SAN FRANCISCO -- Nick Noonan loved baseball so much as a youth that he would skip birthday parties to play the game. After all, when you can run the bases and dive for grounders, you don't need ice cream and cake.
Said Noonan, "There comes a time when you have so much fun playing the game, it's like, why do anything else?"
But Noonan will want to light the candles, figuratively speaking, for this weekend's celebration. The rookie utility infielder will come home for the first time as a Major Leaguer when the Giants visit the San Diego Padres for a three-game series beginning Friday.
Expect Noonan's parents, Bill and Athena, to be on hand at Petco Park.
"Without them, I know I wouldn't be here," said Noonan, who remains grateful for their constant support.
Noonan will likely have an unofficial but sizable cheering section of relatives and friends.
"There have been so many people who have been following me, probably since Little League," said Noonan, 23. "To finally go home to play is special."
A graduate of Francis Parker High School, Noonan is proud to perpetuate San Diego's rich baseball heritage. Ted Williams remains the greatest player to hail from San Diego's sandlots. Other notable performers from the area include right-hander Mark Prior, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, outfielder Adam Jones, third baseman Eric Chavez, left-hander Cole Hamels, outfielder Carlos Quentin, third baseman Hank Blalock and left-hander Barry Zito, one of Noonan's teammates with the Giants. Noonan was included with those performers and others on a roster recently compiled by the San Diego Union-Tribune of the top players born in the region.
"San Diego's been a hotbed of talent for a long time," Noonan said. "I feel honored to be on that list."
Projections were lofty for Noonan when the Giants made him their "sandwich" pick (32nd overall) in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. Comparisons to Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley, a fellow left-handed batter who could hit for power, surrounded him. But though Noonan was a relatively high selection, his ascent through San Francisco's Minor League system was hardly meteoric.
Noonan progressed at a decent pace at the outset of his professional career, rising one classification per season through 2010, when he reached Double-A Richmond. He hit only .237 at Richmond while recording a .280 on-base percentage, making any talk linking him to Utley seem far-fetched.
Noonan performed at Richmond, Triple-A Fresno and high Class A San Jose in 2011. That appeared fitting, since it was difficult to fathom which direction his career path would take.
It was easy to forget that Noonan was just 18 when he was drafted. While some observers might have thought he was underperforming, he was actually still learning.
"He was always a kid who was playing a couple of years ahead of his peer group. He was one of the youngest kids in the league all the way to Double-A," said San Jose manager Andy Skeels, who had Noonan on his teams from 2008-10. "It takes a while to figure out how to handle a lot of different things -- expectations, playing with older guys. This is part of the process of going through the Minor Leagues: Learning how to become a professional. That's something as a very young man he's learned along the way, and once he did, he kind of took off. I don't think it's by accident that he struggled a little bit."
Noonan acknowledged that his development was ongoing.
"I might not have been Major League-ready before this year, to be honest," he said. "I hadn't done well in the Minors the last couple of years. Fresno was kind of the real turning point in my career."
By "Fresno," Noonan meant the 2012 season, when he hit .296 in 129 games at Triple-A.
"I really felt comfortable," he said. "I had an approach and I stuck with it the whole year. I barely had to do anything physically to my swing, which really felt good."
Noonan sustained his momentum in Spring Training this year. Being optioned to Fresno on March 15 didn't faze him. But in an unusual -- though not unprecedented -- move, Noonan resumed playing regularly in Cactus League games on March 22, after infielder Wilson Valdez was released and one day after the Giants reassigned Kensuke Tanaka, another contender for the utility role, to Minor League camp.
Noonan cemented his spot on the Opening Day roster by hitting .400 (10-for-25) after returning from Minor League camp. Before that, he batted .186 (8-for-43). Though Noonan's performance differed dramatically, his attitude never wavered.
"Towards the middle of Spring Training, I took a look around and realized that I kind of belonged here," Noonan said. "Talent-wise, I was just as good as anybody out here. I never doubted myself. And when I got sent down, I felt like it was an opportunity to showcase my skills in a different place. When I got called back up, I just kind of hit my stride, and I guess that nothing really changed for me. I just kept playing the way I'm used to playing. I was fortunate that some opportunities kind of opened up for me. I think that's what everyone needs in a career, too."
Noonan has thrived in limited appearances, batting .368 (7-for-19) in 11 games. He went 3-for-5 at Chicago on April 11, becoming the first Giant to amass three or more hits in his first big league start since Travis Ishikawa went 3-for-4 on May 26, 2006, against Colorado.
"Nick is the overnight success story who took a couple of years to complete," Skeels said. "The credit all goes to Nick for having the courage to continue to compete the way he did."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com.