SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It happens right around the two-minute mark of a conversation with Mark Minicozzi, when he begins a sentence with, “Luckily, my back locked up completely and I needed emergency surgery…”
It happens again when he tells you, “I asked for an MRI and got traded to Winnipeg. Then I asked for an MRI and got traded to Worcester. I learned you don’t ask for MRIs in independent ball.”
You listen to the burly 31-year-old with a wrestler’s ponytail and the even tan to match, and you can’t believe what you’re hearing.
Allow Minicozzi to summarize his story this way: “I was the guy picked from the stands to play.”
It’s true. All of it is true. Every player arrives at a major league locker having taken a different road, some longer than others. Minicozzi’s road didn’t just take a turn or two, or involve a pothole. His bridge was out.
His road began in the 17th round of the 2005 draft, when the Giants took Minicozzi out of East Carolina University as a shortstop. He was a pretty good little player, getting the most out of fringy tools, and ended the 2007 season with a career highlight: a .424 average in the playoffs and an MVP award while leading Single-A San Jose to the California League championship.
He had wrist surgery after that season to deal with a nagging injury. The following spring, on the last day before camp broke, he aired out a throw from short and felt a pop in his elbow. All his teammates scattered to begin their seasons. Minicozzi spent the next nine months parked in Arizona, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
The following spring, he felt good about his health and hoped to report to Double-A, one year later than planned. Then the last day of camp tore him up in a different way. Farm director Fred Stanley called him into his office, and told him he was being released.
“Didn’t see it coming, didn’t expect it,” Minicozzi said. “Coming off two surgeries didn’t help, I guess.”
Minicozzi turned to baseball’s version of the check-cashing store. Nobody wants to play independent ball. He did, for three years. The whole time he was out, always in the back of his mind was this:
“The last game I played, I was hoisting a championship trophy in San Jose,” he said. “Not too many guys can say the last thing they did in pro baseball was win an MVP award. I didn’t want that to be what they’d say about me.”
He had to watch what he said to his managers in independent ball. It took him awhile to accept a simple truth: “You don’t go on the DL. You just play.”
His back was killing him in Kansas City. It was killing him in Winnipeg. By the time he landed in Worcester in 2010, he learned to stop asking for tests. Instead he arranged his own care, sneaking away to get epidural shots every two weeks, just so he could stay on the field.
Then, “luckily,” as he put it …
He was doing squats in the gym when he doubled over in pain. He was totally incapacitated. Medical insurance he had just purchased (“Thanks, Mom") covered his surgery to repair a fragmented disk that was compressing a nerve. He had begun to consider giving up baseball, to say "uncle" to the pain. Now he felt free for the first time in years.
There was no question now. Minicozzi would keep going, even jumping at the chance to play in the little-known Nicaraguan League, where you travel on bumpy yellow school buses, your teammates could be 45, games are often postponed by volcanic eruptions (!!) and there are no scouts to see anything you might do.
That was okay. Minicozzi wasn’t trying to prove he could play to anyone else. He was trying to prove it to himself.
He hit .328 for Worcester in 2011, batting back-to-back with Chris Colabello, another independent ball project whose story warmed hearts when he debuted with the Minnesota Twins last season. Minicozzi was bigger and stronger than the 17th-round shortstop the Giants drafted seven years earlier, and he knew he could hit.
Still, he needed to get back on the road with an affiliated club. One day in 2012, after seeing a Facebook update from one of his old managers with the Giants, Dave Machemer, Minicozzi looked up the schedule for the Giants’ Double-A club. Mach and the Flying Squirrels were playing in Reading, Pa., a 45-minute drive from his home near Philadelphia. Spur of the moment, he went.
“I looked up the roster and saw a couple guys I played with,” Minicozzi said. “I thought it’d be neat to say hi.”
He bought a ticket in the third row, got the attention of Machemer and field coordinator Shane Turner, and surprised them when he said he was still chasing the ghost. Turner invited him to take some cuts with the team at the next morning. Bring your stat sheet, bring your bat, and be ready at 7 a.m., he said.
“They could’ve said 3 a.m.,” said Minicozzi, “and I’d have been there.”
The way Machemer tells the story, Minicozzi took two swings. Then he took a third. Then hitting coach Ken Joyce turned to Machemer, his eyes bugged, and mouthed one word:
They implored Giants vice president Bobby Evans to give Minicozzi a contract. Less than a week later, Minicozzi was back in extended spring camp, in Arizona -- the same place where he popped his elbow. The same place where he rehabbed for nine months. The same place where his professional dream stalled.
This time, he was on the move.
“Good thing I paid extra for that ticket three rows from the front,” he said.
His first game back, the guy pulled out of the stands to play ... looked like a guy pulled out of the stands to play. Seven years after hoisting that MVP trophy, of dreaming what he could do if he ever made it back, Minicozzi faced a 19-year-old kid with a heavy sinker at Low-A Augusta. He went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts.
“I thought, 'Man, this isn’t going to be easy,'” he said.
As if it ever was?
It didn’t get easier, but Minicozzi made adjustments, and received a promotion. Six weeks after being plucked from the stands, Minicozzi found himself in Machemer’s batting order, hitting cleanup for Richmond. He hit .284/.356/.486. He was the best bat on the team, uncanny when it came to clutch situations. And when he returned last season, he hit .309/.400/.445. His .844 OPS ranked fourth in the league.
Now he finds himself in big league camp at Scottsdale Stadium, with a locker right across the walkway from Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Tim Hudson. He’s the starting first baseman in Friday’s home split squad, in the same lineup with Angel Pagan, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence.
“I love it,” he said. “Every day I’m here with a big smile on my face. I don’t take any of it for granted. I even enjoy the baserunning and conditioning. Since I was a kid, I wanted to have a locker like this, with a jersey like this. For the Giants to bring me back and give me a second chance, I can’t thank them enough.
“A big theme here in camp that everyone is talking about is how we’re a family and families stay together. The Giants really are a family for me. I was the little lost kid and they brought me back.”
This isn’t his first time on the big league side, though. Last spring, Minicozzi came up from minor league camp twice to fill out exhibition rosters. In his first at-bat, he hit a home run.
On the bench that day, he even told minor league catcher Andrew Susac, a high-pedigree draft pick, that he would go opposite field if he got one of those outside fastballs the pitcher was throwing. Then, to Susac's amazement, he walked up there and did it.
“He’d never met me before,” said Minicozzi, who was playing pro ball when Susac was in junior high. “He’s probably thinking, 'Who’s this old guy we just signed out of nowhere?'”
Minicozzi, a right-handed hitter, isn’t really a candidate to make the Giants' big league roster. He can play third, first and even second base, though, and spent some time in left field for Richmond. He’ll probably go to Fresno, where he could be just one injury away. And if he keeps showing a knack for hitting, especially in these late-inning situations, who knows?
He can't explain why he has done so well in the clutch the past two years. He can guess, though.
“I go up there and say, 'What do I have to lose?'” he said. “Hey, I want to win this game. I mean, who doesn’t want to be the hero?”
If you were picked from the stands, wouldn’t you?
POSTSCRIPT: Not 20 minutes after I posted this story, Minicozzi came to the plate for his first at-bat of the spring. He got a 2-0 fastball on the outer half. He hit it over the right field fence for a home run. This is not fiction, I swear.