“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
So says Vinny DiFazio on his Facebook page, where he also acknowledged on Tuesday that he’s retiring from pro baseball.
His wasn’t a household name, even for fans of the Rangers, with whom he spent five of his six seasons in affiliated ball, eight in pro ball altogether. Chances are good that more of you reading this woke up at 3 a.m. Sunday to watch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal face off than ever saw DiFazio play in Surprise, or Spokane, or Hickory, or Bakersfield, or Myrtle Beach.
Or Tulsa or Oklahoma City, as a Dodgers farmhand.
Or Grand Prairie or St. Paul, in between.
If you ever did get the chance to see DiFazio play, even once, he probably stood out to you as a baseball anachronism, an energetic throwback behind the plate, the guy busting his tail and keeping everyone else loose, whose face and build was as evocative of Polo Grounds-era baseball as the sound of his name.
Drafted and signed as a University of Alabama senior in 2009’s 12th round, the New Jersey native had overcome a lot to wear a professional uniform. The lifelong catcher — whose first coach and uncle, Vincent, an investment banker, died on 9/11 in the World Trade Center when Vinny was 15 — tore his meniscus and had knee surgery in 2006, weeks after which he was partially paralyzed from the neck to the waist, stemming from acute brachial neuropathy in his shoulder, which cost him nearly two years of his college career (and, some doctors predicted, his career).
After a standout debut short-season in the Texas system (.278/.417/.526 between Spokane and Hickory, with 12 home runs in just 65 games), injuries that included a torn oblique and a broken bone in his hand prevented him from playing a full season after that until he was a 26-year-old in High Class A in 2012, a season when he hit just .209/.338/.316. DiFazio then broke a wrist on the final day of spring training in 2013, leading to his release shortly thereafter.
DiFazio spent a forgettable year with the independent Grand Prairie AirHogs and St. Paul Saints in 2014, before completing a storybook season for the Saints in 2015, leading the American Association in hitting (.361), reaching base (.467), and slugging (.592) en route to winning league Player of the Year honors as St. Paul went 74–26.
Though DiFazio hadn’t seen minor league action in more than three years and had yet to play above the Class A level, the Dodgers purchased his contract from the Saints for the 2016 season and assigned him to AA Tulsa. He played one game with that club before a promotion to AAA Oklahoma City — ironically, traveling to face Rangers affiliates in Frisco and Round Rock in those AA and AAA debuts — and he ended up getting 70 plate appearances that year. Sadly, but almost unsurprisingly, he missed time with the AAA club when a ball struck him on the side of his catcher’s mask during a bullpen session and he broke an orbital bone.
And now he’s done.
The first thing I ever wrote about DiFazio was on October 3, 2009, on a trip to Fall Instructs a few months after he’d signed with the Rangers for all of $3,000:
Catcher Vinny DeFazio [sic] is going to be a huge fan favorite everywhere he plays. He looks like a UFC fighter or a 1940s catcher (with a name befitting either), is an extremely vocal, hard-nosed leader, was constantly seeking coaches out with questions, and hit a 415-foot home run to straightaway center field in the ninth. The New Jersey native (and son of Salvatore and Arline: you can’t make this stuff up) will coach one day, if he wants to, but in the meantime baseball people are convinced that the 2009 12th-rounder (.277/.415/.524 with 12 home runs in 231 at-bats between Spokane and Hickory this year), who caught Tommy Hunter at Alabama, is going to play this game for a long time. The minute you see him play, you’ll be a fan.
He did play this game for a long time. DiFazio wasn’t a big leaguer, but he was getting AA and AAA at-bats at age 30. Not many last that long.
From one point of view, it might seem like DiFazio’s career fell just short.
From another, given what he’s gone through, he accomplished one helluva lot in uniform — quietly in one sense, not that Vinny DiFazio ever does much of anything quietly.
Where Roger Federer’s quiet demeanor belies a loud and titanic stamp on his sport, DiFazio has been sort of the opposite.
The saddest thing in life, he says, is wasted talent.
He’s got nothing to be baseball-sad about.
Thousands, at least, will tell their grandkids one day about the epic fifth set of Federer-Nadal on Sunday.
DiFazio might tell his grandkids about 2015, and the eight years that surrounded it.
But he’s more likely to do a few impressions, and bust their chops until everyone’s laughing.
I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that DiFazio had retired if I hadn’t risked a peek at Facebook yesterday. I don’t know what’s next for him, though if it’s playing men’s league baseball or beer league softball or coaching Fall Instructional League catchers, I imagine him giving it all he’s got, with an unmistakable tone that will leave everyone else’s ears ringing.
A big part of the Federer-Nadal story was the injuries Fed (and Rafa, too) overcame to deliver a truly memorable sports memory, a legacy-defining moment, over the weekend. It was transcendental in its own context.
It was on a completely different scale but, at the same time, Vinny DiFazio, having battled through a significant amount of damage to his own body, was preparing to tell his Facebook follows that he was going to stop playing baseball professionally. His was a career that wasn’t truly memorable, certainly not transcendental, and unfolded before modest crowds in the thousands, not worldwide audiences in the millions.
But it wasn’t a career wasted, and nothing for anyone who ever met Vinny, who carved out his own little legacy in the game, to be sad about.