Frank Catalanotto

Frank Catalanotto grew up a Yankees fan and played catch with his father in the backyard. Who knew he would bloom into one of Long Island’s most versatile big leaguers, playing six positions for six teams over 14 pro seasons?

Catalanotto, 36, a Smithtown East High School graduate, was a career .291 hitter. He made the Opening Day roster with the Mets in 2010. But his playing days ended when he was released in mid-May. Yet baseball has not seen the last of “Little Cat,” as he was known. The next chapter of Catalanotto’s big league career may be as a broadcaster. After playing for the Italian National Team in 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, Catalanotto is back with Team Italy in Florida this spring as a coach as it prepares for the World Cup. Another former Met, Mike Piazza, is the hitting coach.

He was one of nine inductees—and the 2011 headliner—into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame. The awards dinner is May 3 at the West Lake Inn in Patchogue. Long Island Pulse caught up with Catalanotto at the HOF:

LIP: When was the day everyone at Smithtown East High School took notice of you as an athlete? Catalanotto: It wasn’t until my senior year, probably halfway through that year when scouts started coming to games. And the scouts weren’t coming to see me. There were three other guys—Mike Ciminello, John Forniero and Steve Reduto—that were highly recruited by colleges and Major League teams. They recognized me by watching these guys. I got lucky there because they weren’t coming down to see me. I opened some eyes and ironically I was the only one of the four who got drafted that year.

LIP: You were selected in the 10th round by the Detroit Tigers your senior year of high school. What was the deciding factor in signing right out of high school? Catalanotto: I had a scholarship to Seton Hall University. It took over a month to make my decision. I agonized between going to school and trying to realize my dream and sign professionally. My mom and dad helped me out with the decision. Every single night we would go through the pros and cons of each side. Schooling was very important to me, so I didn’t want to give up on college. The Detroit Tigers scout said, ‘Listen, we’ll include a clause in the contract that says if you decide to quit baseball we’ll pay for most of your schooling.’ That made my decision.

LIP: You spent five-and-a-half years in the minors. You really grew up in the minors. Talk about that journey. Catalanotto: Looking back, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would have gutted it out. It was some tough conditions. The ballparks were terrible. The fields were not very good. I was showering in dirty water up to my shins. There were mice and roaches in the clubhouses. Since then they have gotten quite a bit better. The bus trips were 15 hours. I didn’t know any better. I enjoyed it. I liked the camaraderie between the guys. We were always together, cramped in on long bus rides with no air conditioning. It was a great journey through the minor leagues. I made a lot of friendships and have a lot of experiences that I look back to all the time.

LIP: Going into the 2001 season with the Texas Rangers, you were largely a utility player. Where were you at that point in your life? Catalanotto: I had played first, second, third, but not any outfield yet. Going into that year I felt all I needed was a chance—or more at-bats—to flourish and for my career to take off. I just wasn’t getting the opportunity because there were some guys ahead of me. When I did get in there I performed, but they weren’t ready to let the other guys go. Rusty Greer got hurt in mid-May. The manager came up to me and said, ‘Listen Frank, have you ever played the outfield?’ I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re playing right field tonight.’ So I got a crash course—on the job training—in outfield play. That’s when my career really took off.

LIP: You finished fifth in the AL in batting average that year. Was there any point you felt like a batting title was a possibility? Catalanotto: In September, it was Ichiro Suzuki and myself. He was batting .349 and I was hitting .342. That was as close as I got. That was Ichiro’s first year in the league. All the Japanese media were coming to my games watching me. So I was getting a lot of attention not just from the Texas media, but the Japanese media. They were asking me questions every single night. As September went on, I kind of faded. I think I went 0 for my last 12 and three other guys got hot and snuck in there ahead of me.

LIP: Your career ended in New York with the Mets in 2010. How was it coming home? Catalanotto: I was thrilled. During the off-season Omar Minaya called. I knew I wanted to give it one more shot and play one more year after playing in Milwaukee in ‘09. There weren’t a lot of teams calling. All three teams were offering minor league contracts. I’d have to go to Spring Training and make the team.

Omar said, ‘We feel you have a good chance to make the team and be a left-handed bat off the bench. So why don’t you sign with us?’ I always wanted to play in New York. I always wanted to live at home and commute to work. I’ve got four girls at home. I missed them terribly. So I said, ‘I’ve got to give this a shot.’

Spring Training got off to a slow start for me. With about two weeks left I wasn’t getting a lot of at-bats and it looked like they weren’t going to give me a chance to make the team. And when I got in there I wasn’t producing. Finally I said to myself, ‘Listen, this is your last shot. So bear down and get in there and show them you deserve to make this team.’ That last 10 days I really turned it on and I made the team.

Follow Catalanotto on Twitter @fcat27.

jason molinet

Jason Molinet spent three years at as regional editor and was a reporter at Newsday for a decade. He is a four-time Press Club of Long Island award winner. Molinet celebrates his Cuban heritage, reads Ernest Hemingway and roots for the Miami Heat.