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It's a couple of days before Christmas and Justin Fitzgerald is working at Macy's in Scottsdale, Ariz. Fitzgerald, a Cardinal Newman grad, is a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants' farm system. Just pitched the 2011 season at Double A Richmond and pitched well.

But still, it's minor league money Fitzgerald made, so he's working a side job at Macy's to make a little extra cash during the holidays. Fitzgerald is working what is called "recovery", making sure clothing is neatly stacked and in the right spot for the next day.

It's night. His cell phone rings. It's Bobby Evans, the Giants' vice president of baseball operations. Just a sec, Fitzgerald said. Lemme step outside. Whatever this is, Fitzgerald wants privacy because Evans is a man high up on the Giants' food chain and Fitzgerald is pretty sure Evans isn't calling to see if he's done all his Christmas shopping.

Congratulations, Justin, you have just been invited as a non-roster player to Giants' Spring Training.

Fitzgerald, 25, hasn't stopped thinking about the reporting date, Feb. 18, since. When he walks into Scottsdale Stadium, Fitzgerald will be carrying more than his glove, ambition and hopes and dreams. He grew up in Cloverdale and was a Giants fan for as long as he can remember. He and his dad, Pat, would go to games at Candlestick and Pac Bell Park. He was a big fan of Barry Bonds, J.T. Snow, Robb Nen especially. The day the Giants drafted him in 2008, Fitzgerald was wearing a Giants' jersey.

Yes, Fitzgerald knows Major League Baseball is a business but it's also personal to him. He's been in the stands at Scottsdale Stadium but never been in the dugout. And on Feb. 18, when he reports with the other pitchers and catchers, Fitzgerald will take a moment to sit in the clubhouse, to sit in the dugout, to be a sponge, to soak it all in.

"It's going to be surreal," he said. Surreal, in that this is his team. Surreal, in that this is his dream.

"I like where I am at," said Fitzgerald about his career path. At 25, he's not young but he's not too old either to make it to the big leagues. He's at The Moment, actually, the tipping point when all things baseball will be decided.

It helps that he has Ross Grimsley on his side. Grimsley is the former free-spirited lefty who pitched 11 years in the big leagues, won 20 for Montreal in 1978, and is now the pitching coach at AA Richmond.

"You have what it takes to make it to the big leagues," Grimsley told Fitzgerald at the end of the 2011 season. "You have big league stuff. Now it's all about what you do with it."

What you do with it, now there's a baseball mantra. Among the most valuable. When a minor leaguer advances from A ball to AA, he has gone from a question mark to a certified prospect with proven skills.

How a player manages that talent will do more to decide his future than any words of wisdom. For a pitcher, it's first remembering he has the ball and the game in his hands and the hitter is at a disadvantage, not him.

"I remember what Justin Verlander said last year at the All-Star Game," Fitzgerald said.

By the numbers:

$32 — Sonoma County daily base fee for a juvenile offender

107 days — average length of stay for juvenile offenders

$292.77 — Sonoma County's cost per day to house a juvenile offender

$4 million — amount owed to Sonoma County in unpaid juvenile housing fees

Verlander was asked what he thought about the Yankees' Robinson Cano, on a hot streak at the time.

"The last time I checked," Verlander said, "he wasn't hitting .500."

It is the most common trap that defeats a pitcher, forgetting that good hitters fail 70 percent of the time.

"That separates a lot of guys," said Fitzgerald, 6-foot-5, 230. "If you have a bad day, go home and forget about it. If you make a bad pitch, don't think about it too long so it affects the next one."

Easy to say, more difficult to do, especially if that bad pitch traveled 450 feet in the bottom of the ninth, a home run being the most dramatic event in all of sports.

"There's a reason we drafted you," Lee Smith told Fitzgerald last year. Smith is the roving Giants' pitching instructor who saved 478 games over 18 seasons in the big leagues. "Trust your stuff. That's why you are here."

Smith's advice, Fitzgerald said, was the best he's received in his four years in minor league ball. Trust your stuff. Advice that has been passed through generations upon generations of a players and is as relevant now as ever.

Fitzgerald has trusted his stuff and that helps explain why he's been an All-Star his last two seasons — 2011 at AA Richmond and the year before at Class A San Jose. Fitzgerald is 22-17 with a 3.53 in his four minor league seasons with stops also in Salem, Augusta and Arizona rookie ball.

"I have four pitches I can throw for strikes," said Fitzgerald: fastball, curve, change and slider.

Four pitches he would love to throw against Barry Bonds.

"The best hitter of all-time in my opinion," Fitzgerald said. "I would challenge him. A lot of pitchers were afraid to. You can't do that. And if he hits it, he hits it."

And then you move on. Like Fitzgerald will. To Class AAA Fresno. Most likely. "There are no guarantees," he said.

That's true. Just little chunks of memories.

Like that no-hitter he threw at Newman. Like that scholarship he earned at UC Davis.

Standing in the Fitzgerald's family kitchen in Cloverdale, in a Giants jersey, getting the news he was drafted. Making those All-Star teams. Getting that call from Bobby Evans. Sitting soon in that Scottsdale dugout, that Scottsdale locker room, determined to keep adding to his highlight-reel of baseball memories.

For more North Bay sports go to padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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