Archive for category Minor League Baseball

The Boys of Summer – The Off-Season Journey – Part 2 of an Exclusive with Pitcher Michele Vassalotti

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!

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There’s More to the Boys of Summer – It’s the Supporting Cast

For the past few nights, I’ve been watching Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the American League record for most homeruns in one season held by Roger Maris (61) and Babe Ruth (60).  Cameras were not only following every at bat of Judge’s but also the expressions on his mom’s face as the moment might happen.  Spectators and viewers got to know “Patty” wearing her Yankees jersey and seated with Roger Maris’s son, Roger Jr.   I immediately loved her as she wore bangs like I do.  I knew how many times I invested my emotions in my sports heroes during ebbs and flows.  I could feel Patty’s pain when he struck out, her disappointment on the pop-ups and groundouts as well as the pride when her son finally tied Roger Maris’s record at 61 and then broke Maris’ record. 

Last year when I started with the Carolina Mudcats, getting to know the families of the players was one of my favorite parts of my job in Guest Relations.  The first parent I met was Christi Holt.  She was nicely dressed and totally Southern Belle when she spoke.  She bought several announcements for the big screen in centerfield.  When she came back the following day, I said, “Oh, I see you’re back!”  She smiled and replied, “My son Gabe plays for the team.  We’re here from Georgia.”  It was a fun time watching her grandson Lucas keep her very busy while in the Muddy the Mascot’s line at my podium.  Mid-August, we went to an away game at Kinston playing Down East, the affiliate for the Texas Rangers.  “Hey Gabe!” I yelled as he was coming to the dugout after warmups.  He looked up and spotted my Mudcats baseball cap and grinned.  It would be one of Gabe’s last games for the Mudcats.  He was promoted to AA Biloxi later that week. 

Toward the end of the first homestand, a man came my area behind home plate at the top of every inning and stood with his arms folded.  Every once in a while, he would grunt and reposition his stance.   It turned out that his son, Brandon Knarr, a lefty out of the University of Tampa, was pitching.   Durl and his wife Dianne spent May and June at most of our Mudcats games.  My most memorable (and fun) moment was an evening when both benches cleared.   The fans were yelling and Dianne, who was in the restroom, could hear the play-by-play of the action by broadcaster Greg Young.  She came running out.   “Brandon had better not be out there in that mess!!” she exclaimed.   I surveyed the empty dugout and bullpen; then looked at her and laughed.  My husband and I drove to several away games when Brandon pitched and sat with the Knarrs.  Durl would grumble anytime a batter would bunt on the first pitch against Brandon.   As time went on, the lefty learned how to avoid those.  I also got to know Brandon’s girlfriend, Vanderbilt swimmer Taylor Ward.  She was tall and looked like a model; when she walked down the concourse, heads turned.  Our last time to see Brandon pitch in person would be August 11 at Kinston.  He threw 5 innings only giving up a run and striking out 7 before heading towards the clubhouse.  After a few minutes, one of the Knarr’s phones dinged.  Dianne started crying and then excitedly said, “Brandon is going to Wisconsin!!”  By the next morning, they were enroute to Wisconsin in two cars with Brandon’s stuff and then on to Cedar Rapids to catch up with the team who was playing on the road. 

One of the most exciting guys to watch bat was Joe Gray, Jr. out of Hattiesburg Mississippi.   If you wanted to see homeruns, drop everything to see him at the plate.  His dad was Joe Gray, Sr., a soft-spoken man who was easily spotted in the stadium because of his tall frame. Whenever Joe, Jr. hit a homerun, I would jaunt to the section over the dugout to share a high-five with his dad and Justin Finn, Joe Jr’s investment advisor from Portsmouth NH.  Joe Jr. was promoted to High A, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers two days after the 4th of July.  

Ashton McGee was one of our “local” players coming out of the University of North Carolina and from Goldsboro which was less than an hour’s drive to the ballpark.  I first met his dad Darren when he came to my area to watch Ashton bat.  “OK, which player belongs to you?”  I asked.  One evening in June the crowd watched with concern as Ashton crumpled to the ground after getting hit by a pitch.  His mom Theresa was already almost to the clubhouse by the time he was taken off the field.  He missed a little over a week.   We enjoyed his bat until late August when he joined other former Mudcats in Appleton.   

Noah Campbell was another “local” player who played college ball at South Carolina and his parents, Darin and Amy, lived north of Raleigh.  They were regulars at both home and away games.  Amy spent a lot of time getting her steps in on fast walks on the concourse.  I begged her to take my Fitbit since it is hard to get steps in the small area I work.  She laughed.  Noah was the go-to position player when the bullpen had been depleted.  He pitched in 4 games and was even credited with one save, but his ERA came to 8.10.  He thrilled the fans at one of last games playing all nine positions – something I had never witnessed in baseball!

In August, University of Louisville sensation Alex Binelas who had been drafted the month before, was promoted from the rookie league to the Mudcats.  My husband Rick, who was ushering on the 3rd base side, met his mom Amy first when she asked if she could move down to get pictures of her son playing 3rd base.  Amy loved to shop so I saw a lot of her as The Bait Box souvenir shop was across from my stand.  One very hot Sunday afternoon, Amy walked by my podium drinking out of a can.  “Oh!  You must have one of these!!  It’s like eating strawberries!!”  So off I went to a cart right around the corner.  The gal working the cart I had never seen before.  “I’d like that drink that tastes like strawberries please.” She pulled a can out of the ice and said, “That will be $6.00.”   “Wow, that’s high, but then again, it’s ballpark concessions with French fries almost as much,” I thought to myself.  When I got back to my area, I popped the lid.  I could smell the strawberries.  As I raised the can to my lips, a co-worker yelled, “Oh my God!  That’s alco…..”  Before she could finish the word, the one swig was spraying back out of my mouth!”  Everyone was laughing except me … the retired manager and supervisor of flight attendants!!  I was mortified and ran to my boss to tell him what I had done.  After the game, I met Amy in the parking lot.  She choked in laughter.  “Oh!  I’m sorry!  I thought you knew!”  We still laugh about it!  

After the past week watching Patty Judge, I wonder if any of my parent friends from the Mudcats 2021 season will get to experience such a momentous ride as Patty Judge did.  I sure hope so and how proud I will feel to have been a small part in their son’s quest for baseball greatness!!

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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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