SABR

Frank Catalanotto

This article was written by Alan Cohen.

The picture is familiar. From a very young age, a father and son throw a ball back and forth in the backyard or the playground or the street. A bond is formed and with it, the dream emerges. “I was hoping just to get to the Show and stayed 14 years.” So it was that Frank Catalanotto looked back on his major league career. It was, as his mother Sharon said, a wonderful ride, and everyone was welcome to join the fun.

He was born on April 27, 1974, in Smithtown, New York, the middle offspring in a three-child household; he has an older sister, Christa, and a younger brother, Michael. Smithtown is a middle-class community on the North Shore of Long Island. Growing up in Smithtown, he could not wait for his father, Frank Sr., to come home from his accounting firm for their nightly catch, and the evening was not complete without seeing the Yankees on television. He was not alone in cheering on his favorite Yankee, Don Mattingly.

As a youngster, he played in the Smithtown-St. James Little League where his team won the Long Island 9-year-old championship. He played various infield positions in his youth. As a high school player at Smithtown East High School, he worked his way up to the varsity in his last two years. As a junior, he was named to the all-league team.

During his senior year, Smithtown East was among the top-rated teams in the country, ranked as high as 17th. He had several teammates who were attracting the attention of both pro and college scouts, but it wasn’t until just before the 1992 major league draft that he was noticed when he went 4-for-7 in a game with two home runs and seven RBIs. The first scout to take notice was Larry Izzo, an independent scout working with the Major League Scouting Bureau. Before long, the Detroit Tigers came calling, and Warren Almond liked what he saw. However, the final decision would rest with Ramon Peña.

The game that Peña came to watch was a blowout, and Catalanotto’s coach, Al Chandler, pulled the starters after the fourth inning. Peña was delayed in traffic, always a hazard on Long Island, and did not get to see Catalanotto play. After the game, Peña grabbed his equipment and gave Frank a tryout.

Peña was so impressed that he told Catalanotto that he would be giving him a call the following Monday -- the first day of the major league draft. The draft was a multi-day affair, with the first ten rounds scheduled for Monday. Sure enough, the call came Monday evening and Frank Catalanotto had been selected in the tenth round by the Detroit Tigers.

Now it was decision time for the high school senior. He had also been offered a full scholarship to Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Catalanotto had the opportunity to live out the dream he had since childhood. But there was also his future to consider. What if he did not go to college and didn’t make the majors? The Tigers then made up his mind for him by offering to pay for his college education no matter how things worked out.

He received a signing bonus of $25,000 and was off to the Rookie-level Appalachian League in Bristol, Virginia. Bristol is on the border between Virginia and Tennessee, and Catalanotto was in for a bit of culture shock. Nothing to do with his being away from home; Catalanotto had never used a wood bat. From his earliest days in Little League, he had always used an aluminum bat. It took some getting used to lumber. Also, his diet was to change. Living on the road, he spent more time than he should have at fast-food eateries and added 15 pounds to his frame.

His first season in pro ball was such that he was wondering if he had made the right decision. He only batted .200, playing in only 21 of his team’s 68 games. For the season, he had just 10 hits. He went home a disappointed young man. After thinking things over and discussing his future with the family, he decided to give it one more try, and 1993 was a whole new ballgame—literally.

He was back in Bristol, but under the tutelage of Larry Parrish, Catalanotto found his hitting eye. Before the season, he worked with Parrish during extended spring training in the Tigers’ camp in Lakeland, Florida. His defensive skills were sharpened when he had the opportunity to work with Bristol manager Ruben Amaro.i Although he was doing well, he had to wait for his first professional homer, which came on the evening of August 7. In the bottom of the ninth, his solo home run, a walk-off job, provided the margin of victory in a 7-6 triumph over Elizabethton. His Uncle Gary was at the game and was able to retrieve the memento from the fan who had caught the ball. Two weeks later, Frank had homers in each game of a doubleheader against Johnson City.ii For the season, he led the Bristol Tigers in triples and runs scored. He batted .307, was named to the league’s all-star team and earned himself a promotion to the Fayetteville Generals Single-A squad in 1994.

His season with Fayetteville started off on a high note when he went 2-for-2, stole a base and scored his team’s first run in a 9-2 win over Spartanburg. Twenty-one games into the season, the Generals led their division with a 15-6 record. Unfortunately, the team’s good fortunes were not to continue. They lost 15 or their next 16 games and dropped to last place. Catalanotto was clearly the most impressive player on his team, leading the league with a .342 average when he was named to start at second base for the Southern Division in the all-star game -- the only Fayetteville team member on the all-star squad. His hitting was such that he was moved to third in the order by Generals manager Dwight Lowry.

As the season wore on and the team was well below .500, all eyes were on Catalanotto as he pursued the league’s batting title. In late August, he was named to the league’s season-ending all-star team. Although his team finished at 62-75, Catalanotto batted .325, setting the all-time Fayetteville record. He lost out in the race for the batting title to Ben Boulware, who batted .332 in 122 fewer plate appearances. Next stop: the Jacksonville Suns in Double-A.

But 1995 was a down year for Frank. He was mired in a slump in the early going.iii He began to find his hitting eye late in the season, but his average was only .226 for the season. He smacked a career-high eight home runs and corralled 42 RBIs. He led the league in fielding percentage at his position.iv

Catalanotto was sent to the Arizona Fall League, and it was here that Larry Parrish again took him under his wing. Parrish was serving as roving minor league hitting instructor for the Tigers, and knew Frank from his days in Bristol and Fayetteville. To Larry, it was apparent that Catalanotto was not driving the ball as well as he could. Parrish had Frank raise the bat higher in his stance and pull the ball more. His reasoning was that Catalanotto had limited opportunities if he continued to slap singles to the opposite field. Many other players could do that who possessed far more speed and agility.

In 1996, Catalanotto rebounded and set himself apart. Playing for Bill Plummer, Frank was a major contributor as Jacksonville spent the season leading the league in home runs. Catalanotto was put into the leadoff spot by Plummer. In mid-May, Catalanotto had his longest slump of the season, going 0 for 13 before doubling and scoring the tying run as Jacksonville defeated the Memphis Chicks 3-2 on May 18. The next day, Catalanotto hit his seventh home run of the season in a 6-4 win over Memphis to put Jacksonville in the league lead with a 23-19 record. Over a four-game period, he went 12-for-20, scoring nine runs and hitting two home runs. The new stance was paying big dividends.

The home runs for Frank and his team kept coming. On June 13, the Suns tied a Southern League record with four two-run home runs in the first inning en route to a 12-3 win over Birmingham. Catalanotto’s blast capped the barrage. Jacksonville went on to win the Eastern Division championship for the first half of the season.

Larry Parrish replaced Plummer as manager at the start of the second half of the season. Although Plummer’s team had won the division, the Tigers felt that the squad was not playing up to its potential.

Catalanotto was selected to start at second base on the Double-A all-star game. Although he went 0-for-2, it marked his third all-star start in as many levels of minor league play.

One major change by Parrish was to put Catalanotto into the number three spot in the batting order. Parrish felt Catalanotto was not a leadoff-type hitter. He was not the type to steal thirty bases in a season. He was looking for Frank to drive the ball and drive in runs.

The team started the second half slowly, but a sweep of Huntsville on August 16, put the Suns on top. In the first game, a Catalanotto single figured largely in a third-inning rally. Down the stretch, Catalanotto continued his hot hitting, powering his club to a 7-6 win on August 25 with five RBIs. He had a bases-clearing double in the fourth and a game-winning triple in the sixth.

By the time he was named to the Southern League’s final all-star team, Catalanotto was batting .301 with 17 home runs and 67 RBIs.

As August drew to a close, Jacksonville clinched home-field advantage for the playoffs by winning the second-half championship with a 36-33 record. They won their Eastern Division championship series against Carolina and went on to defeat Chattanooga for the league championship.

After a great season Catalanotto was surprised and disappointed when the Tigers did not protect him during the Rule 5 draft and he was taken by the Oakland A’s. In spring training, he was competing with the A’s Brent Gates and Chris Spiezio for the second base job. He did not make the A’s major-league squad and was returned to the Detroit organization.v

Catalanotto played for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, managed by Glenn Ezell, in 1997. True to form, was selected once again for the International League’s all-star game. He was named the MVP, going two-for-four with a double and a two-run home run, and scored twice as the American League affiliates defeated the National League affiliates, 5-3.

For the year he batted .300 with 16 home runs and 68 RBIs. He had a team-leading 150 hits and was named to the league’s postseason all-star team.

On September 2, he was called up by the Tigers. Playing for manager Buddy Bell, he got his first big-league hit off Rick Helling on September 9 against Texas, driving in his first run in the process, as Detroit defeated Texas 4-0. He had three hits in a 6-5 win over Oakland on September 14, and the next day, he contributed a two-run double in a 6-3 win over the A’s.

In 1998, Catalanotto shuttled back and forth between Detroit and Toledo. He started the season with Detroit, and split time between second base and designated hitter, getting into only 35 games and batting .246 at the time he was sent down to Toledo on June 15. After hitting .333 in 29 games with Toledo, including hitting for the cycle on July 19 against Buffalo, he was back in Detroit on July 23. Twice in 1998 he broke up no-hit efforts. On April 19, he broke up Hideki Irabu’s bid with a fifth-inning single and on August 4, he broke up Mike Mussina’s bid for a perfect game. He came to bat with two outs in the eighth inning and lined a double down the right field line. Frank recounted the events of that night.

“Mussina was on that night and the team really was flat. The guys were saying that they didn't think that he was going to give up a hit not only because he was on but also because Umpire John Hirshbeck was giving him a foot off the plate in both directions. I remember thinking that I was going to be the guy to break it up. My dad was actually at the game in Baltimore. I got the hit and the fans booed me for quite a while. The next day my dad and I were in a cab and the cab driver said to my dad, "Can you believe that damn rookie broke up Mussina's no-hitter last night. My dad had a good laugh and told the driver that the damn rookie was in his cab.”

Later in August, Frank’s bat got hot, and he had three hits in games on August 12, 16 and 25. In the August 25 game, an 8-7 win over Texas, he had three doubles. After being called up in July, he hit .299 for the remainder of the season to bring his overall average to .282. He was a clutch performer off the bench, finishing second in the American League with eight pinch-hits. Despite Catalanotto’s heroics, the Tigers spent much of the season flirting with the basement in the American League Central Division. Larry Parrish replaced Bell as manager, but the team’s record for the season was 65-97, good for last in the five-team division.

The 1999 season was pretty much a repeat of 1998 for the Tigers, as they went 69-92 and finished in third place. Catalanotto batted .276 for the season with eleven home runs. He was used mostly in a utility role, getting into 100 games. He did have an opportunity to shine early on, hitting in six consecutive games at the end of April. During this stretch, he batted .458, going 11-for-24 with six extra-base hits.

On May 21 he had the best game of his young career. Against the Cleveland Indians, he singled in the second inning and came around to score on a single by Gregg Jefferies. He homered with one out in the fourth inning. After a single in the sixth inning, he came to bat in the eighth inning with a runner on first base. His second home run of the game put Detroit ahead to stay. They went on to win 9-6, and after his 4-for-4, Catalanotto’s batting average was at .325. But it was only one game in an otherwise forgettable season.

Prior to the 2000 season, in a nine-player deal, the Tigers sent Catalanotto to the Texas Rangers. In return for Frank and five other players, the Tigers received slugger Juan Gonzalez and two other players.

Catalanotto impressed Texas manager Johnny Oates. His .341 spring training batting average (14-for-41) assured him of more at-bats. He had gone from being a man without a regular position to part of a second-base platoon with Luis Alicea.

His regular season picked up just where his spring had left off. He made the most of his opportunities. Unfortunately, he had a strained groin muscle in April, which put him on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He played in only 10 of his team’s first 39 games.

During a three-game rehab stint in Oklahoma City at Oates’ behest, Catalanotto played left field. Oates wanted Catalanotto to be able to play any position at any time to keep his bat in the lineup.

On May 17, when David Segui had the flu, Catalanotto was inserted at first base and went 5-for-5. It didn’t stop there. The next night, he singled in each of his first two at bats to give him 10 consecutive hits, a Rangers team record. The Rangers went on to win seven straight games and move into first place with a 24-20 record. Catalanotto, over a five-game span, went 12-for-14 and increased his batting average to a staggering .600 on May 21.

Then reality set in. The lingering effects of the groin injury limited his playing time, and he did not get to play against left-handed pitching. His first start against a lefty came on August 20. His average dropped during the latter stages of the season, but there was the occasional highlight, such as his first career grand slam on September 10 in a 13-8 loss to Kansas City.

For the season, he batted .291 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs. He was among the league leaders with a .357 average as a pinch-hitter. And once again he was on a team that finished well below .500. The 2000 Rangers went 71-91 and finished in fourth place in the AL West.

At the beginning of the 2001 season, Catalanotto got to play some outfield, but his role was essentially unchanged. In his team’s first twenty-five games, he got eleven starts and was used as a pinch-hitter six times. He was batting a respectable .286, but and the team was going nowhere. It was time for a change, and the Rangers replaced Johnny Oates with Jerry Narron 28 games into the season. Narron wasted no time in inserting Catalanotto into the lineup as a right fielder on several occasions. But Frank was still a hitter without a regular position in the field.

Catalanotto, by batting .316 for the month of May, had raised his season average to.303. Due to his consistent bat, he took over for Ruben Mateo in right field. Frank came to the ballpark knowing he would be in the lineup. Whether replacing a slumping Mateo in right field or an injured Rusty Greer in left, Catalanotto could be counted on for the timely hit. In August, he put together a thirteen-game hitting streak and batted .431 for the month. His 47 hits in August tied Mickey Rivers’ team record.

The month of September saw Catalanotto vying for the batting title. His lack of play in the early season kept his plate appearances down, but by the second Tuesday in September, he had enough to qualify, his batting average stood at .344, second only to Ichiro Suzuki, and all the talk was of his improbable run at the batting championship.vi Frank was in the middle of wedding plans with his fiancée Barbara, and life couldn’t be better.

And then, things came to a screeching halt.

“A lot happened in 2001. It was a fun season as I finally became full time starter in mid-May. Battling for the batting title with Ichiro Suzuki late in the season was awesome. Ichiro was a rookie in the league and the Japanese media were at my locker every night after the game. There would always be a bunch of them waiting to ask me if I was going to beat out Ichiro. It was cool getting so much attention. That was really the year that put me on the map. Unfortunately I went 0 for my last 12 -- or something like that. He got hot the last week and three other guys snuck in ahead of me. It was a great experience though. I was looking forward to my wedding but my wife took care of most of the wedding plans.

I'll never forget when I got the phone call on September 11th. I was in a San Francisco hotel. We were in town playing the Oakland A's. Teammate and fellow New Yorker Rob Bell called me at 6:30 a.m. and told me to turn on the TV. When I turned it on I couldn't believe my eyes. I was sick to my stomach. I called home to make sure everyone was alright [sic]. The team stayed in San Fran and walked around the city. There was an eerie feeling throughout the streets and we were all a little scared because we didn't know what would happen next. We couldn't leave the city because they would not allow any cars over the bridge. Finally when we were allowed to leave a day later we all piled on a bus and drove all the way to Texas. Obviously the airports were shut down. It was a crazy time but it was nice to see the fans rally around baseball when we returned to the field and it was great to see how patriotic the American people were.”

Despite a 5-for-27 streak during a season-ending road trip, Catalanotto’s batting average for the year was a career- and team-high .330, good for fifth in the league. He had four hits in a game on four occasions. He wound up with 31 doubles, 11 home runs and 54 RBIs. He had a career-high 15 stolen bases. Unfortunately, the team again was in the basement of the AL West, this time with a 73-89 record.

The Rangers got off to another bad start in 2002. Things never improved and they finished in last place again. Catalanotto had an off-year. He missed 43 games from May 11 through June 27 due to injuries to his groin and a stress fracture in his back. His season had few highlights, but on August 9, he singled, doubled and tripled in an 11-5 win over Cleveland. On August 16, in the midst of a modest five-game hitting streak, he broke his right hand when he was hit by a pitch thrown by Toronto’s Mark Hendrickson, and his season was over. He hit a career-low .269.

Texas did not offer Catalanotto a contract for 2003, and he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. Things started well with the Jays. Through May 1, he was batting .346 and had five consecutive multiple-hit games. Unfortunately, the team was in the AL East which had come to be dominated by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and 2003 proved no exception. The Jays stayed in the hunt and were within one game of first place on June 23. Catalanotto was batting .308 and was the team’s regular left fielder. The Jays’ climb in the standings included a four-game sweep of the Yankees and a three-game sweep of the Red Sox. The Jays also excelled in interleague play, sweeping the Pirates and taking series from the Cubs, Reds and Expos. But the Jays could never get over the hump and fell from contention in the second half of the season. A good September brought their record to 86-76, good for third place in the five-team division. Catalanotto finished with a career-high 13 home runs plus 34 doubles and a .299 batting average.

In 2004, the Blue Jays stumbled to a 67-94 finish and the AL East cellar. Catalanotto’s playing time was down significantly, as he was on the DL for three extended periods during the course of the season. He got off to a great start. He hit safely in his first nine games in April and became the first Blue Jay to have six hits in a game, tying the American league record, when the Jays defeated Chicago 10-6 in the second game of a doubleheader on May 1. He was batting .426 for May and .346 for the season on May 19 when he suffered a strain in his right groin and missed 16 games. He returned to the lineup and was back in the groove when he reinjured the groin on June 17 and missed 26 more games. Not long after he returned from the second trip to the DL, he went 0-for-18, and decided to have season-ending surgery on his groin. For the season, he batted .293 with only one home run and 26 RBIs in 75 games.

Catalanotto bounced back and had two good years, batting .301 and .300 in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Over the two-year period, he came to the plate 974 times and had 257 hits in 856 at-bats. Most of his starts were in left field. As a left fielder, he went errorless in 212 games. Money was tight for the Blue Jays in those days. J.P. Ricciardi, the team’s general manager, did his best to put a competitive team on the field, but the Bosox and Yanks proved formidable. The Jays finished third in 2005 and second (to the Yankees) in 2006.

After four years in Toronto, Catalanotto was a free agent. The Rangers made him an attractive offer. He signed a three-year contact and returned to Arlington for the 2007 season. Hopes were high. New manager Ron Washington had brought a positive influence to the dugout, and returning stars Mark Teixeira, Michael Young and Hank Blalock formed a good nucleus. But the team sorely lacked the pitching needed to be a serious contender.

The Rangers were still in the cellar, and Frank was shuttled between left field, first base and designated hitter. He got off to the worst start of his career. He injured his shoulder at the end of April and missed 20 games. He was batting only .228 through July. He caught fire in August, batting a league-leading .406. He went 22-for-54 and was named the Rangers’ player of the month. His August surge was highlighted by a 3-for-4 performance on August 10 against the Devil Rays. In that game, he hit a three-run homer and singled two runners across the plate as the Rangers won 7-4. The 5 RBIs in one game was his career best.

By August 22, the Rangers had been long out of contention and they were playing the equally disappointing Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. The Orioles took an early 3-0 lead, but Texas was able to overcome the deficit -- tenfold. Catalanotto went 3-for-6 with two runs scored and two RBIs, but he was only part of the story. With grand slams by Marlon Byrd and Travis Metcalf, the Rangers routed the Orioles 30-3, becoming the first team since 1897 to score 30 runs in a game.

Catalanotto, despite his August heroics, batted only .260 for the season with 11 home runs and 44 RBIs. He once again played left field without an error, bringing his errorless streak to three seasons and 276 games.

In 2008, Catalanotto again got off to a poor start at the plate, and his errorless streak in left field ended on April 11, in an 8-5 loss to Toronto. But his bat heated up in May. Manager Ron Washington positioned Frank at first base, and the veteran came through. He hit .365 for the month and the team showed some signs of life as well. The Rangers went 19-10 and were over .500 at month’s end.

Catalanotto was being platooned at first base. And he continued his career-long success as a pinch-hitter. A key pinch-hit on June 22 brought home the winning run in an interleague game against the Washington Nationals. It brought his career pinch-hitting batting average to .292 and his career pinch-hitting on-base percentage to .392. Both figures topped all other active players with at least 150 pinch-hit at-bats.

During the second half of the season, Catalanotto’s playing time was cut significantly as the Rangers were overstocked with first basemen and outfielders. He appeared in only 28 games after July 1.

Catalanotto’s career was on the downside. He was released by the Rangers on April 1, 2009, and signed on with the Milwaukee Brewers on May 12. He played in only 75 games (32 as a starter) and batted .278, with only one home run and nine RBIs. The home run, which he hit against the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 11, brought his career total to 84.

The Brewers elected not to re-sign Catalanotto. In the offseason, he was mulling over retirement when he received a call from Omar Minaya, the New York Mets’ general manager, and he was looking for a left-handed hitter to pinch hit and be a utility player. Catalanotto signed on. He, at long last, would get to play in New York, although not with the Yankees. The Mets rarely used him, and he was released on May 17, 2010, after going 4-for-25.

For his career Catalanotto batted .291 with an on-base percentage of .357. He had 1,113 hits, including 84 home runs.

His playing days over, Catalanotto turned to devoting more time to his family. Frank and Barbara have four daughters - Morgan, Camdyn, Karson, and Gracyn.  Morgan was born with vascular birthmark syndrome, and Frank has established a foundation to raise money fund research into the causes of this condition, facilitate the proper diagnosis of the condition, and to promote proper treatments, such as those received by his daughter.

 

Sources

Associated Press. “Tiger Farmhand and All Star Standout: Catalanotto Shines in Triple A Game.” July 13, 1997.

Sammy Batten. “Catalanotto Unsung Hero for the Generals,” Fayetteville Observer, May 7, 1994.

Sammy Batten. “Catalanotto an All-Star on and off the field,” Fayetteville Observer, June 18, 1994.

Frank Catalanotto. Heart and Hustle, An Unlikely Journey From Little Leaguer to Big Leaguer. (Chicago: Bantry Bay Books, 2012)

Alan Cohen. Frank Catalanotto interview, August 9, 2011, and subsequent email exchanges on September 12, 2011, and September 24, 2011.

David Ginsburg. “Rangers 6, Orioles 4.” Associated Press, July 19, 2001.

Evan Grant. “Unique Position: Utility Players Must be Ready for Anything,” The Dallas Morning News, May 16, 2001.

Steven Hawkins. “Catalanotto now everyday OF in thick of AL batting race,” Associated Press, August 28, 2001.

Clyde Hughes. “Catalanotto off to a hot start.” Toledo Blade,” April 20, 1997.

Steve Junga. “Minor Decision Pays Catalanotto Near Baseball Graduation,” Toledo Blade, April 25, 1997.

Steve Kettmann. “Spring training notebook – Errors don’t help Catalanotto.” The San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 1997.

Dennis Maffezzoli. “Catalanotto could get second chance.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 28, 2000.

Dennis Maffezzoli. “Catalanotto gets look in the outfield.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 12, 2001.

Carlo Mendez. “Ex-Ranger a hit with Blue Jays.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 30, 2003.

Damien Pierce. “Return Eases Catalanotto’s Pain.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 29, 2002.

Gregg Sarra. “Minor League Report, Tigers are Hoping ‘The Cat’ Can Help.” Newsday, August 5, 1993.

Gregg Sarra. “Minor League Report.” Newsday, August 26, 1993.

Gregg Sarra. “Down on the Farm: Mecir Looks for a Niche.” Newsday, July 6, 1995. A59.

Gregg Sarra. “Down on the Farm: Catalanotto Gets Fill of Southern Hospitality.” Newsday, August 17, 1995. A62.

Kim Sim. “Catalanotto and Jays try to get well fast.” The Buffalo News, June 11, 2004.

Jeff Wilson. “Catalanotto is the new who on first.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 7, 2008.

Tom Withers. “Tigers 9, Indians 6.” Associated Press, May 22, 1999.

Peter Zellen. “Catalanotto’s new stance helping Suns.” Florida Times-Union, May 24, 1996.

 

Notes

i Sarra, Newsday, August 5, 1993, page 142

ii Sarra, Newsday, August 26, 1993, page 154

iii Sarra, Newsday, July 6, 1995, page A59

iv Sarra, Newsday, August 17, 1995, page A62

v Kettman

vi Hawkins

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