Iannetta makes career out of making the most of opportunities

4/16/2009 - MLB

Chris Iannetta didn't just dislike being a catcher when he first learned to play baseball. He hated it. He was an 8-year-old Little Leaguer who cared more about having fun and making friends than fierce competition. He wasn't preternaturally gifted in athletics, so he hadn't tried other sports. And when he began baseball, he played third base for a few games until his team's catcher broke his wrist. Then his coaches decided that Iannetta's stocky build was suited to the catcher spot. So despite his protests, they put him behind the plate.

Almost 20 years later, Iannetta hasn't moved, through collegiate, minor league and major league baseball, or with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. The quiet Rhode Island native, only the fourth major league catcher ever to emerge from the smallest state in the country, has found his niche, despite the naysayers who thought he didn't fit the profile of a major league catcher.

Unlike many of today's major league stars, Iannetta wasn't drafted out of high school. He'd heard whispers of draft talk while a standout player at St. Raphael Academy, but his name wasn't called. Instead, he headed off to play baseball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The UNC baseball program had a rich tradition in the early 2000s but hadn't quite reached the recent prominence of repeat trips to the College World Series finals. Still, Iannetta worked hard behind the plate, finding success in using an analytical approach on the diamond.

"I view it like I'm playing a video game because I have control to a certain degree," Iannetta said. "I'm an analytical mind and I like to process a bunch of variables, with the end result being that I'm trying to get a pitcher to do his job and hopefully get a victory."

A numbers guru since he was young, Iannetta majored in math at Carolina, a likely first in the history of the baseball program, according to head coach Mike Fox. Though Iannetta left college after his junior year, he said that one day he'd like to finish his degree and possibly obtain a master's degree in engineering.

After his junior season, the 5-foot-11 righty was drafted in the 2004 fourth round (110th) by the Rockies. Again, Iannetta met this crossroads with mixed emotions. "Fourth round is still early, but when you're told second or third, you think, 'Here we go again,'" Iannetta said of knowing he'd have to prove himself, much like when he entered UNC.

He started with the Class A Asheville Tourists in 2004 before advancing to A+ and the Double-A Tulsa Drillers in 2005. By August 2006, Iannetta had moved on to the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox, batting a solid .351 through the day he got "the call."

"I had some friends from summer ball who'd come to see me play, and I was talking to them after the game," Iannetta said. "I hadn't played that day, so when Coach comes out, they're heckling him, asking him why I didn't play.

"'Well, you won't get to see him play,' his manager replied. Iannetta stopped, thinking he was in trouble for missing a meeting or lingering on the field. "Unless you head to Denver, because he's going to the major leagues," his manager added, smiling.

"I thought he was joking; I couldn't believe it, but he said, 'No, I'm serious,'" Iannetta said. "And from that moment on, my feet never touched the ground."

Iannetta hit an RBI single in the fifth inning of his first major league appearance to help the Rockies to a 6-3 win against Padres All-Star Jake Peavy on Aug. 7, 2006. "I wasn't nervous for that first game, just excited," Iannetta said. "Getting a hit in my first game was huge."

He went on to play in 21 games for the Rockies in 2006, finishing the season with a .260 batting average, 12 HR and 10 RBIs. He worked hard during the offseason, knowing his 2007 roster spot wasn't guaranteed.

He returned in 2007 to spend 17 games in Triple-A before becoming the Rockies' everyday catcher alongside Yorvit Torrealba. "He's really good at what he does, and there's not a lot that people do better," pitcher Jeff Francis said of Iannetta. "He's got a great cutoff throw to second, he doesn't allow passed balls -- he's just an all-around threat. Pitchers, we're crazy, but Chris keeps us in control."

Now two years into a pro career, the 26-year-old Iannetta said he's still learning but has more confidence than his earlier days. He's also taught himself to discern what's important in preparing for every game.

"There's so much information available that you have to pick and choose what you're comfortable using," Iannetta said. "I like looking at batters' hot and cold zones, where guys are handling the ball well, but ultimately it'll depend on what the guy on the mound can do that day."

Iannetta is still somewhat soft-spoken but has learned to be more vocal in his role as a catcher. When I talked with him at spring training in Tucson, Ariz., before he left for the World Baseball Classic, which he called a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he was focused, confident and ready. In the WBC, in which the U.S. lost in the semifinal round, Iannetta led the team in batting average with .462 and tied for second in RBIs (6).

Despite the success he's had, Iannetta said he focuses on "the bad" and what he needs to improve rather than relishing the good. The naysayers have been quieted, but he said he'll continue to prove himself.

"I've always had pretty good success, but I wouldn't say I'm the bottom or the top," Iannetta said. "In eighth grade, I wanted to play in high school; in high school, I wanted to play in college before the draft talk started around my junior year. But that obviously didn't happen and it worked out for the best. I went to UNC, spent three years there, played well, but still didn't know if I'd get drafted. When the Rockies drafted me, I was playing in A, Double-A, Triple-A and didn't think I'd get a chance until I got to Triple-A and started having success there. Even then, I figured I'd need a break to get up here."

He also realizes that "here" is a great place to be. He got married in the offseason, and when he's not on the field, he enjoys reading mystery or science-fiction novels, as well as political works. He also finds himself drawn to further study of future opponents, helping to explain what he loves most about the sport. "The opposing forces of competition and camaraderie -- that's what I love most about baseball," Iannetta said. "Every day, you've got guys trying to get you out while you and your guys are trying to get them out. It's such an adrenaline rush."

It's a rush he's faced in various forms for most of his life, proving that sometimes you find the most success in the least-expected places.

His just happens to be behind the plate.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.