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Vince Belnome
Vince Belnome
Rob Carr

Hitting The Bull

Durham, NC - The Triple-A Tampa Bay Rays affiliate has begun 2014 with a new face.

New faces on the team, of course, but Durham Bulls Athletic Park got a face-lift to kick off the season; the extensive renovation project lasted the winter and isn’t done yet. The team’s rich baseball history and deep community connection are enhanced by the changes, meant to cater to more fans including vegetarian menu options and expanded seating.

On the field, the Bulls christened the new field with two series; the first against the Gwinnett Braves, followed by nearby rival Charlotte Knights. They finished their first home stand 4-2, with some excellent offense on display throughout. They celebrated a third 8-1 victory on Wednesday against Charlotte.

One player, veteran outfielder Justin Christian, showed exactly what he can bring to the team, hitting his 2nd home run of the season in Game 3 of the series against Charlotte. The former Yankees and San Francisco Giants minor leaguer, and major leaguer with Giants, signed with the Rays as an FA this off-season, but it was a longtime coming. He addressed that and many other aspects of his career, and Vince Belnome also sat down to talk about his career and future for this week’s inaugural ‘Hitting the Bull’ feature.

Justin Christian Welcomes Rays Dedication

Attitude is everything according to Justin Christian.

After all these years and growing as a person and player, the 33-year-old has arrived at a place where he’s both comfortable and confident on a level unique to adulthood.

"It’s a cliché but age is just a number", Christian said before a game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park Wednesday. "Maturity wise, I’ve learned the most. Learning the game to slow it down, taking each day for what it is has helped. I was a very high strung player when I was younger. I didn’t realize my attitude affected the next day. I had to learn each day was a new opportunity. I’m much more confident in myself."

Signed by the Yankees as a non-drafted FA in 2004, he played in the Yankees organization for several years, then signed as an FA again, this time with the San Francisco Giants. In 2012 he got his big league opportunity, playing in 34 games with the Giants.

His experience in the big leagues taught him not just the reality of how tough it is to get there, but how much tougher it is to stay.

"That’s the hardest part. You realize that each day you’re up there is a blessing. You try to do all the little things right. It’s all about the numbers."

He signed with the Rays (FA!) in January of this year. They had been calling for a few years, showing interest that finally came at the right time. Their belief in him struck a chord with Christian.

"The Rays still being so interested in signing me really meant a lot. They were adamant . Signing with them was a no-brainer," he said.

Mostly hitting leadoff for the Bulls, he’s hitting .267 through 7 games with 6 RBI and 2 home runs.

The right-handed hitting leftfielder admits to being a slow starter during the spring, but used it, once again, mainly to patiently work out the kinks and not worry about where he’d wind up.

"A lot of times I’m coming into Spring Training to try and win a job. Coming into this season, it’s been about getting a feel here, finding what I’m comfortable with and leaving what I don’t."

Part of what he’s "getting a feel"’ for is his approach at the plate.

"Getting down in position more, focusing on swinging at good pitches…opening day I was excited and amped up, so I was rushing. I’ve calmed down," he said. "I’ve played thousands of baseball games. If you can’t control your mind, you’re not going to be able to play this game."

Belnome Reflects On Pennsylvania Upbringing, Former Teammate Cody Decker

Vince Belnome celebrated a win early in the season. He proposed to his girlfriend and she said yes. When asked if the ring was a successful choice, he quickly said, "Yes, yes!"

He reported for duty with the Bulls, marking his fifth season of professional baseball and his second with Durham. Acquired via trade in 2012 from the San Diego Padres, he spent all of 2013 with the Bulls hitting .300 with 133 hits and 67 RBI in 127 games. The first baseman is currently hitting .120 with 3 hits and 3 RBI through 7 games.

Here’s what he said about manager Charlie Montoyo and a favorite former teammate:

On What He’s Trying To Improve The Most: "I’ve always really loved hitting, so defense is the main area I’m working on. That’s what everyone has always said has been kind of the question mark with me. So I want to be able to play at every position they put me in and be flexible."

On Former Padres Organization Teammate, Cody Decker: "He’s an awesome guy. Plays so hard, so hard, every day…just can hit. He’s a great teammate as well. We played several years together and he’s just the same hardworking guy every day," and he adds, "he’s really funny."

On Growing Up In Coatesville, Pennsylvania: "During the winters my dad had a tee-ball and net set up so I could play year ‘round. Up north it’s tough. But he really helped me keep it up by having that for me in the basement."

On Manager Charlie Montoyo: "I don’t know how he does it, but he can have seven infielders and find a way to play us consistently. I’m confident and happy about the amount of playing time I’ll get."

Notes: Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier ended opening week with a call-up from the Rays. He led the team with 7 RBI…Matt Andriese has stuck out thirteen batters over two starts…Kirby Yates leads the team in saves with 3…LHP Jeff Believeau was also called up for one day to Tampa Bay, but was optioned back…Durham Bulls Athletic Park will welcome ‘Duel at the DBAP’, a non-conference match-up between NC State and the University of North Carolina on the 15th of April, first-pitch scheduled for 7:05 PM.