Ask Frank Catalanotto the secret to his success as one of the game's best pinch hitters and he lowers his voice.
The key, he says, is a book too valuable to even bring to the clubhouse. When a reporter asks to see this book, Catalanotto promises to bring it in the next morning, and he does.
But when the conversation resumes at his locker the following day, about a half-hour before Catalanotto is about to board a 7:15 a.m. bus for the three-hour trip to Fort Myers, the book is not sitting in the open where it can be spotted. Catalanotto leans over from his stool, reaches into his locker and digs it out from under a pile of undershirts and pants.
The book is a thick three-ring binder, encased in an orange nylon pouch that zips shut, sort of like a protective cover. It's about the size of a Suffolk County phone directory, but the names inside span the country, from Boston to Los Angeles, Seattle to Miami.
Listed on those loose-leaf pages, in alphabetical order, separated by color-coded labels, is a personal scouting report on every pitcher Catalanotto has ever faced. And not just during his 11-year career in the majors. Catalanotto began jotting down his experiences in 1996, at the suggestion of Larry Parrish, who was his manager then at Double-A Jacksonville.
"I've got a lot of notes," said Catalanotto, who turns 36 next month. "Like when this guy tips his changeup, he flares his glove. Or the last time he got me out, he threw two fastballs in and went away with the changeup. It's so I have an idea when I go up there what this guy might be thinking."
In this digital age, when every at-bat is at a player's fingertips and can be summoned from a DVD in seconds, Catalanotto's handwritten diary is like examining cave drawings.
In addition to the tips he crams on to the lined paper, Catalanotto draws little pictures to remind him. In one example of tipping pitches, Catalanotto has described it down to the shape of the pitcher's glove, which changes from a wider U to a tighter V.
In preparing for a series, he uses video as well. Not only for his own at-bats against a particular team, but also for the most recent footage. The book, however, gives him a vantage point that the DVDs cannot provide. It also triggers memories of that particular at-bat and gives him keys to check for the next time.
"There are a lot of things you can't see on the video that I can see from standing at home plate," Catalanotto said. "Sometimes I'll just look at the page and say, 'Oh, yeah, I remember that.' Whenever I write something down, it helps me to remember it."
That same attention to detail was shared by former Met Carlos Delgado, Catalanotto's teammate when the two played for Toronto. While Catalanotto waits until he gets home at night to write a new entry in his book, Delgado would take out his diary on the dugout bench, right after each at-bat, and scribble a few notes.
Delgado had a collection of notebooks, not one huge three-ring binder like Catalanotto. Two years ago, Delgado actually forgot them at his house in Puerto Rico and had to begin the season without his handwritten scouting reports. Delgado said it wasn't until his wife mailed the books to him that his season turned around.
Catalanotto had a kindred spirit in Delgado, and the two often compared notes when hanging around in the Blue Jays' clubhouse before games.
"All the time," Catalanotto said. "It was pretty neat. We'd get some ideas from each other and it made me even more confident we had the same things."
Still, Catalanotto is protective of his information. He'll share the notes with teammates who are position players, but not with members of the pitching staff. He never knows whom he could be facing from one season to the next.
Last year, Brewers teammate Jeff Suppan kept harassing Catalanotto for a peek. And he didn't get one.
When asked about Catalanotto, Omar Minaya said he knew nothing about the book, but he added he always coveted the player, ever since he first noticed the swing from behind the backstop at Smithtown East High School. Short. Compact. Quick to the ball.
Minaya was a scout for the Rangers then. Now, 18 years later, as general manager of the Mets, he recalled that swing in explaining his decision to sign Catalanotto for his potential as a versatile bench player - but primarily as a pinch hitter, one of the most unique jobs in professional sports.
Catalanotto ultimately signed with the Tigers after graduation - Minaya remembered that he was supposed to go to Seton Hall - but later added stops in Texas (twice), Toronto and Milwaukee to his major-league resume. He has played first, second, third and the corner outfield spots in the majors.
The have-bat, will-travel mentality works only when you're among the best at what you do, and Catalanotto is third on the active list with a .273 average as a pinch hitter, behind Wes Helms (.289) and Greg Dobbs (.276).
With two weeks before Opening Day, Catalanotto is fighting for the last bench spot. It's going to come down to the wire, probably between him and first baseman Mike Jacobs.
"I think you have to be prepared, and that's what I do," he said. "When my name's in the lineup, I play. When it's not, I just try to get my work in. When I'm called upon to help the team, I expect myself to be ready."