Baseball players take a wide variety of routes to the professional ranks. Some are simply “phenoms,” high draft picks right out of high school, while others need time at college to improve their skills in order to become prospects. Then there is the free-agent type, one who may have been a schoolboy all-star and solid collegian, but never a bonafide star with the megabucks signing bonus.
Canton first baseman/third baseman Mike Calitri falls into the latter category. An All-Scholastic shortstop at Xaverian and three-year letterman at powerhouse Clemson, Calitri inked a free-agent contract late last summer with the Cincinnati Reds, and continues following his dream of playing in the big time some day.
Mike first attended the South Shore Baseball Club for a camp when he was seven, largely due to his father’s relationship with SSBC president/director Frank Niles Jr. Now, some 15 years later, Mike has come full circle, back at SSBC working out during the off season and serving as an instructor for young players like he used to be. “I remember seeing so many good players there and I enjoyed that,” he said about his first impressions of SSBC. “I feel that I’ve been around so long and learned so much, why not pass it along to youngster at the South Shore Baseball Club. I was watching (SSBC director of operations) Rick DelVecchio – somebody I’ve played with for the Braintree White Sox – teach the game at a whole different level to six and seven year olds than the way he plays himself. I’m looking forward to working at some clinics and hopefully at some camps, too.”
The distance from his Canton home and SSBC’s location in Hingham kept Calitri away from the club until his junior year at Xaverian. Niles was watching one of his Seadogs/AAU players, Randolph pitcher (future Tufts baseball and football star) Dan Morse pitch against Xaverian. Morse threw a three-hitter and won, 3-2, but Calitri homered, tripled and scored both of his club’s runs. Niles invited Calitri to join Morse on the Seadogs traveling team to San Diego that following summer, where the locals played against a slew of talented teams and players, including present Oakland A’s third baseman Eric Chavez.
“I was just talking to Frank about that ’95 team,” Mike added. “Out of the 15 kids on the roster, I bet two-thirds have gotten shots at pro baseball. We had (Mike) Spinelli, (David) Lightbody, Dan Morse, Anthony Falco and some other great players. I realized then how well I could play. And you can’t beat being around a guy like Frank who’s been around baseball for so long.”
After leading the Catholic Conference in hitting as a senior with a .512 average, Calitri joined Clemson’s powerful program, and was red-shirted as a freshman. In 1998, he homered in his first career at bat, a two-run shot against East Carolina, and saw limited duty as a third baseman and designated hitter. The next season as a red-shirt sophomore, Mike batted .333, mainly as a reserve at first and third base. This past season as a senior, Calitri was one of seven team captains for a club that was ranked among the top 8 in the country every week, excluding the pre-season poll, including a run at No. 1 for two weeks. The 6-3, 206-pounder played 33 games at the corners, including seven as a starter, and finished the season with a .285 average,six homers, and 39 RBI.
Although he had a .291 career batting average at Clemson, he never really had the opportunity to reach his potential, serving as a part-time starter during the course of his three years playing for the Tigers. “My career at Clemson was the most trying,” he noted, “but my four years there I learned the most I have about every aspect of baseball. Sometimes I struggled, but I also had unbelievable achievements. I played with incredible teammates and for tremendous coaches. I just didn’t fulfill as much as I think I could have there.”
Calitri failed to sign with a team in the Cape Cod League while he was at school and when he returned home, he didn’t have a club to play for until he joined Harwich with less than 15 games remaining to be played in the regular season. He made the most of this opportunity, though, batting higher than .400, and impressed several pro scouts, including Cincinnati’s John Brickley, whose brother Andy was a professional hockey player in the NHL.
“I really hit the ball well for Harwich (using a wooden bat),” Calitri remarked. “We didn’t make the playoffs and I talked with several scouts after the season. All of them advised me not to return for my senior season (he was eligible to turn pro because he had been at Clemson for three years). I’m not sure if it was my age – I’d have been 23 instead of 22 if I went back for my senior year – or what. The GM for Harwich spoke with some scouts about me and I worked out for the Red Sox at Pawtucket. I really liked Cincinnati’s scout, John Brickley. He was honest with me from the very start. Everything fell into place for me with the Reds. I was home for the negotiating process when school started (if he attended on day of class he would be ineligible to turn pro for another year). I missed the first three days of school and I told my (Clemson) coaches to give me until the weekend and, if things didn’t work out with the Reds, I’d be on a plane Monday back to school. It finally popped Friday morning. We went back and forth on the phone and I signed; Saturday morning at 10:15 in the morning I was on a place to Idaho Falls, Iowa.”
Mike had joined the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League, where he finished the season playing in the last 10 games. “I was killing the ball – batted .500 – unconscious up at bat,” Calitri remembered. “But we didn’t make the playoffs and I went home for a week. I was invited to play instructional ball at Sarasota, a four-week camp for the Reds. I was playing well, got to know the organization better, and met everybody. With about five games left I hit a ball hard at the third baseman. The ball hit him in the chest and went over his head into short left. I banked hard around first base and my mid-foot gave way. It was a sprain, but it’s fine now. The doctor said it was like Chris Weinke’s (Florida State quarterback) injury, a mobility problem.”
As Mike prepares for spring training camp for the Reds, he’s back at SSBC and working for his old coach, Niles. “Mike’s big and strong,” Frank commented. “He has good hands and a strong, accurate throwing arm. He can play third or first and also may develop as a catcher. Mike’s a good kid, too. It’ll be interesting watching him progress.”
Calitri has a burning, deep passion for baseball; it’s what he knows and dearly loves playing. “My goal,” he concluded, “is to play baseball for as long as I can. I know that it’s out there for me. I saw enough at Clemson to become strong mentally. I’m going to take that to the pros and see how far it’ll take me.”
Nobody has ever handed anything to Mike Calitri. So far it’s all been his hard work and taking advantages of breaks. In truth, though, his baseball journey has only begun and right now, he’s just enjoying the ride.