Sports | Baseball

Columbia's Man in the Minors: Summertime in Baseball, USA

This is part two of a two-part series. Part one ran on Thursday, Sept. 8.

When former Columbia outfielder Dario Pizzano and shortstop Tyler Smith joined the Rainiers together in 2016, they were welcomed with surprising kindness. 

“That first week, while I was just trying to feel out the team, there were a lot of veteran guys on this team who were great to us,” Pizzano said. “They took care of us.”

Efren Navarro, a 30-year-old first baseman and left fielder, proved an unlikely mentor. Despite competing with Pizzano for playing time, the 10-year veteran of the minors took the rookie under his wing. Navarro rented a two-story townhouse and invited Smith and Pizzano to live with him. He picked up the bulk of the rent and told his new housemates not to worry about it. 

Navarro played 50 games for the Los Angeles Angels a couple years ago, but his .627 OPS didn’t turn heads, and he bounced around several minor league teams. A few months after inviting Smith and Pizzano to his townhouse, he got traded to the Toros of Tijuana—an unaffiliated team in the Mexican League. Just three days later, he was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization and assigned to their Triple-A team. Older than half of all Major Leaguers, Navarro may never make it to The Show again.

Inside the clubhouse, the Rainiers tease each other even while jockeying for the same spots: Pizzano’s teammates gave him the silent treatment until he blasted his first home run, and lefty David Rollins—who last year pitched 20 games of relief for the Mariners—pokes fun at Pizzano over post-game barbecue. 

The turnover is brutal for the fans—it’s not easy to get invested in players who might get sent elsewhere in a week’s time. But it’s harder for the players. On the road, as Navarro and other veterans showed Pizzano the ropes, they bought him dinner and said: “I hope you guys remember this when you’re our age.”

The ball chops towards the mound as Pizzano hustles down the line, but Morrow scoops it up and tosses to first base to end the game. Final: El Paso 5, Tacoma 3.

Listach likes Pizzano—a lot—and it’s clear that he believes in him. While some bloggers carefully frame the 25-year-old as a “fringe prospect who’s never been young for the league,” Listach is clearer with his prediction for Pizzano making it to The Show. 

“I think with his determination, his attitude, and his work ethic, I think he’s going to get there,” the manager said. 

Listach isn’t saying this to make Pizzano feel good, but as a matter of fact. Pizzano simply has the talent.

But the call-up won’t happen this season.

In mid-August, Listach called Pizzano into his office. Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto had made the decision: Pizzano was going down to Double-A Jackson. Listach is quick to clarify: “When he was sent back to Double-A, it wasn’t performance-based,” he said. “And to have him around for the first half was great.”

But the season-ending shuffle prioritizes veterans and pushes anyone with big league experience to the top tiers of the organization. Pizzano’s skill earned him consideration, but his inexperience ultimately bumped him down to Jackson, Tennessee. 

“There were older guys here … and he was the guy to be moved out,” Listach explained. “It wasn’t performance-based at all.”

Pizzano had the right mindset, Listach remembered: the belief that he belongs in Triple-A. 

“And I think he does belong here,” the manager said. “But sometimes, for other reasons, you have to go someplace else. But he gets it.”

While the rationale is understandable, the demotion was still hard to stomach for Pizzano. 

“Didn’t make it any easier,” Pizzano reflected at the end of the regular season in Jackson. “It was almost kind of worse, because I knew that I did everything I could to stay there. No matter what they say about it not being a demotion, literally it is. I went back a little. Whether it’s because of performance or not, I still went back.” 

Pizzano’s dejection was not lost on his manager. 

“Obviously, he wasn’t happy. He understood it, but he wasn’t happy about it,” Listach said. “And he shouldn’t be. When you go backwards you shouldn’t be happy.”

But the reassignment is more than just a career stumble, and the consequences can be crippling for minor leaguers. 

“It’s the whole thing,” Pizzano explained. “It’s moving across the country with three weeks left in the season, it’s that we were in a playoff run and I was a part of that team, and it’s that I had to leave that team, and my friends.”

Pizzano defies stereotypes of the tough ball player. He is thoughtful and kind. And, more than most professional athletes, he truly wears his heart on his sleeve.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” he admitted before pausing a moment to collect himself. “It’s definitely been a really hard three weeks. It’s the toughest time in my career. It’s been a little bit hard to get up for the games … I had to work through that and … bring myself to play. I have to have professional at-bats wherever I am playing.”

The move wasn’t just hard on Pizzano. Listach worried his departure might have a negative effect on the team.

“He was the team leader. Everybody flocked around to him,” he said. “He was everybody’s favorite. It was his attitude and his desire to win. … His competitiveness was very contagious and it showed around here.”

Listach pauses a moment. “The fact that he made that big of an impact was special. We all miss him.”

The veteran manager has his own history in the minors, and knows that paths to the majors are rarely conventional. Listach played four years as shortstop in the minor leagues of the Milwaukee Brewers organization before earning a promotion to The Show, where electric batting and baserunning earned him the 1992 American League Rookie of the Year Award.

But Listach struggled to maintain his performance. One year later, the organization sent him back to Single-A, bypassing several tiers in free-fall. 

“I wasn’t happy about it,” Listach said. But then he got the most important advice of his career. “Chris Bando, my manager with the Brewers system, told me, ‘It’s not where you play, it’s how you play.’”

And that’s what Listach told Pizzano in his office. 

“He said that to me a couple times,” Pizzano remembered. “I loved playing for him. He’s a great player’s manager. He gets it, he’s been in the big leagues and understands how it works. He said, ‘We’re going to try to fight for you to get back here.’”

The numbers show that Pizzano has struggled hitting in his 20 games with Jackson, batting only .164 with a pair of doubles and triples. But according to Pizzano, the numbers don’t reflect the quality of his at-bats.

 “I was hitting line drives everywhere and just went through one of those streaks where I was lining out and guys were making diving plays,” he said.

But Pizzano’s plate discipline shined through, as his 11 walks in 86 plate appearances provided a return to form. And more games with Double-A should help, according to Curto. 

“As he gets more experienced and more at-bats, I think we’ll see his numbers pick up across the board,” the broadcaster said.

“I think he’ll be back [in Tacoma] next year,” Curto predicted. “For sure.”

A faint glimmer of hope presented itself to Pizzano in early September. Major League policy allows the rosters to expand as teams make runs for the playoffs, and as the big league teams call up the top Triple-A players, there is a chance for Double-A guys to fill their absences. 

Pizzano allowed that hope to become an expectation and suffered the consequences. 

“Expecting to go [up to Tacoma], when nothing happened ... to be quite honest it killed me,” he said 

Both the Rainiers and the Generals qualified for the playoffs this year in their respective leagues, and Pizzano will have a chance to impress the organization over the postseason. 
Playoffs in Jackson started in early September, and next spring, the Mariners will re-evaluate the organization, shifting players up and down before opening day. Pizzano is hopeful about what that future holds. 

“Hey, I’m still 25. So things look grim and they look bad, and sometimes you feel like you’re at the bottom of the pit and the world is coming to an end,” he said. “But these are bumps in the road, things that will make me stronger.”

He’s optimistic about a second tour of Tacoma next season, but he has his sights set higher.

“People [my age] get to the big leagues every year,” Pizzano reflected.

“This story isn’t over. Not even close.”

benjamin.drachman@columbiaspectator.com | @CUSpecSports

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