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Published: Tuesday, 8/3/2004

Vitiello may not return to Toledo

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

"I really don't know what my situation is,'' Vitiello said yesterday via phone from his home in Del Mar, Calif. "Unless I know what my situation is, I don't feel I should comment.''

Vitiello explained that he left the team to be with his wife and children, who were struggling with illness.

"The night after that game in Scranton my wife had a virus, and when I talked to them at 3:30 in the morning she and three of my daughters all were sick,'' he said. "I was afraid the baby would get sick, and they didn't have anyone to take care of them, so two hours later I was on a flight home.''

Vitiello said yesterday his family now is well - he admitted he got the same bug when he got home but is well, too - but declined further comment on his status with the team.

The Mud Hens have prepared for life without

Vitiello; his locker in the clubhouse already has been given to newcomer Benji Gil.

"Joe has said he is not coming back,'' said Toledo manager Larry Parrish. "Obviously we wish he would change his mind.''

Parrish would love to have the 34-year-old back in the Hens' everyday lineup since he ranks among the top hitters in the International League. His .328 average is fourth-best in the IL, and his 70 RBIs are tied for eighth. Vitiello also has 16 home runs and 52 runs scored.

But Parrish said Vitiello's impact goes beyond his hitting.

"Joe's a good guy to have in the clubhouse,'' Parrish said. "He keeps the clubhouse loose, and at the same time he pushes guys. They see how he pushes himself, and that would bring a higher intensity to the game.

"Plus his numbers will be tough to replace. Losing him at this level would be like [San Francisco] losing [Barry] Bonds from their lineup.''

Tigers director of minor-league operations Ricky Bennett hopes to persuade Vitiello to change his mind.

"I talked to him a couple days ago, and he's still at home with his family,'' Bennett said. "I'm talking with his agent, and hopefully we can finalize something on when he is going to return to the ballclub.''

Vitiello was signed as a

minor league free agent by

Detroit after Montreal made him one of its final cuts in spring training. He had hit .342 for the

Expos in 38 games the previous season, also spending time in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League with both Fresno, Calif., and

Edmonton.

Vitiello had spent parts of seven different seasons in the major leagues with Kansas City and San Diego before Montreal, and said in a story on the Mud Hens' Web site that the spring-training cut hurt.

"I think the toughest thing in baseball is coming off the bench and not being able to play every day,'' Vitiello said. "So for last year to be up there for as long as I was and getting the consistent

at-bats each and every time, I

finally felt I had proven myself.

"So to be back in Triple-A was a little disheartening.''

Vitiello joined the Hens on April 14 and consistently ranked among the league's top offensive threats. He left the team in late May when his wife, Taylor, gave birth to the couple's fourth daughter, but returned soon after.

Vitiello is not on the Tigers' 40-man roster, which means he would need to be added to the 40-man to be called up to Detroit when rosters expand in September.

Dealing with Vitiello's absence is one of the roster questions the Hens face. Another is finding a replacement for starting pitcher Adrian Burnside, who will leave the team Friday to join the Australian Olympic team; that move gives Toledo three open spots on its 24-man roster.

Ricky Bennett, the Tigers' director of minor league operations, said the work on the Hens' roster isn't finished.

Mud Hens right-hander James Baldwin was named the International League's pitcher of the week, the league announced.

Baldwin earned victories over Scranton and Indianapolis last week, allowing just seven hits and two runs in 161/3 innings. For the season Baldwin is 4-2 with a 2.84 ERA while pitching for Toledo.

Contact John Wagner at:

jwagner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6481.



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