June 8-14, 2006
City BeatThrowback Backstop
The story of how Sal Fasano became Philly's latest fan favorite.
Close your eyes and try to picture the image behind the words. A lug, right? Gritty, dirty, hard. Say it to yourself. Sal Fasano. Sal friggin' Fasano.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
It's a welder's name. A bowler's name. As regal as a plunger. Sal Fasano is the guy who cleans your gutters, who installs your sink, who tells you how many screws he'll need to repair that thingamajig making noise in your basement.
Some names, they fit. Mickey Mantle was Mickey Mantle. James Dean was James Dean. Sal Fasanofor good, for bad, for whateveris Sal Fasano.
Just look. He is standing in front of you as we speak, changing into his XXXL Phillies uniform within the glorified toilet bowl that is the Shea Stadium visitors' clubhouse. A few lockers to the right, first baseman Ryan Howard tugs off his shirt to uncover a Herculean physique. Across the room, outfielder Bobby Abreu boasts an equally impressive build.
Not Fasano. He is fleshy and lumpy, 245 pounds dispensed like three spoonfuls of mashed potatoes atop a hamburger bun. His ears peek out, and 70 percent of his face seems to be concealed by a bushy Fu Manchu. He is, naturally, a backup catcher. A sweaty face mask on a 95-degree day. That's Sal.
He is as Philadelphia as a soggy cheesesteakthe Rocky Balboa-esque story of Joe Palooka overcoming insurmountable odds to reach the big time. In other cities, where the fans wear polo shirts to games and order sushi with herbal tea, Fasano has been overlooked as little more than another Grade-C backup player, but not here not now. Fasano has been a Phillie for less than half a season, and he already may be the club's most beloved figure.
Through the years, the Phillies have employed hundreds of reserve backstops, forgettable men who came and went like the Midwestern rain. Ronn Reynolds, Tom Nieto, Todd Pratt, Steve Lake. Sal Fasano is different. Special. How else to explain "Sal's Pals," the fan group that attends games with painted-on Fu Manchus in honor of their new hero? How else to explain the hoots and hollers that echo through Citizens Bank Park when a fellow who was batting just .250 with one home run through Monday comes to bat? In this age of inflated muscles and inflated statistics, Fasano is the real deal. A true, authentic ballplayer, trapped inside a welder's body and a cheater's era. He's the everyman that every Philadelphia fan relates to, the one they could just as soon see strolling down Passyunk as squatting behind the plate.
Some ballplayers spend their offseasons collecting BMWs. Others delve into the stock market. Not Fasano. For the past 10 years, he's devoted his winters to shoveling dirt and clearing rubble for Richard Kubinski Excavating back home in Joliet, Ill. The company is owned by his wife's father, but this is significantly more than a family favor. It's who Fasano is. What he is.
"I'm a grinder," he says. "I grind."
Since being selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 37th round of the June 1993 amateur draft, Fasano has played for 11 organizations, an odyssey that has included stops in such enthralling outposts as Omaha, Wichita and Rockford. His career batting average is .224. In 909 at-bats, he has whiffed more than a quarter of the time. Fasano has been given up for dead repeatedly. Too fat. Too slow. Too sloppy. Too undisciplined. Too nice. Now, he is 34 years old. He's still around.
"There were several points when I wondered whether it was worth it," he says with a tired sigh. "Whether I should just hang it up and move on with my life."
Then, with the signing of a free-agent contract, Fasano found what he was looking for.
He found Philadelphia.
The search began 27 years ago, on a dusty, pothole-pocked youth baseball field in Hanover Park, Ill. Sal Fasano was 8 years old at the time, a chubby loner searching for others his age to play with. When he heard of this thing called Little League, he begged his parents to sign him up. To Vincent and Nella Fasano, fresh-off-the-boat Italian immigrants from Calabria, if their little Sammy (as Sal was nicknamed) wanted to partake in this odd ritual with a ball and a stick of wood, so be it.
"My first team was the Hanover Braves," says Fasano. "The very first game I ever played in, I hit a home run."
Fasano is standing in the clubhouse of the New York Mets' stadium, engulfed in the familiar smells of body odor and ballplayer fart, staring off into nothingness. He has returned to that innocent time, to the joyful days when contract negotiations and waivers and Balco were foreign terms.
"I was hooked immediately," he waxes romantic. "From that day on, I knew I was gonna be a baseball player. It was one of those things where you look forward to the summer every year, to heading down to the field and hearing the sounds of baseball."
In this regard, Fasano is the anti-major leaguer. He remains unjadeda little boy in love with a sport. As a kid, Fasano was a baseball fanatic. Name a Cub or White Sox player from the 1980s -- "Ron Karkovice, Greg Walker, Julio Cruz," he says, going on for a solid minuteand Fasano call retell his life story.
Through his high school years, Fasano excelled as a solid ballplayer who emulated the defensive stylings of his hero, White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, but possessed neither the talent nor physical stature of the future Hall of Famer. In fact, during much of his junior year, Fasano was DHed for.
"I was the starting catcher," he says, "but nobody thought I could hit."
Midway through one game, Nella was sitting near the backstop, complaining aloud in broken English that her Sammy "is never allowed to use that bat." The next day, Sal was given a chance. He doubled and homered, and was in the lineup from there on out. By the middle of his senior year, the recruiters were coming. The University of Hawaii offered a full scholarship, but the immigrant parents weren't about to lose their son. Fasano settled on the University of Evansville.
"It's one of the most memorable recruiting visits I ever went on," says Jim Brownlee, the former Evansville baseball coach. "I went to Sal's house, and his mother brings out soup, then salad, then this big stuffed shell filled with spaghetti sauce. It's the biggest shell I've ever seen, and I'm just stuffed. Well, then they bring out roasted pork, potatoes, vegetables. I didn't want to make them mad, so I ate. Later on I called my wife and told her I had to throw up."
Brownlee was seeking a catcher and wound up with a friend for life. Never one for the books, Fasano spent all his free time at the field, hitting, throwing, talking strategy with his coach. "He was the first to come, the last to leave," says Brownlee. "Did Sal have major league talent? Maybe, maybe not. But he had this heart that only put out 100 percent."
After being drafted by the Royals, Fasano was immediately shipped to Class A Eugene, where he slugged 10 homers and 36 RBIs in 49 games. When, in 1994, he hit another 25 home runs for Class A Rockford, then seven more in 23 games with Class A Wilmington, he began believing the road to the majors would be paved with gold. Surrounding him were talented peers like Joe Randa, Johnny Damon and Mike Sweeney, and the talk often turned to when they would rule Kansas City, not if.
There was only one problem. As Randa, Damon and Sweeney dazzled the Royals with myriad skills, the organization branded Fasano an excellent minor league player who would never amount to much. Fasano gained the reputation as a full-moon carouser, and it was well-deserved. Every night after games, Fasano would drink a case of beer and a fifth of Southern Comfort. Every night.
"There aren't many places to go in minor league towns," says Fasano. "So I'd be sitting around a bar, talking to people, and all of a sudden I'd look up and see it was 2 o'clock and I'd downed 30 beers."
Fasano's weight climbed into the 260s, and through the 1995 season, he was unable to rise above Double A, two long steps from the majors. Coaches would implore Fasano to drop pounds and cut back on the partying, but he was unable or unwilling to comply. His body was his body. His bottles were his bottles. Things began to spiral out of control during the 1996 season, during which Fasano received the call-up he'd long dreamed of. In 51 games with the Royals, Fasano batted .203 with six home runs and 19 RBIs. Off the diamond, life was a struggle.
Fasano began experiencing heinous stomach cramps, as well as pools of blood in his feces and vomit. Determined to stick with the big club, Fasano told few with the Royals of his medical troubles.
"The dumbest thing is that I continued to drink heavily," he says. "When your idols are guys like George Brett, who went out all the time, you refuse to consider stopping the drinking. It's sort of a badge of honor to go hard."
When he finally saw a doctor, Fasano was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer. Shortly thereafter, he was pulled aside by infielder Keith Lockhart, a devout Christian, and introduced to spirituality.
"This will sound silly to a lot of people," says Fasano, "but as soon as I accepted Jesus Christ, my ulcer went away and I lost the desire to drink."
From 1996 to '99, Fasano played a grand total of 161 games with Kansas City, never earning the trust of Royals managers Bob Boone and Tony Muser, two old-school disciplinarians who were turned off by Fasano's physique.
"They screwed Sal up," says Brian Johnson, a former Royals teammate. "He should have gotten the same chance as anyone else, because the man could throw with anybody in the world. Instead, they could never get over the fact that he was heavy."
This was the early years of steroids, when players were reporting to spring training with ripped abs and Popeye muscles. During the '97 season Fasano's brother Michael, a former competitive power lifter, told him he knew a man who could provide steroids. Sal thought long and hard, then declined. "I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror," he says, "and know I did things the honest way."
It is at this point, during his later years with the Royals organization, that life for Sal Fasano grew increasingly weird. In 1999, he gained a bit of notoriety by getting hit by a pitch 26 times, a Pacific Coast League record. "It won't get me into the Hall of Fame," Fasano says, "but my on-base percentage was sick that year."
So, sadly, was his career.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
During spring training 2000, Fasano was traded to Oakland, and one year later he was shipped back to Kansas City. A month after that, he was dealt to Colorado, for whom he hit a career-high .254 in 25 games. When the Rockies let Fasano walk at season's end, he signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, thinking baseball's most inept franchise surely could use a statesman behind the plate. No dice.
After languishing for three months with Triple A Durham, Fasano asked for his release, then signed with Milwaukee and was sent to Triple A Indianapolis. "That was rock bottom," says Kerri Fasano, Sal's wife. "We pulled up to the place we were staying, a complex called Pickwick Farms, and I knew I'd reached the depths. It was late at night and there were swarms of people languishing in the parking lot. The furniture looked like stuff a grandmother would have used. I was on the phone in tears with my mom, wondering how much more of this I could take."
Her husband was equally distraught. He was 31 years old, chasing a dream that seemed out of reach. "It was the first time I genuinely thought about quitting," he says. "But my wife talked me out of it. She didn't want it to end that way." On the day after he debated retirement with Kerri, Fasano was a throw-in player in a trade to the Anaheim Angels. He was immediately demoted to Triple A Salt Lake, but received a September call-up. Fasano appeared in two games with the Angels, going 0-for-1 with a strikeout before being inactivated for the postseason. Then, against all odds, Fasano won a World Series ring.
As the Angels celebrated their Game 7 victory over Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants, Fasano wandered through the Edison Field clubhouse, champagne blasting left and right, looking, well, lost. Did he deserve to be a part of this? Had he contributed in any way? "I felt a bit like an outsider," he says. "I mean, I'm happy I have a World Series ring. But it'd be nice to have done a little more."
The next two years were a blur. Fasano missed all of 2003 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, then spent 2004 with Triple A Columbus. He started last year in the minors, but was promoted by the Orioles after 14 games and hit a career-high 11 home runs in 160 at-bats. It was enough to catch the eye of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, whoif nothing elseknows the value of determination and work ethic.
Fasano signed a one-year, $425,000 deal with the Phillies, then arrived at spring training in the best shape of his career. He dazzled the coaching staff with an innate comprehension of the game, as well as an arm that still fires rockets from home to second.
"Sal's always been underrated," says Phillies closer Tom Gordon, who came up with Fasano in Kansas City. "He knows the hitters, he understands the way pitchers think and he understands the intricacies of the count better than anyone I've ever seen. You can't not love having him behind the plate."
Ah, love. If there's one thing Sal Fasano was missing throughout his career, it was that.
When you bounce around from team to team to team, aimlessly hoping for an opportunity, the feelings of affection and compassion aren't so strong.
Now, for the first time, Fasano feels the love.
His teammates love him.
His manager loves him.
And Sal's Pals love him, too.
"He's a truly great man who deserves this," says Kerri, "Who's always deserved this."