SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The first thing you need to know about Aaron Rowand is that he still loves baseball like a little boy.

Rowand's the sort of person who looks at a blue sky and insists there should be a ballgame going on under it. Changing into his uniform is a privilege, not a routine. He still remembers receiving his first professional paycheck -- for $322, after his opening two weeks with the Chicago White Sox Hickory outpost in the South Atlantic League.

"It was like the coolest day of my life, the first time you got paid to play baseball," Rowand said Saturday before the Giants' 14-8 split-squad victory over the Seattle Mariners.

Rowand, 30, is that rare player who's also a fan. His enthusiasm already has become familiar around the Giants, who signed him to a five-year, $60 million contract last December.

Recently, he interrupted a casual discussion of the Cleveland Indians' record home sellout streak by blurting "455" -- the exact number accumulated at Jacobs Field from 1995-2001.

When Willie Mays arrived for his annual Spring Training visit, Rowand waited a week before introducing himself to the Giant of all Giants. While rookies lined up for the Hall of Famer's autograph, Rowand, a seven-year veteran, was thrilled just to occupy the same clubhouse as Mays.

"I didn't want to bother him, you know?" Rowand said.

Hungry for more baseball after one of his summers in the Cape Cod League -- he played for Brewster in 1996 and '97 -- Rowand and a brother-in-law, Craig Lent, stopped at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on a cross-country drive home. Pressed for time but intending to see as much as possible, Rowand tore himself away from relics such as Joe DiMaggio's landmark $100,000 contract and Eddie Gaedel's pint-sized jersey.

"I got to spend only one day there," he lamented. Advised that true aficionados allot at least two days to pore over the museum's artifacts, Rowand said, "You need three. I would probably need four. ... It's almost like mythology until you get to see it in person."

Understanding Rowand's passion requires rewinding to his youth in Glendora, Calif. Rowand's father, Bob, nurtured his appreciation for the game without forcing it on him.

"I was available," Bob Rowand said. "He pushed himself."

Bob Rowand, who maintained his ardor for the game despite not playing organized baseball beyond his freshman year in high school, described young Aaron's life as being "nonstop baseball."

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Bob Rowand played in a men's slow-pitch softball league and allowed Aaron, not yet 10 years old, to tag along with him on game nights. Ever hopeful of filling in when his dad's team lacked enough participants and had to forfeit but played anyway, Aaron always brought his glove and spikes. When Aaron played, Bob Rowand said, "he was better than half the adults."

The elder Rowand put in many busy days running an air conditioning and heating business, but still had the energy upon returning from work to accompany Aaron to nearby Stanton Elementary School. There, they'd pitch to each other, using golf-ball-sized Wiffle balls. Each of them would pretend to be a different big league lineup and bat from either side of the plate depending on which player they were mimicking.

"It was fun playing against my pop, because he was always competitive," Aaron Rowand said.

Occasionally Bob came home with surprises for Aaron, such as instructional videos or compilations of team highlights, or an addition to the Rowands' growing collection of baseball publications. Aaron particularly enjoyed Ken Burns' 1994 documentary "Baseball"-- "I watched that constantly," he said -- and cited Herb Gluck's "The Mick" and "Say Hey," Mays' autobiography done with Lou Sahadi, as two of his favorite books.

Each Christmas during the late '80s and early '90s, Bob gave Aaron a complete set of Topps baseball cards.

"I knew what I was getting every year," said Rowand, whose card collection ultimately exceeded 30,000. "But I loved it."

Somewhat prophetically, the first Major League game Rowand attended was a Giants-Dodgers contest at Dodger Stadium, although the Angels were his team of choice as a Southern Californian. Practical concerns may have influenced his allegiance.

"Parking was easier," Bob Rowand said, referring to the scene at then-Anaheim Stadium. "That's why we went there."

Always, playing baseball took precedence for Aaron Rowand over watching it or reading about it. "I couldn't get enough," he said.

Bob Rowand recalled that one Little League coach tapped Aaron's desire by switching him between pitcher and catcher. "He needed to hold the ball. So he touched it on every pitch," explained the 55-year-old Rowand.

By his teens, Aaron Rowand was performing in three different leagues.

"On days I had three games, it was a tight squeeze," he said. "I usually had only two or three days during the entire summer when I wasn't playing a game."

At Glendora High School, Rowand often borrowed the key to the school's indoor batting cage for sessions of extra hitting practice that sometimes would last until 10 p.m. A handful of teammates usually joined Rowand; occasionally his father fed balls into the pitching machine.

"The neighbors would get mad because the metal bats were loud," Aaron Rowand said.

Rowand craved this kind of activity, because interscholastic competition wasn't enough. He typically played just twice a week in high school. Averaging four games per week at Cal State-Fullerton was better, but it wasn't until he played six days a week in the Cape Cod League that he found a schedule close to his liking. The 162-game regular season? Bring it on.

"It's a wonderful game," Rowand said. "I consider myself very lucky, very blessed, to be able to play it."