Ammirati Keeps His Cool As Low-Key Catcher

OMAHA -- It has become maybe the dominant silly side-story of their time in Omaha; how splendidly shaggy so many of these Diamond Dogs are at College World Series time. Yet one bearded Bulldogs is almost overlooked. Nor is he surprised. "You know, the catcher never gets any of the credit," shrugs Nick Ammirati.

At least not compared to the free-flowing follicles of Jonathan Holder, Wes Rea, Alex Detz, Cameras are constantly showing those faces during dugout shots. Somehow Ammirati has missed their focus.

"I've got my mask on all the time, maybe that has something to do with it."

Maybe so. Ammirati is comfortable operating in overall obscurity these days. The less drama involving a backstop, the better odds that the game is going well for Mississippi State.

Ammirati has certainly done his part, starting the last ten games including every NCAA tournament contest. For that matter he has caught first-pitch in 46 of the 68 games this year. It might seem quite a workload down the season-stretch especially as both the intensity and temperatures rise.

Yet this Dog isn't complaining.

"I've been catching my whole life so its nothing new to me. When I was twelve, I caught like 70 games. And I've pretty much done that my entire life."

Ammirati was expected to rotate as starting backstop this senior season as well as substitute in pinch- and matchup-situations, something his switch-hitting ability makes an easy call. Then a catching-hand injury to fellow senior Mitch Slauter left Ammirati as the only varsity catcher for a few April weeks.

Slauter is back, and has started—most recently in the SEC Tournament against South Carolina—when the Bulldogs wanted to roll out a righthanded order. Yet Ammirati has practically taken over the job at tournament time…not that he'd use that term.

"I don't like to think about it like that. Mitch has done a great job and everything. I just got my opportunity and have been having fun with it."

Low-key fun anyway. He isn't one of the more expressive Dogs on the squad, though it also would take a lot to stand out among this cast of characters. At the same time there must be counterweights to the class clowns, a role Ammirati finds fitting.

"It's been a lot of fun and that's what we're doing right now, just having fun," he said. That raises a question. Even in the excitement of a real post-season run that has taken Mississippi State from the Starkville Regional to the verge of a College World Series title round, does all this intense time together ever cause some friction? Particularly on a roster of attitudes and emotions that span the proverbial spectrum?

Nah. The people and pieces fit together just fine, Ammirati figures. "Where whatever happens, happens. And we're just playing a kids game."

If there's an aspect of his game that Ammirati would like to have more fun with, it's offense. He's 1-of-7 in the Series through the first two wins. This obviously hasn't hurt his team. And the other two in the bottom of this batting order have picked up any slack as Demarcus Hendrson is 3-of-8 in the seventh slot and in the ninth DH Trey Porter had the clutch RBI against Indiana.

"It hasn't been so much me! Hopefully I'll pick it up. But everybody has been playing their part." And even if he's not getting hits, Ammirati has made opposing pitchers work for outs longer than they figure. Every extra toss to him or anyone at this end of the order is a little extra scouting for Bulldogs at the top.

"That's what I try to do, is extend my at-bat as long as possible and try to get on base. If I'm batting eighth, for Derrick (Armstrong); if I'm batting ninth, for (Adam) Frazier."

And anyway, as baseball lore reminds, anything a catcher does with the bat is a bonus. Ammirati has splendidly fulfilled his duty catching pitches, working with the hurler of the moment, organizing defense, keeping watch on the running game, all of it. He'd done it moreover with a staff that is, by their own happy admission, not a normal bunch. "Weird" even as closer Jonathan Holder put it this week.

Ammirati's peers in other dugouts must be amazed how he handles a variety of pitcher and pitchers, ranging from Holder's hard breaking curveball to the spotted-sliders of Chad Girodo to the…whatever the heck it is Ross Mitchell is tossing at that instant. "Everybody is a lot different," Ammirati agrees. "But you've been with the guys all year long, for two years really. You catch them every day in the fall and it carries over." Besides, he has the best seat of all for a lot of unusual strikes and strikeouts and can hear what the baffled batters say after the K.

But does the camera seek out this catcher? Nah, they're trained on the rougher-cut teammates. And along that line, yes, Ammirati does go for a more restrained appearance, keeping his beard cut carefully.

"I don't know, I guess he just has the Jersey look," says Rea. "He grows it neat being Italian or whatever he is!"

And takes care of it. In fact Ammirati saw a sudden need for a quick trim literally minutes before the team bus was leaving for the airport and their Omaha flight. "I told the lady what is the fastest time you've ever given a haircut? She was like, a half hour?

I was like you've got ten minutes! And she got it done, did a good job too." Good enough to earn a tip. Ammirati was even more pleased when a newspaper photo collection of Bulldog beards showed him. "They didn't have Detz, he wasn't too happy about that. They had me and compared me to the new Superman guy, I was pretty happy about that!"

What will make Ammirati and teammates happiest is returning to campus next week with the national championship trophy. It has been a fun run, true, but with plenty of twists and turns and bumps and lumps along the way. The key has been sticking to their own stated goal of reaching Omaha, and winning it all there. That has sustained State over the long season's course.

"I guess getting through a regional and super regional, it's like when you first start running and don't want to finish. Once you push through it, you're fine."

WORK AND PLAY: Practicing may not make perfect in baseball. But a good hour-plus on the field Thursday morning, followed by a weightlifting session, did keep Mississippi State on something like routine here at the most unique point of a season. The Bulldogs have been using Creighton University's field for Omaha workouts, and now have utilized their weightroom as well.

Thursday's work included batting practice which is actually meant more to assist the defense. A scripted number of balls are hit for real, not bunted, and a set number of double-plays have to be turned or the team faces punishment running. Cohen said he cut the number of total at-bats from 90 to 85 today but kept the same quota of twin-killings, just to maintain some edge.

Of course no double-plays could be rolled when RF Hunter Renfroe was crushing balls over the leftfield fence. And two days now parked cars have been hit, though no damage is reported.

Thursday's post-practice schedule included two trips, first to Omaha Childrens Hospital. Afterwards the players were taken to Boulder Creak, an area amusement park.

FAMILIAR FACES: Maybe not to this generation of Bulldogs. But elders around the operation saw a couple of Bulldog greats who brought mighty fine memories of teams-past. Father Burke Masters, the grand slam hero of the 1990 Starkville Regional, is in Omaha this week for events with Creighton. So he has twice attended Bulldog practices on the campus, and wore some Mississippi State gear today. Masters has served in the Joliet diocese since ordination. Cohen often jokes that it will be ‘neat' to someday know the Pope personally, and Masters welcomes having a Jewish constituency pulling for him. Of course there is no shortage of Mississippi State Protestants who wax positively evangelical when hearing the replayed Jim Ellis call of "A GRAND SLAM FOR MASTERS!!!".

Another member of the 1990 squad turned up Thursday. Bobby Reed, the winning pitcher in both the opening game and the extra Monday game in that Regional, got to Omaha the day before with his youngest son whose team is playing in a local baseball tournament. Reed resides in Memphis now. His daughter will be a cheerleader at Mississippi State this coming year.

And several State folk have been able to cross paths this week with Mark Gillaspie, the All-American outfielder on the 1981 team that reached the College World Series. A longtime police officer here in his home town, Gillaspie has the honor of his name on a commemorative display of local stars who played at now-razed Rosenblatt Stadium.

As the team arrives at Ameritrade Park, they pass a series of banners on lampposts of CWS greats. One of them is Will Clark, shown in his batting stance in the classic ‘softball' uniforms the '85 team wore. Clark is also shown in the video played before every game this season, swinging for a hit at the Series.

Coincidentally or not, Clark spoke to this team prior to opening the season. It is one of the rare times Cohen, who played in a Series himself, becomes all fan-like himself. "I idolized those guys coming into Mississippi State. Jeff Brantley sent me a text this morning. It's great."

"What else is great is even our players, young as they hare, have an appreciation for that. A lot of their parents were probably in college in 1985." Or in the case of outfielder C.T. Bradford, his father Mike was a senior when Clark, Brantley, Rafael Palmeiro were all underclassmen. "Here we have Burke Masters and our players looked at him like that's the guy who hit the grand slam. Again, that's before any of them were born."

"From the minute you step on campus we kind of put that in your face, we put all the big leaguers on the wall, all the teams that made it to Omaha on the wall. We're constantly interjecting those names and teams because we want them to have an appreciation for those who came before them. That's what tradition is all about."

WRITING HISTORY: Yet another generation can write their own tradition. Until Monday night, that '85 team had been the only Diamond Dogs to open a College World Series 2-0. Now the '13 squad has matched their feat.

And, can surpass anything achieved before come Friday at 2:00. With a win these Bulldogs are in the championship round. A best-of-three series to be sure, not like the classic double-elimination of 1985 that saw that great squad finish third overall. There is no third and fourth place per se any more for that matter.

Nor is State interested in those lesser slots.

"They know that is what can separate them from every other team in the history of Mississippi State," Cohen said. "And that's the goal. They want to achieve what hasn't been achieved before."

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