The day after the Carolina Mudcats season ended, Michele Vassalotti arrived at Raleigh-Durham airport to return to his homeland, Venezuela, for the offseason. It wasn’t hard to spot him as he and several other ballplayers came down the steps from TSA. They were all tall and several were wearing their Milwaukee Brewers jackets. Michele wanted to grab a sandwich and coffee first. When ordering, the cashier asked him for his name. “Mike,” he replied, then turned to me and said, “It’s easier this way in the US.” I laughed and said, “You should hear what they do to Carlotta!” We both laughed.
While waiting in the gatehouse for boarding, we heard the agent announce about the flight being near full to JFK and the need to gate-check large roller bags at no extra charge. I looked at Michele’s which looked like it was ready to give birth and suggested taking his up to the podium. “Oh, it will fit,” he stated. I laughed to myself and thought of how many times I had heard that when I was a flight attendant. As predicted during boarding, the gate agent tagged his bag. He looked back at me. “It will be in the jetway at JFK. Trust me,” I assured him. “Now, don’t ring your flight attendant call button!” He laughed and headed down the jetway. A couple of hours later, I received a text. “I have arrived in New York City. That’s the button you mentioned?” followed by laughing emojis. Next was a picture of the panel above his seat. The following day, he finally arrived in Caracas.
The rest of September was spending time with his family, helping his dad who has a shoe business, celebrating his grandpa’s birthday and having dental surgery. He also took a mental and physical break from baseball with one exception — following Albert Pujol’s run for his 700th homerun! The break didn’t last long as he found out he had been chosen to pitch for Venezuela mid-October in the WBSC U23 Baseball World Cup!
The tournament was in Taiwan. There was a twelve-hour difference in time and they were a day ahead of us. I found myself up at 3AM in my jammies and sipping green tea while watching his games. Michele was awesome. He pitched relief in three games shutting down the batters from top ranked Japan and Chinese Taipei as well as Puerto Rico. Although the Venezuelan team fell short in tournament play, Vassalotti did not disappoint with a 0.00 ERA, giving up only 2 hits and 4 walks. He stuck out 4. According to the game announcers, there was speculation that Japan and Chinese Taipei might be thinking of pursuing the right-hander to pitch for their countries!!
November brought World Cup soccer action and it was my turn to amaze Michele with my picks in a contest sponsored by Fox Sports. I went through the tournament in the mid-90 to high-90 percentile. I only suffered two upsets by Croatia and Belgium. I was headed to the quarter-finals in the top 99 percentile and a million-dollar prize might become a reality! Vass shared in my excitement and provided a list of suggestions of how to spend my money buying homes in Iceland, Spain and Italy. I was ready! But like many dreams, this one came to an abrupt end when Portugal benched their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the team was upset by Morocco. I finished in the 92 percentile.
Meanwhile in Venezuela, Michele had put his personal life on hold and was back in an intensive training program. Determined to improve and excel, he surrounded himself with qualified mentors. His coach, Victor Aguirre of New Performance, spent endless hours working with his pitching mechanics and ways to improve his durability. Physical therapist Gerardo Figueroa ensured he was conditioning correctly and sports psychologist Itamar Cabrera focused on the mental aspect. Thanks to Instagram, I could view his sessions and watch his progress. I witnessed a change in his style, delivery and speed. He exuded confidence.
The discipline, determination and hard work paid off. Recently Michele was named by Team Italy to participate in the World Baseball Classic in March. It’s his second stint with Team Italy as he was on the team in 2017 during World Cup play in Thunder Bay, Canada. There will be workouts soon in Arizona before Team Italy heads to Taiwan for the first round of play for their Pool A. Also in their pool are the Netherlands, Cuba, Panama and no stranger to Vassalotti, Chinese Taipei!