Michael Rizzitello was working as a hitting instructor in Farmingdale last December, wondering what his next move would be.
Eleven months later, he had been named rookie of the year in the Pacific Association, a West Coast independent professional baseball league.
The Connetquot High School and Dowling College graduate enjoyed great success throughout his life in baseball, but after his final spring at Dowling, although he was determined to keep playing, he wasn’t sure where his next opportunity would be.
“I wasn’t playing as much as I should have been,” said Rizzitello, 23. “I had a thought in my head, ‘What if I don’t continue playing? What if I start working? What if that was it? What if I just start my life?’
“It was honestly probably the toughest half-year of my life. It’s not fun not playing.”
He confided in one of his co-instructors, Matt Connolly, who quickly told Rizzitello he had too much potential to stop playing. Rizzitello then was connected with a scout with the Tampa Bay Rays, and after sending emails and videos, he was invited to a March tryout in Arizona.
The scout was impressed but didn’t have a spot for Rizzitello in the Rays’ system, Rizzitello said. But they put him in touch with the San Rafael Pacifics of the Pacific Association, and his spring catapulted from there.
Rizzitello, a catcher with the ability to play first base and the outfield, was named the league’s rookie of the year after hitting .280 with five home runs, 12 stolen bases and 70 hits in 65 games. His strong start to the season gave him the confidence that he belonged on the field with other professional players.
“I get in the cage, I watch the first couple guys swing and I’m like, ‘You know what? These guys aren’t doing anything I can’t do,’ ” Rizzitello said. “So it kind of gave me a little boost of confidence.”
Rizzitello’s success continued throughout the season. He had his share of slumps as well, but he remained level-headed enough to put together a strong campaign. Next he’ll be playing in Nebraska for the Lincoln Saltdogs of the independent American Association.
“It’s surreal to be able to do something I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do and not only do it, but excel at it,” Rizzitello said. “I’m thankful and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to even be able to win rookie of the year, so the fact that I was able to win it, it means a lot to me.”
Rizzitello returned home for the winter to train and work as a hitting instructor at the Performance Factory in Farmingdale.
The 5-9 Rizzitello has dreams of playing in the major leagues, but he knows nothing is given. He plans to follow his dream but knows that even working hard won’t guarantee him a shot.
“Is it going to take a lot of hard work? Yeah,” he said. “Even with all that hard work and opportunity, may I still not make it? Yeah. But you know, there’s also that chance that I work my butt off, I get the opportunities I need to get, and anything’s possible at this point.
“Why not?” he added. “It just proves to me, ‘Why not you?’ ”
C/1B/OF San Rafael Pacifics
High school: Connetquot
Hit .280 with five home runs, 12 stolen bases and 70 hits in 65 games
Won 2017 Pacific Association Rookie of the Year Award
Works as a hitting instructor at Performance Factory in Farmingdale