- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

BALTIMORE — Last week, after the reporters scattered and his teammates wished him well, Sal Fasano began to clean out his locker. He cut a lonely and somewhat forlorn figure in the Baltimore Orioles’ clubhouse after hearing the same bad news he had heard countless times but never had gotten used to: Thanks for everything — we’re letting you go.

“It’s a very uncomfortable feeling when everybody else is gonna stay and they’re all looking at you and you’ve got to pack up. You’ve got to get your stuff ready and get out as soon as possible,” he said. “You kind of want to sneak out.”

Sammy Sosa had recovered from a foot injury, and Fasano, a third-string catcher, was designated for assignment. Maybe some other team would claim him, or maybe he would go down to Class AAA. He was with the Orioles for two weeks after being called up from Ottawa, where he was sent during spring training. He hit a couple of homers and caught well for the Orioles, but with interleague play coming up, the club needed an extra pitcher. At 33, with the clock ticking, Fasano lost the numbers game again.

Or did he? Back in his hotel room, after breaking the news to his wife and his mom and his brother and his agent, Fasano watched a movie on HBO. He did not watch the Orioles game. He did not see catcher Javy Lopez take a foul ball off his hand or learn that the hand was, in fact, broken, and that Lopez would be out at least six weeks. It was his brother, Mike, who called to tell him.

Fasano’s first thought was to feel badly for Lopez. His second thought was, “Are they gonna call me back up or call the guy in Triple-A?” That would be Eli Whiteside, a young catcher whom the Orioles like. At about 1 the next afternoon, Ed Kinney, the club’s director of baseball administration, called Fasano and said to sit tight. Two hours later, Kinney told Fasano he was being activated for the game that night as a backup to Lopez’s replacement, Geronimo Gil.

“I basically speed-walked to his office and signed some papers,” Fasano said.

About 24 hours earlier, his career, a self-described “roller coaster,” was hurtling downhill. Now he was headed back up, back to the first-place Orioles.

“It’s unfathomable,” he said. “My agent said he had never seen anything like this before. It was a first, another chapter in the book, I guess.”

Or another scene in a movie. Fasano in some ways is Crash Davis, the catcher played by Kevin Costner in the movie “Bull Durham.” While there is no physical resemblance and certainly no dalliances with the likes of Susan Sarandon (Fasano is married with a 3-year-old son and another child due shortly), both are wizened veterans who have spent most of their careers in the minor leagues — the type of smart, savvy receiver and handler of young pitchers that teams both desire — “a true professional,” Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said — and cut loose.

“The odd man out,” Fasano said.

Said Orioles broadcaster Buck Martinez, who caught for 17 seasons in the majors, mostly as a backup: “He’s always a guy you think about. He does everything you want. He keeps himself into the game. He knows what’s going on.”

You could see the “but” coming down Broadway.

“But he never really hit enough [.215] to warrant a regular position in the big leagues. He’s always had to battle his weight. He always had the perception of being a big, slow slug behind the plate. But he wasn’t that, at all. He could throw well. He could move around. He called a great game.”

Even with his modest numbers, Salvatore Frank Fasano stands out at 6-foot-2 and about 245-pounds. He is first-generation Italian-American, the son of Vincent and Adelina Fasano. He grew up in a suburb north of Chicago, a fan of both the Cubs and the White Sox, mainly because Fasano idolized Sox catcher Carlton Fisk.

Fasano speaks in clear, complete sentences. He looks people in the eye, and he appreciates every moment he gets to do what he does. He is both one of the fellas and an anomaly. With his ample frame, his thick, black hair and a mug that leaves no doubt about his heritage, he looks more like Sal from the neighborhood than your typical jock. Although he is married to a former jock. His wife, Kerri, played volleyball at the University of Evansville, where they met.

For many pro athletes, working in the offseason goes no further than test-driving Escalades or searching for the perfect duck blind. For Fasano, it means wielding a shovel. He worked for his father-in-law’s excavation company, digging out foundations and sewer and water lines. (See the big guy over there mucking around in the mud? That’s Sal Fasano, the big league catcher.) He also worked nights as a baseball instructor.

“When you don’t make a lot of money, this is what happens,” he said.

Fasano’s baseball odyssey began in 1993, when the Kansas City Royals picked him in the 37th round out of Evansville. Since then, he has played in 261 major league games and more than 700 in the minors. The Orioles are Fasano’s sixth big league club. Only once, in 2000 with Oakland, has he spent an entire season in the majors. During the 2002 playoffs with Anaheim, while warming up during a morning workout, he blew out his right elbow and missed the entire 2003 season.

Why does he keep doing this, fighting the injuries and disappointment and always being the odd man out?

“Because I’m too dumb to know better,” he said.

He’s kidding, of course. It’s the people, he said, the superstars and grinders like himself. But mainly, it’s the game — distilled to its essence, the bad stuff removed.

“To me, there’s nothing better than getting behind the plate,” he said. “Putting a four-pitch sequence down and getting the guy out. The purity of baseball itself is wonderful.”

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