(Editor’s Note: Michael Rizzitello is a 2012 graduate of Connetquot HS and 2016 graduate of Dowling College. He was named to our All-Long Island team last year and he participated in our Battle of the Border. He is currently playing professional ball in the Pacific Association. The following words are his own.)
The hardest part about playing the game of baseball is knowing when to hang it up–something that I thought I would have to do at the end of my senior season of college baseball. It was January of 2017 when I was trying to figure out where I would shift my attention to, now that baseball didn’t consume my life. Let me tell you something, I have never been so miserable. I knew that I couldn’t play forever, but I didn’t think it would end so soon. One night, after a long day of work, I got a phone call from an old coach of mine asking if I still wanted to play. He began to tell me about a Tampa Bay Rays scout he knew in Arizona, named Rafael Melchione. “Raf” was a catcher, like me, and my coach thought that he would love the way I played the game. After running it by family, I decided to jump on the opportunity and give this scout a call. After a five minute phone call and about 15 minutes worth of film showing my skills, Raf invited me to go down to Arizona to work out with him. This is where my journey to professional baseball begins.
In March of 2017, I took a plane to Arizona in hopes to continue my baseball career. I was so eager to get to work that as soon as I landed I had Raf take me to his facility to take some swings. The next day I suited up and had a private work out at the local field with another player from the Mexican league. We took three rounds of batting practice after I threw down to second, blocked and received. After the work out, the Mexican League player left and Raf told me he called his supervisor and he was coming down to see me the next day. I was at a loss for words; in 24 hours I could be a Tampa Bay Ray. The next morning rolls in, I met Raf’s supervisor and I have my second workout. I perform even better than the day before. The supervisor tells me that although he liked what he saw, March is a tough time to sign a new player because at this time in the season teams are trying to get rid of players. This news was tough to handle, but what he said next softened the blow. He told me that because I have tools to play at the next level, he will find a spot in Independent ball (professional baseball that’s not with an affiliated team) for me to play, if I played well there, Then there is a chance I can sign with the Rays next season.
So after the long three days, I came back home and waited to hear news back from Raf. The first text I get from him says that he contacted all the teams in the Frontier League and the American Association, they all said I would have to go to another tryout with them in another state. Even though going to another tryout seemed frustrating, I was going to do anything it takes to continue playing. Luckily the next text I get from Raf a few hours later reads “get ready to go to Cali” following this text was a phone call from Matt Kavanaugh, the Manager for the San Rafael Pacifics, a team in the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball. He says he has heard a lot about me and that a contract is being processed by the front office. I couldn’t be more excited to continue to play the game I love and get paid to do it.
After a lot of hard work and waiting, Spring Training finally came. I got on a plane and took off for San Francisco, Ca, hopefully for the next four months. Spring Training was an emotional roller coaster, although I was just so happy to strap on the cleats again, I knew I had to perform well if I wanted to stay. As the days went on I realized there is no question in my mind, I belonged there. There were guys bigger than me (old news) but I had nothing to lose and everything to gain and that is what propelled me to perform to the best of my ability. The night before the final cuts was the scariest part for me. Even though I knew I played my heart out, there were tales of old teammates of mine who got cut for lack of experience and I didn’t want that to happen to me. Morning comes and I get pulled into the managers office to get the news that I made the team, I couldn’t be more excited and it still hasn’t sunk in yet. I am a Professional baseball player.
Although I made the team, I still had to continue to perform if I wanted to stay. This was a constant battle to try and play without putting any extra pressure on myself. With the help of some veterans, I was able to understand not to let myself get too high or too low because at any moment things can change.
In my first professional at bat I rip a 2 RBI triple down the right field line, we were away so all I heard was my teammates cheering as opposed to the crowd, but as I watched the ball go from the pitchers hand back to the dugout, I couldn’t help, but smile like a little kid, my first professional hit and I get to keep the ball. I was off to a hot start and during that first month swinging a scorching hot bat I couldn’t remember what I was so nervous about. One of the things I’ve learned in professional baseball is that no matter where you go or what level you’re at, baseball is still baseball. This is where the saying goes ‘don’t get too high’.
The season went on and I continued to try and stay in shape, perform and still find time to explore California. I was in one of the greatest places in America and got to play baseball everyday as a job. As August started to come around I realized that the higher level of talent wasn’t the hardest part about making the jump from college to pro. The hardest part was the longer season, although I tried to maintain good shape, 72 games plus spring training in such a short amount of time takes a toll, and that’s only half a big league season. Just like that my bat went cold and I had to find a way to maintain my hot start to the season. Overcoming this feat was tough, but I think I managed to do it quite well, finishing a full professional season has been a great accomplishment for me and I hope I will continue to learn and grow as a player, hopefully this will be one of many.
Being around professional baseball has gotten me to improve my game. I hovered around AAA guys, ex-big leaguers and guys who have been grinding it out in independent ball for seven years now still hoping to get a chance at the big leagues. These teammates helped me improve my game in a lot of different ways like, how to prepare your body, how to prepare your mind and how to deal with failure. I know I will continue to learn and I hope that these things can help me continue to move up the ranks, but if not I know these experiences will help me succeed as a human being even after baseball.