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Connection with fans natural to Hughes

Connection with fans natural to Hughes

Already at the Legends Field facility in Tampa, Fla., as one of the Yankees' earliest reportees to Spring Training, Phil Hughes had an open evening -- and a dilemma.

Unable to decide between offers to a George Strait concert and a monster truck rally being held in the area, he turned to the masses, firing up his blog and asking fans to help him fill a Saturday out on the town.

So it goes in the technological age, where the 21-year-old right-hander has become the newest entry to the sports blogging universe. His personal Web site launched this month (philhughes.wordpress.com) discusses the Yankees, but also Hughes' favorite music -- mostly rock and alternative -- and his affinity for the NBC sitcom "The Office."

"I don't want it to be all about baseball," Hughes said in a telephone interview. "This is more about a personal thing and stuff that I do, and what happens to me. It gives people an inside look into who I am, over what they already know."

For Hughes, who launched a personal Web site before he'd thrown one Major League pitch, the step was natural. The Red Sox's Curt Schilling is already an icon for his popular 38pitches.com, where he breaks down each start in intricate detail; Hughes said he may keep up in similar fashion, while also sprinkling in behind-the-scenes details not normally available.

"The fans, a lot of times, don't get a personal side of what guys are like away from the field," Hughes said. "I've always felt it's my obligation to stay close to the fans, because without them, I wouldn't be in the situation I'm in now. I've always felt it's important to give back in all the ways that I can."

In the case of his free Saturday night, the public was able to help guide Hughes, with assistance from Mother Nature. Rain nudged Hughes toward the third row of the St. Petersburg Times Forum for the country concert, passing up an outdoor seat at Raymond James Stadium, where cars were evidently crushed in a downpour.

Having already set up residence in the Tampa area and now planting roots online, it would appear the 21-year-old Hughes is preparing for a long haul in Yankees pinstripes.

Though rumors of a potential trade for Twins ace Johan Santana have continued to swirl for most of the offseason, the Yankees have been far from an all-on pursuit in recent days. Senior vice president Hank Steinbrenner has admitted to wavering on the prospect of a swap, and general manager Brian Cashman has stated that the Yankees are more likely to "go with what we have."

Hughes, mentioned as an integral chip in a Santana trade, is taking the relative silence as a good sign.

"Obviously, anything can happen, and there's not always a lot of warning for big news to happen or for a deal to go down," he said. "There's always that chance that something will happen, but just from what I've heard from different people, it seems like the longer this goes on, the odds of me staying will be better. I couldn't be more happy about that."

A first-round selection of the Yankees in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Hughes arrived in New York last April amid great fanfare, partially borne out of necessity. Amid a rash of injuries to the starting rotation, Hughes became the fifth rookie to start in the Yankees' first 21 games, making his big league debut on April 26.

Hughes threw 6 1/3 hitless innings at Texas in his second start, on May 1, notching his first win, but he also suffered a painful left hamstring strain that would cost him much of his debut season. Hughes returned in August and finished the regular season 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA in 13 starts, throwing 3 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 3 of the American League Division Series and picking up the Yankees' only victory of October.

Though he admits the year was frustrating by his standards, Hughes said the strong finish gave him motivation for the offseason. With more than two weeks still ticking down before pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, Hughes is already working out in daily sessions with Joba Chamberlain, Jeff Karstens and pitching coach Dave Eiland.

It will be a productive Spring Training, Hughes believes. Freed of the spotlight somewhat by the emergence of pitchers like Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy -- plus a second wave of promising Minor Leaguers -- Hughes is willing to cede some of the inherent hype.

"This will be a good spring for me, I think, coming in a different position than the last two years," Hughes said. "We're going to have a really good team and there's going to be plenty of attention spread around some other guys. With a lot of young guys stepping up and the core from last year coming back, it should be exciting."

In fact, Hughes has said that Chamberlain's emergence as a dominant phenom setup man last August was one of the most important turns of events in his debut campaign.

"It was like this huge weight off my shoulders," Hughes said. "People finally realized that there weren't just one or two guys coming up from our system who could actually contribute. There were quite a few guys, and I didn't have to answer every question."

Now, in the case of his online presence, Hughes has the freedom to ask a few questions as well.

Bryan Hoch 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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