner infielder Christian Walker, who was signed by Tanner to play at South Carolina. Last year, he earned first-team Freshman All-America honors while helping the Gamecocks win the 2010 College World Series.
"There are two phone calls I make when I see someone I think would be good," Sergio said. "I call Elliott and I call Ray. I'm sure that will make one mad at the other for that, but I think it's fair."
But he's happy to steer his kids whereever they have the best opportunity. Especially if it's a place that's willing to give a little guy a shot to play.
• By Tim Peeler, firstname.lastname@example.org.