The Boys of Summer – The Other Side – Exclusive with Pitcher Michele Vassalotti

I met “Vass” last September when he was a starting pitcher with the Carolina Mudcats, an A level team for the Milwaukee Brewers.  It was after the game and the long-haired Venezuelan, dressed in normal clothes, was getting into a car with a couple, Julie and Rick, who were his “North Carolina family.”  My car was parked next to theirs.  I timidly asked him if I could take a picture.  “Sure!” and he turned his cap to where the brim was facing back.  As I raised my camera, he quickly motioned me to him and said, “Selfie?”

The next time I saw Michele was during warm-ups when Mudcats ball resumed this April.  I watched as he took tosses.  He appeared to have lost weight since last year and his long locks were gone!    I leaned over the rail as he headed towards the clubhouse.  “Hey!  Vassalotti!!!  Remember me?”  He laughed and replied, “Of course!  You called me a wild pitcher last year!”  I couldn’t deny it, but it was meant as a compliment as I was comparing him to a friend who pitched in the 80s and 90s – former Olympian and Major League Pitcher Bobby Witt.

Michele’s appearance not only had changed, but his pitching as well.  Instead of being a starter, he was throwing in the relief role.  It was a brilliant transformation for him.  His stats were outstanding this season – 9 wins, 2 losses and 7 saves in 33 games.  His walks improved from last year’s 60 to only 24 this season.  According to a scout during one of our series, Vassalotti has one of the best sliders in the minors.  “It’s nasty and players dread facing him.  They know it’s coming; they just don’t know when and the result is usually a strikeout.”  The fans loved him in the relief role as evidenced by the cheers whenever he came in to pitch.

I met up with Michele recently in Myrtle Beach during the last away series for the Carolina Mudcats.  It was there I discovered the personal side of the relief pitcher while we ate a late-morning brunch.  Spanish is his primary language.  I was envious of his command of the English language which he learned by talking to Americans.  I had two years of high school French and I ended up in a Paris parking garage when asking for directions to a subway!   That would never happen to Vassalotti.

He began his professional baseball journey on June 9th, 2017 when the Brewers signed him to a minor league contract.   After stints in the Arizona Complex League Brewers and Dominican Summer League play, he was promoted to the Helena Brewers (2018) and the Rocky Mountain Vibes (2019) Rookie League.  In 2017, when he pitched for Team Italy, he found himself in Thunder Bay, Canada – a place known for its high winds.  Not exactly the ideal climate for a pitcher with evening temperatures in the 50s and low 60s!  One can describe “Vass” as a well-rounded athlete also participating in basketball, soccer and bowling with athletic training squeezed in on the side.

I was curious what happened with him in April of 2020 when Minor League baseball was cancelled due to COVID-19.  There he was, not even twenty years old, over three-thousand flight miles from his parents in Venezuela and the borders were closed.  He stayed in Arizona for a couple months and then moved to Florida to live with a close friend.  He stayed there four months until the Arizona Instructional League re-opened.  In January 2021, it was off to Australia to play for Brisbane Bandits, a professional baseball team in Brisbane, Queensland.

When Minor League Baseball started back up in May of 2021 in an abbreviated post-COVID-19 schedule, players weren’t allowed to live with host families so the comforts of a “home” did not happen.  Instead, they shared hotel rooms with other players.  Schedules were also changed to playing six games straight against the same team with Mondays off.  For several months, players were not allowed to sign autographs for fans or stand in close proximity to them.  Spitting sunflower seeds was a no-no.

Life for a minor league player is quite different than one in the majors.  With the exception of long plane rides while with the Brisbane Bandits or when playing for Team Italy, Michele has endured long bus rides to and from the away cities.  Some of the hotels are miles from the city so DoorDash for food and Ubering to places are a way of life.  While the team is at “home,” life is living with a host family or sharing an apartment with other players.

Just like fans, Michele has his favorite players who play or played in the majors.  “Mad Max” (Scherzer) was his immediate response followed by former Brewers now Padres Josh Hader, former Hall of Famers Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera as well as 4-time All-Star Troy Percival.

As our brunch came to a close, I still had one important question for him — if you couldn’t play for the Brewers, what team would it be, hoping he would say Boston Red Sox.  He grinned.  “You are not going to like my answer ‘Lotta — the New York Yankees.”  “Oh Vassalotti!!  You just broke my heart!”

Pronunciation – Michele (Mee-kay-lay)  Vassalotti (Vass-a-low-tee)

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