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By Ilana Mille

Nick Italiano drops a very professional bunt for the BlueClaws.

It was about noon on June 4 of last year, the second day of the Major League Baseball amateur draft. Nick Italiano W’03, a four-year starter at second base for Penn’s varsity baseball team, received a phone call from a good family friend.

“Nickie! Congratulations!” she exclaimed. “Mike [her son, a longtime friend of Italiano’s] just told me the Toronto Blue Jays drafted you in the 24th round! I’m so proud of you!”

Italiano was in a state of happy disbelief. This meant that he, Penn baseball’s all-time hits leader and the 2003 Ivy League Batting Champion, would be one of four Penn baseball players drafted in 2003. He would join pitcher Ben Krantz C’03 (drafted the previous day in the 15th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks), pitcher Russ Brocato C’04 (drafted later that day in the 29th round by the Baltimore Orioles), and infielder Andrew McCreery C’03 (drafted in the 32nd round by Arizona).

But in the back of his mind, he was skeptical. Though he had expectations of being drafted, he had no previous talks with the Blue Jays, nor did he attend any of their pre-draft workouts. Why had he heard only from his friend’s mom about this? Why didn’t the Blue Jays themselves call? Something smelled fishy.

Finally, Italiano went to his computer and checked the round-by-round coverage of the draft. He discovered that the Blue Jays had drafted a second baseman in the 24th round named Nick Evangelista—who also happened to be a friend of Italiano’s friend Mike. When Mike told his mom that “Nickie” got drafted, she assumed her son was referring to Nick Italiano.

Big mistake. False alarm. While Krantz, Brocato, and McCreery packed their bags to their respective teams’ camps, Italiano remained at home, deflated and undrafted.

Of the four Quakers, only Krantz had a draft experience that lacked both surprise and frustration. Though this BBB (biological basis of behavior) major was ready to apply to medical school, an Arizona scout had explained to him that it was the team’s intention to draft him on the first day. And so they did. What they got, in the words of Penn head baseball coach Bob Seddon, was a pitcher with a “live arm and four pitches.” He has similarly high hopes for Brocato, whom he describes as having a “very high upside” and “great velocity,” not to mention a strong work ethic. Having just completed his junior year at Penn, Brocato was told that he would also be selected on the first day. But by the end of that first day, he was undrafted and disappointed.

As Day Two got underway, the phones remained silent. Brocato had just about given up hope. Then, as he was about to step into the shower, the phone rang. A high-school friend now working for the Pittsburgh Pirates informed him that he had been drafted—not by the Pirates, but by the Baltimore Orioles, Brocato’s hometown team.

“I was definitely in shock when I received the phone call,” says Brocato. “I hadn’t even gone to an Orioles workout.” A few days later, he signed his contract. 

The Orioles offered to pay his Penn tuition for the Fall 2003 and Fall 2004 semesters, so he will graduate from Penn this December.

As Krantz and Brocato celebrated their draft successes, McCreery was frustrated. He had yet to hear anything by the 30th round, despite having earned the 2003 Ivy League Player of the Year Award and a spot on the first-team All-Ivy. He had already decided that if he didn’t get drafted, he would play in a professional baseball league in Sweden, and eventually apply to law school.

Then a friend’s father called with some news. The Diamondbacks had drafted him in the 32nd round—as a third baseman. He had never played that position before, having been a starting pitcher, first baseman, and outfielder at Penn. But he didn’t really care. “I was in a state of euphoria because I had gotten drafted,” he recalls. “Also, the scout said that all that really mattered was that I could hit anyway.” 

Seddon agreed. “Andrew is a great all-around athlete,” he explains. “He is good at several positions and has a great attitude as a leader.”

McCreery and Krantz headed west to play for the Missoula (Montana) Osprey of the Pioneer League. Brocato headed south to play for the Sarasota (Florida) Orioles of the Gulf Coast League. 

Italiano, still undrafted, wasn’t heading anywhere. He considered applying to graduate school in education, but he needed some time off to think things through. He had already resigned himself to the fact that his dream of playing professional baseball wasn’t going to come true.

Then came Friday the 13th of June. He was out for dinner with his girlfriend when his cell phone rang. It was his father. 

“Are you sitting down?” his father asked. “I just got a call from Gene Schall [a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies]. The Phillies need a middle infielder for their rookie-league team in the Gulf Coast League. Are you interested?”

“I felt like I got punched in the face—the best possible punch in the face, of course!” laughed Italiano, a South Jersey native who describes himself as “the biggest Phillies fan ever.”

All in all, it was a very good week for Penn baseball. For Italiano, the week was not only long but instructive. “[Baseball]’s a game, and though I love it more than anything, it’s finite,” he says. “I enjoyed it while I had it. At least now I am getting an opportunity, and I thank everyone who was involved.”

Italiano didn’t waste his opportunity. As an infielder for the rookie Gulf Coast League’s Clearwater Phillies, he finished the short season with a solid .349 batting average, earning himself a promotion to the low-A-level Lakewood (New Jersey) BlueClaws. This spring, Italiano filled in for an injured player on the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies’ high-A team managed by Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, and after a short stint there, was re-assigned to Lakewood. By June 10, he was hitting .308.

Seddon has nothing but praise for Italiano. “There is no better person,” he said. “Nick is a great individual. He knows the game, he is a hitter, and he works very hard. He was an excellent student and leader, and I know he will progress well.”

Brocato also made an impressive professional debut wih the Sarasota (Florida) Orioles in the rookie Gulf Coast League, posting a 2.41 earned-run average and giving up only 45 hits and 14 walks in 52.1 innings—better than his numbers in college. “I think I did well [at Sarasota] because I was able to concentrate solely on baseball,” he says. (Of course, having a fastball clocked at 90 miles per hour didn’t hurt, either.) This year, by the beginning of June, he and Krantz were still waiting to be assigned to a minor-league team.

For McCreery, the transition to third base was difficult. When he started to learn the position, he “felt like an absolute schoolgirl,” he recalls. “My feet kept getting tangled and my hands were rock hard. It was hard to get the technique down.” He improved, though, and went on to hit a respectable .280, though he also had to cope with a freak shoulder injury that resulted in season-ending surgery. He is now playing for the Diamondbacks’ low-A affiliate, the South Bend (Indiana) Silver Hawks, but has so far seen limited playing time.

All four players had to overcome adversity during their short seasons, in the form of long bus rides, meager salaries, assorted aches and pains, and stifling summer heat. As a full-time professional baseball player, “your whole day is baseball,” says Krantz. “Baseball all day, every day.”

Ilana Miller C’03, a long-time baseball fan, served as the student manager for the Penn varsity baseball team from 2001 through the 2004 season.

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