Thursday, April 5, 2007
Updated: April 6, 11:44 AM ET
The greatest guy in the majors
By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2
In my 13 years as a journalist, I have become increasingly saddened by how we -- the media, the fans, the people -- acknowledge the wrong guys.
Terrell Owens sneezes and it's 24-hour news. Barry Bonds hits two BP homers and the city of San Francisco names a street after him. Bob Knight chews out an official and gets another book deal. We all complain about the jerks and loudmouths and thugs and morons who seem to be ruining sports, but -- when push comes to shove -- we want more! More! More!
Hell, it's addictive.
Last week I finally woke up to how far we -- no, I -- have sunk. In the midst of bashing Sammy Sosa in one Page 2 column and pitching another on the changed-for-the-worse ego of Barry Zito, I overlooked a bit of news that screamed for my attention.
The Toronto Blue Jays reassigned Sal Fasano to Triple-A.
Yeah, I know -- Sal Fasano is a nobody. A schlub. Through parts of nine big league seasons, his greatest fame came in early 2006, when fans in Philadelphia formed Sal's Pals to honor the catcher's mashed-potato physique and porn-star mustache. Otherwise, Fasano is a lifetime .221 hitter with 46 homers and 130 RBIs. According to baseball-reference.com, his career is most comparable to those of Billy Bryan, Ramon Castro and John Buck. When I think of Sal Fasano, however, I think of greatness. Not of Willie Mays or Ted Williams greatness, but of a uniquely excellent human being who, were class and decency the most valued standards of a career, would be the easiest Hall of Fame inductee of all time.
My first interaction with Sal came some eight years ago, when I had been asked by my editors at Sports Illustrated to track down some pudgy, all-or-nothing Triple-A catcher who'd been hit by more than 20 pitches while playing for the Omaha Golden Spikes of the Pacific Coast League. When I dialed Fasano's cell phone, I assumed he'd be either in his apartment or at the ballpark.
"Hey, Jeff, great to hear from you," Sal said after I introduced myself.
"But lemme ask you a favor. Could you call back a little later? I just got hit by another pitch, and I'm in an ambulance heading for the hospital. I think I broke a finger
From that point on, I felt a kinship with Sal that rarely existed with other players. He was real and decent and honest. He privately swore off steroid users as cheaters taking away his livelihood, and never, ever blew off an autograph request. Without attempting to defend himself, Sal once told me how, after being selected by the Royals in the 37th round of the June 1993 draft, he came this close to drinking himself out of the game. "There aren't many places to go in minor league towns," he said. "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." Within a few years, Sal had become a born-again Christian, trading in the booze for the Bible.
Whenever I'd run into Sal, he'd always greet me with a warm smile and kind words. One of the fondest memories of my six-and-a-half years covering the majors came at the conclusion of Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, when I roamed the victorious Angels clubhouse looking for anecdotes. In the midst of Troy Percival and Tim Salmon and Kevin Appier spraying bubbly and laughing and crying was big ol' Sal Fasano, searching for
anything. A September call-up with the club, Fasano had appeared in two games with those Angels, striking out in his only at-bat before being deactivated for the postseason.
"Hey Jeff!" he screamed in the midst of mayhem. "What's going on? How's life treating you?" Fasano was a stranger on a strange team, as awkwardly out of place as Bobby Brown at an Oak Ridge Boys convention. He was simply happy to see a familiar face.
The last time I spoke to Sal was early last season, when I profiled him for the Philadelphia City Paper. Having bounced around 11 organizations, Sal was thrilled to be in Philly, where he was firmly established as the team's backup catcher. The city genuinely seemed to love Fasano's hard-nosed stylings and man-of-the-people mojo. "I could play a long time here," he said. "It's the best place I've ever been." Sal went on to say that he'd like to survive another five years until age 40, then perhaps manage or coach.
Shortly thereafter, he was traded to the Yankees -- life as usual for the journeyman catcher.
Now he's out of the majors, backing up somebody named Curtis Thigpen for the Syracuse Chiefs. For all I know, he might resurface when a team -- any team -- needs a veteran leader with a forever-churning drive.
Then again, for all I know, Sal Fasano might be done.
If so, he will be missed.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero", now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.