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A Hartgraves delivers/But it's mom, after pitcher dad races home

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An eager Dean Hartgraves sat waiting in an airport last Monday, yearningfor a call, an announcement ­ anything that would bring him closer tothe place he desperately wanted to be.

Stranded in Cincinnati while the birth of his first child was about totake place in Portland, the former Crater High baseball star and currentAtlanta Braves pitching prospect was in a familiar predicament: close tothe fulfillment of a deeply held desire but unable to reach it.

A cancelled flight left him nervous about making it home in time to seehis son born, much like being a pitcher in an organization loaded with pitchinghas left him waiting for a chance to return to the major leagues.

I spent eight hours in the Cincinnati airport panicking that Iwas going to miss it, says Hartgraves, who had to catch a later flightto Portland. But fortunately he waited another day and I got here.

Sharla, Hartgraves' wife of six years, gave birth last Tuesday to a healthyboy they named Maxwell Allen.

It's an incredible experience, and it was real neat to be thereand a part of it, says the proud father, who makes his home in Salem.

Hartgraves had three days off for the All-Star break and took three moreto spend with his expanding family before flying out Friday night to rejoinAtlanta's Class AAA team in Richmond, Va.

His son's birth comes in the midst of what is shaping up to be one ofthe 30-year-old's finest seasons in baseball since he was drafted in 1987by the Houston Astros.

I'm probably consistently having the best year I've ever had,says Hartgraves, who spent the majority of the last two seasons pitchingin the majors with the Astros and the Braves.

Working as a set-up reliever and occasional closer for Richmond, theleft-hander was 6-2 with three saves in 34 appearances through Sunday. Hehad 37 strikeouts and 23 walks in 52 1/3 innings with an ERA of 3.44.

I gave up a couple of runs in my last outing, he says. Otherwise,that's the first time my ERA has been above three.

Relying on an improving fastball, a slider and a solid change-up, Hartgravesput together a string of 20 scoreless innings in May.

I think that's the most I've ever had, says Hartgraves ofthe streak of consecutive innings without allowing a run.

Hartgraves spent most of 1995 with the Astros.

Then, after appearing in 19 games last year, he was placed on waiversand picked up by the Braves. He had an ERA of 4.34 in 20 games with Atlanta.

After a solid spring training, Hartgraves thought he might make the big-leagueclub. Those hopes were dampened by the blockbuster trade with Clevelandthat brought center fielder Kenny Lofton and ­ more importantly forHartgraves ­ left-handed reliever Alan Embree to Atlanta.

I thought I had a real good shot and I had a good spring,Hartgraves says. That trade kind of hurt me.

So instead of earning a spot on the Braves' pitching staff, which isgenerally considered the best in baseball, Hartgraves is left waiting fora chance to return to the big leagues ­ a chance he says he probablywould have gotten elsewhere by now.

I'd like to think I would have been up with a lot of other teamsby now, he says. That's just the way it goes. This is the longestI've been in AAA in a couple years, but you try to pitch as well as youcan and wait for an opportunity.

He tries not to dwell on moving up to the next level. Instead, he workson his pitches ­ especially his fastball, which he says is being clockedconsistently in the 88-to-91 mph range.

I've tried to refine my skills, he says. I've beentrying to get more aggressive with my fastball.

It's tough to sit and wait and hope for a call-up. If you justdo that, you tend to lose focus on what you are supposed to do, which isto go out and pitch well. I try not to worry about it.

Dean Hartgraves of Central Point spent most of his career with the Houston Astros before joining the Atlanta Braves last season.