For Fasano, it's all about the catching

Fasano takes an old-fashioned pride in craft of catching

February 28, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sal Fasano has a World Series ring, but he didn't bring it to Orioles training camp. It's not that he's embarrassed about it. But how to explain this ring?

See, the 33-year-old backup catcher appeared in exactly two games for the 2002 Angels after being called up from the minor leagues in late September.

"One at-bat, but I threw out two guys: Ichiro and [Willie] Bloomquist," Fasano said - with pride.

In other words, the defensive work behind the plate was, is, more important than the hitting.

If the art of catching is a lost art, Fasano is a throwback to lost times. He's the kind of catcher who can laugh with old-school coaches like Ray Miller, who think pitch counts are for wimps and who understand the main job of a catcher is to get his starter through seven innings - at least.

"And make the umpire happy," Fasano said, a future manager somewhere.

"Baseball's a relational game. You have to develop a relationship between your pitcher and your coach and your bullpen coach. When those guys talk, they always need somebody in the middle. That's what the backup catcher is. He can filter out what they need to hear."

A 37th-round pick by Kansas City in 1993, Fasano has played 691 minor league games and 254 major league games, spanning the continental United States. He can't quite give up the dream, especially after his last, tiny sip of the big leagues with the Angels.

"I got two things from that season: a World Series ring and Tommy John surgery," said Fasano, who missed all of 2003 before signing a minor league contract with the Yankees, who used him at Columbus last season.

Well, maybe Fasano got a little more than a ring and a newly constructed elbow. Maybe the catcher got another chapter in the kind of quirky and slightly inexplicable odyssey that befalls certain ballplayers.

"That was a heck of a year [in 2002]," Fasano said.

"I signed with Tampa Bay, then asked for my release in June. I signed with Milwaukee, but after a month, I thought about quitting. I called my wife and my agent and told them I was ready to pack it in. My wife told me to hang in there. The next day, I was traded to Anaheim, where I wound up playing on one of the best teams in baseball."

The Orioles are not one of the best teams in baseball, but Fasano knows their history. It was all about pitching. Palmer, Flanagan, McGregor ... Fasano reels off the names. "One of the most powerful organizations in baseball," he said.

If the Orioles are to do anything this season, it will be because their young pitchers make good on their talent. It certainly isn't experience.

How much could a veteran receiver/teacher like Fasano help the Orioles, backing up the offensively minded Javy Lopez?

Yesterday, the verdict was rendered. Yesterday, Fasano was needed to help the club evaluate two Cuban defectors - brothers who are pitchers with arms worthy of contracts.

The Orioles needed Fasano to catch. They got a lot more.

Fasano crouched behind the plate and caught Maels Rodriguez, 25, a former Cuban Olympian. Then he watched with Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks as the 20-year-old Jose threw, too.

When the throwing was done, it was Fasano who stood face-to-face with Maels Rodriguez and dissected the young man's mechanically messed-up delivery. It was slowing his velocity, not a good thing when word is the Cuban was once clocked at 100 mph.

"Who is your favorite pitcher?" he asked.

"[Roger] Clemens," said Rodriguez.

And then Fasano demonstrated the short, quick motion Clemens uses to break his hands and begin his delivery, back by his ear.

"The more you move your hands, the faster your hands will go," Fasano said, some in English, some in Spanish.

"Imagine there's a string in your hands tied to your glove. When your hands come down, they come down hard enough that the string breaks."

Maels Rodriguez tried it. Immediately, his delivery was better, his chest out, his release point higher. The pitcher smiled, believing again that maybe he can recapture the mechanics that made him think he could make it in the major leagues.

"Gracias," he told Fasano.

"My pleasure. I want to help him. Tell him I want him to buy me dinner when he makes it to the big leagues. I'll be in the minors," he said, smiling.

Let's hope not.

In spring camp, small but miraculous acts of baseball can be witnessed, especially on a remote back field, far away from the stars who sometimes make us forget that baseball is a game before it is a business.

Fasano has seen his major league playing time lost to financial moves by clubs (like Kansas City) that sent him down to save in arbitration. He has seen other players bulk up on steroids. He has seen the defensive end of the catcher's role diminished by the pampering of pitchers.

Still, he has so much to offer.

"I don't play for the money. The money's just a perk," he said.

"To me, it's just the absolute love of the game. To me, to be the son of two immigrants, my mom's a custodian and my dad doesn't work, to be able to make a living at this game, to not have to work or do carpentry, it's just amazing to me."

Amazing to us.

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