Beware of St. Paul Saints Vinny DiFazio – He’s Contagious
The St. Paul Saints are off to the fastest start in club history. It has been an absolutely amazing run that has seemingly seen a different player deliver a key hit or make a big pitch almost every night. It is quite clear to anyone watching the team for even a short amount of time that there is a great deal of heart and soul in the St. Paul Saints players, but if one is looking for the spirit of this team, then the aura that shines over the club is coming from their team captain, Vinny DiFazio.
It does not matter how you come into contact with the Saints catcher. Whether you are watching him in the dugout, behind the plate or in the clubhouse, DiFazio is the kind of infectious personality that changes his club for the better. The smile is one of genuine affection for those he comes in contact with, and the greetings and conversation always make a person feel like the catcher views everyone he comes in contact with as valuable. There is no façade with Vinny DiFazio. This is as genuine of a character as one will meet.
The character begins with his every day interactions with people. To the man, each member of the St. Paul Saints team views Vinny as a key to the success of this club. It is not even about his play, which has been unreal this season. It is about the spirit and leadership he brings to the club. Reliever Mike Zouzalik praised his catcher for being a guy that can be “trusted,” and Kramer Sneed called him “the glue that really binds this team together.”
The feeling for his teammates is reciprocated. Vinny cherishes every member of this club, whether it is his manager or the person bringing water to the dugout. To him there is no one involved with the club who is not making the team the stars of the American Association.
“This year is probably the easiest that it has ever been in the clubhouse. Our comradery came together so quick that it didn’t really take much work. George does a really good job of making sure that we spend time together off the field as far as with fans and getting involved with the community and it’s just great; very important. So many people make a difference here, and I feel when I come to bat that I owe it to all of them to give my best. Everyone matters with this club.”
Many may talk with that kind of attitude, but Vinny DiFazio is a different kind of cat. This is a guy whose dedication to his team is what really drives him. Forget numbers. If he is living up to the expectations of his coaches and teammates then he is really accomplishing his prime goal.
“I hate talking about myself as doing well. I can’t talk at all about doing anything well myself without talking about my teammates. The fact that I am having some success at the plate or behind the plate is all a result of everyone working hard on our craft.”
This is one of the fun aspects of talking to Vinny. He could be asked any question related to his own play on the field and you can be sure that somehow he will turn it around to talk about the play of one of his teammates or his team as a whole. The St. Paul Saints star is a guy who isn’t interested in his own accolades. He wants to praise his team, and it is one of the things he has clearly been taught by the two men who have meant the most to him in his life – his dad and uncle.
At the age of six his father introduced him to the game. His father and uncle are diehard Yankees fans and they inspired Vinny to join in the family love of the sport.
“My dad got me into the game when I was six-years-old. He was a diehard New York Yankees fan. I have pictures of me when I was a two-year-old holding a baseball bat and gloves. It’s just something my dad has always put in my head. He and my uncle, and my whole family are just baseball fans.”
The two did far more than teach him the fundamentals of the game. They inspired in him a drive to be the best teammate and man that one can be. “They were both great ball players themselves when they were younger, and wanted me to get that this game is supposed to be fun. That means it is not just fun for me unless the guys around me are having fun. If they are not enjoying the game then I am doing something wrong.”
Enjoying the game Vinny admits was not always easy. While loving the sport of baseball and having great skill at it, he spent many years worrying about his numbers and how he was succeeding personally. This wasn’t out of a need to be the star of the team, but returns back to his concern about disappointing his teammates.
It was only in recent years that he finally got the message his two mentors were trying to get across to him. He is finally seeing that the game can truly be enjoyed, and that when one approaches the game with that kind of attitude then they really see the results.
“I used to set actual goals as far as numbers wise, but in the last year and a half I have had kind of a change mentally in the way I am going about things. Now my goal setting is more around to stay positive, because the game can be so humbling and so negative, and the toughest part about it is just staying positive. I am realizing that it is just a game no matter how much I love it. There are such bigger things going on in life and I am just glad that I am alive and healthy, and that God blessed me with the ability to play this game; that’s my goal. To just come out here with a healthy, happy attitude and that is what is great about this team is that there are so many guys that share the same view.”
In the game of baseball one is likely to come across three personalities. The first is a guy that is fired up about every play. Each pitch is a battle of wills and the intensity of that is beyond explanation. The second is a guy who is lax and does what he can to keep his teammates loose. He sees his role as a person who rallies the team together through building relationships and a tension-free locker room. The third is a guy who is just about business. He comes to the field to do a job, and that job ends when he leaves the locker room. Today’s failures last a short-time and then it is time to move onto the next challenge.
The odd and unique thing about Vinny DiFazio is that he is all these things rolled into one. The Saints catcher has figured out a way to blend this whole set of personalities into a guy who universally blends into any locker room and with any teammate.
Looking for a guy who goes about his business in as professional of a manner as possible? Look no further than DiFazio when he steps to the plate or goes behind the plate to catch. He is the unflappable guy, who knows that he has the talent and ability to win a duel with any pitcher or any batter.
That business approach allows him to blend some very unique skills to manage and aid the American Association’s top pitching staff. Fellow Saints catcher Joey Paciorek talks about how being a catcher is part buddy and part psychologist, and no one understands this better than DiFazio.
“I have always tried to get close to these guys on a personal level because the battery is so important. If they can trust me personally, and know I am a good person and have their best interests at heart, then if there is a time in a game when they really need to dig down deep personally, if there is a time that they need to bury a pitch in the dirt, they need to have that trust that I am going to make that block. They need to have that trust that if I call for a pitch and they shake it off and I call it again, that it is for good reason, and that I see something that they may not see. That trust is so big because it saves you a timeout, it saves you so many things because they know I have their best interests at heart. I would never do anything to wrong them.”
Don’t be fooled. Those relationships go way beyond needing his pitchers to trust him. He genuinely wants to know people for who they are, and seems to always have an ear or a great line when needed.
His business approach allows Vinny to step back in games and analyze things from a whole different perspective. Some would find the rigors of catching too much to bare, but not the Saints catcher. This gives him the opportunity to do what he loves and to combine some of the key elements that make him so special.
“I have a really crazy visual memory. I am a really visual learner, and so watching games I learn a lot. I love the fact that I am in on every play. I used to be kicking dirt when I played other positions and they would have to tell me to keep my head in the game, but you have to stay focused as a catcher. There is no time for mental relaxation. It’s a battle. There are 30 things going on and so I am thinking about what my pitcher has that day, the score, the field, where my fielders are set up, the guy in the box, and how that guy has done that day, over the series or over the season against us. There is a trillion things going on and I love having to keep all that together.”
Keeping it together is an area of extreme excellence for the 29-year-old. There are five pitchers with double-digit wins in the American Association. Three of them are on the Saints. The league leader in saves, Ryan Rodebaugh, is the St. Paul closer, and Dustin Crenshaw is fourth in the league in ERA. The team is first in ERA and has the second lowest opponent batting average and WHIP. Clearly this group has responded to the personality of Vinny and his catching cohort (Paciorek), but don’t try to convince him he is responsible for a lot of that.
“I think I do well behind the plate and that I have been playing well this season, but there are a lot of areas to improve. I really need to work on my footwork more and, fortunately, Joey is so good at so many things. I benefit a lot from him, because I could just say, ‘Hey, I need to get in some work today,’ and he would be like, ‘Ya, let’s go.’ The guy can do it all and I am getting to learn a lot from him.”
Professionalism also extends to his attitude about success. It is clear that no one hates losing more than Vinny. As he is fond of saying, “My dad didn’t raise a son to lose baseball games.” That is true, but his dad also taught him that you learn from failure, you put it aside, and you move on to the next challenge, not just for your own sake, but for those you lead as well. Something that the son truly gets.
“I believe that the catcher always has to be the voice on the field, because I am the only one facing that direction on the field. I have been playing longer than most of these guys, I am 29 which is older than most, and I have been through a lot of things in my life, trials and tribulations. We all go through them, but what I have taken from those things is that we all have to find the positive in everything. I have always been a vocal person, so if I can vocalize that positivity and show it with my actions then it’s contagious. These guys want to win, so it’s almost as if that aura of positivity is contagious.”
Ah, contagious. The key word related to the St. Paul Saints catcher. His enthusiasm and love for what he is doing, and for being alive for that matter, is what makes him the second part of that baseball personality equation. Vinny has the uncanny ability to know what a situation calls for. One tense situation may require a joke. Another may require a “let’s get’em boys” speech. Another still may require nothing to be said at all. The psychologist in Vinny gets that, and he uses that understanding in the way that he has handled his pitchers.
“Some guys are really intense and focused, and you don’t really have to say much. Then there are some that you have to keep loose. You go talk to them about what they are going to do, what’s going on, make a couple of jokes here and there. But it’s still the same kind of thing. You’re going over the lineup, you’re stretching, getting loose. Make sure they stay hydrated. Make sure everyone is in the best shape and ready to go.”
To see Vinny in the dugout when his team comes off the field is a true work of art. He understands how to get his team to motivate themselves to get back to work, and he does it with such fluidity that he is probably not even aware that this is what he is doing.
About a month ago starter Kramer Sneed was struggling to get out of the first inning of games without giving up a run or two. He knew it was an issue that he was perplexing on how to overcome. The one thing that allowed him to work through the issue without pressuring himself was the support of his offense, something DiFazio would frequently point out to him.
“It is funny,” Sneed explains. “I gave up two runs in the first and the first thing that Vinny said to me when I got to the dugout was, ‘You know that lead isn’t going to hold against us.’” It didn’t hold and Kramer returned to the mound to allow just one more run over the next six innings to earn the victory.
That is classic Vinny DiFazio, understanding what to say and when to say it.
He also knows when to clown it up a bit. During a recent home stand, a group of adolescent boys came to do a dance routine between innings. Vinny was enjoying the routine so much that it was surprising that he did not go onto the field and join them. He had his grove working in the dugout as he enjoyed watched the youths perform their act. Watching his teammates laugh with him as he danced showed that he is ashamed to mock himself at times, and keep it positive. His light-hearted approach quickly had the dugout laughing and grooving. It was…well…contagious.
While part of Vinny is the guy who is always upbeat, no one should doubt his intensity. His father didn’t raise him to lose baseball games, and he takes each loss personally – for a time. He knows that after an hour or two of self-examination and anger at losing, it is time to get focused on the next task ahead, but those first two hours are ones of bitterness and controlled anger.
Vinny is a passionate, intense guy at the plate. Early on in his career that manifested into a little too much intensity. Something he realized he had to overcome.
“In the past I would display a lot of emotion, and I am an emotional guy, an outgoing guy, but the older I get the more mature I get. My dad always tells me to handle myself like a professional, to handle myself like Mickey Mantle. If you watch clips of Mickey Mantle he could hit a ball 700 feet but he would sprint down to first base like it was just another hit. I think I am starting to finally incorporate that into my game.”
This season Vinny DiFazio has had a lot of opportunity to run to first, and beyond. He is first in the American Association in hitting (.377), second in home runs (12), and first in RBI (64). All while primarily playing catcher. He even ranks in the top 10 in runs scored.
The veteran has harnessed that enthusiasm and turned it into a signature season that rightfully should have already earned him a ticket to affiliate ball. His success he lays back at the feet of the two men who molded him most.
“I lost my uncle at the World Trade Center, but I remember him and what he and my dad taught me. They were as good a role models as someone could ask for, and I just try to live up to the example they set.”
One of the most interesting things about this role model, is that there is even compassion for his opponents. He gets that this is a tough game for anyone, and has open desire to see his opponents have some level of success.
“I used to be all tough and competitive trying to get into a guy’s head, but this game is tough enough. Now I just try to tell them to stay healthy. They know the pressure is on them. As a hitter this is a really tough game. Sometimes I might mess with a guy, trying to get a guy focused on something else, but I try to keep it classy.”
A class act Vinny DiFazio truly is. He has become the spirit of the St. Paul Saints. He is the guy the driving bus, sitting in the back, and changing the tires. He is the guy who is willing to do whatever it takes to lead his team to the championship.
Right now the St. Paul Saints are on a mission to win the American Association championship. Their captain is leading them with so much professionalism, enthusiasm, and heart, that it is virtually impossible for most to think they will not go all the way. For those who do doubt, however, spend a few moments in the Saints dugout and Vinny DiFazio will convince you of the reality of how good this team is. Well, he won’t convince you…you’ll just become infected with his spirit. Ya, he’ll get you too.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA