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Church finds new lease on life with Bucs

Church finds new lease on life with Bucs

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Planets had aligned for Ryan Church by the spring of 2008. For the first time in Church's career, he was playing every day. He was hitting lefties. He was hitting righties. At home in his new Manhattan apartment, he and his wife were raising a newborn baby boy.

"Why wouldn't you love the situation?" Church said that year, lounging before a mid-May game against the Yankees.

He was in his prime and thriving.

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Then four days later, Church's career came crashing down around him.

It began in Atlanta, sliding into second base on a routine double-play ball, when Church's head slammed into Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar's right knee. At the time, the Mets called it a minor concussion -- Church's second in less than four months. But it devolved into something more sinister after Church returned to baseball too quickly, took a cross-country plane trip too soon and wound up dealing with post-concussion symptoms for most of the summer. Though he returned to play the final two months of the season, Church was never the same.

Off the field, more frustration surfaced when a local talk-radio host claimed that Church "hated it" with the Mets and "didn't like the city." Some fans took offense. So when Church arrived in Spring Training the following February, he did so with an "I Love New York" T-shirt on his back and a new appreciation for his career.

All of which served him well on the bench.

Though Church did not acknowledge it at the time, a clear rift had developed between him and Mets manager Jerry Manuel. His comeback attempt stalled when Manuel began playing him sporadically in general and not at all against lefties. Church went the first three weeks of last season without facing a single lefty starter, then didn't see another for nearly half a month.

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"I never understood it," Church said. "I always sat. I sat against the easy lefties and played against the tough ones. Then they tell me, 'You can't hit them.' I wonder why."

A major baserunning blunder in Los Angeles further strained Church's ties with Manuel, and the Mets, meanwhile, were falling apart around him.

In July, they dealt him to the Braves for Atlanta's own struggling outfielder, Jeff Francoeur. It could have been a new beginning. But after the arbitration-eligible Church continued to play sporadically and slump through the end of the season, the Braves opted not to tender him a contract for 2010.

"It just seems like everywhere I've gone, I've sat," Church said. "I don't know what it is. It just seems like I get going and then something happens."

Enter the Buccos. This past offseason, for the bargain price of $1.5 million, the Pirates scooped up a player who may have commanded more than $4 million through arbitration. In Pittsburgh, Church will back up all three outfield positions, while enjoying something close to regular playing time. He will again be in a situation where his performance will dictate his use.

Church's second child, a girl named Madison, is now five months old. And by his own estimation, Church is now fully healthy for the first time since his concussion.

"I feel the same way now as I did then," he said on Saturday morning, before piling on a bus to Sarasota with his new Pirates teammates. "So hopefully, everything takes off again."

The downward spiral, Church hopes, is complete.

Whether that means he can return to being the middle-of-the-order threat he once was for the Mets remains to be seen. At the very least, the Pirates hope, he can provide some consistent left-handed pop off the bench, with above-average defensive abilities and a powerful outfield arm.

That's not a bad deal for $1.5 million. And it's not a bad deal for Church, looking to rewrite his resume before a possible arbitration hearing this winter. Unless the Pirates non-tender him again this offseason, Church won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2011 season.

He is hoping he will have a decidedly different reputation by then.

"It's either/or," Church said. "It's either reestablish yourself and be one of the main guys or just be a fourth outfielder from here on out."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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