Journeyman Sal Fasano tried to hang on one more year for son

Friday September 25th, 2009

One day.

That's all Sal Fasano was hoping for this year.

One more day.

Fasano is a 38-year-old, once-spry catcher whose knees now throb and ache like a retired coal miner, whose bat speed has slowed and whose power has largely disappeared. For 17 seasons, beginning when the Kansas City Royals selected him out of the University of Evansville in the 37th round of the 1993 amateur draft, Fasano has lived for baseball. The texture of a chest protector. The sound of rawhide colliding with wood. The scent of hot dogs and popcorn in the stands. The cheers and the taunts. The hum of a 98-mph fastball, slamming into his glove.

Though he is, unambiguously, a journeyman (nine different Big League teams and a .221 lifetime average over 1,109 at-bats), Fasano has left an impression. In 1998, he led the American League by being hit by 16 pitches. In 2002, he won a World Series ring with the Anaheim Angels (granted, he only played in two games, striking out in his lone at-bat). Four years later, as a Phillie reserve, fans took a singular look at their new portly backstop with the fu-manchu mustache and bowler's physique and formed a fan club, Sal's Pals.

Mostly, Fasano is known throughout baseball as one of the truly good guys -- an honest, humble, friendly, blue-collar ballplayer who has never been accused of cheating and whose knowledge and decency makes him, in many minds, an obvious future manager.

Two years ago, just when Fasano was thinking of finally retiring, his wife, Kerri, gave birth to the couple's third child, a boy named Santo. He was born with hypoplastic heart syndrome, a condition in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped. "It was devastating, of course," Sal says. "Your son is helpless, and there's not that much you can do."

There was one thing Sal could do -- find a way to remain in the major leagues. Although baseball diehards who salivate over the perks of the game tend to speak of cathedral-like stadiums and million-dollar paychecks, of fancy travel and high-profile endorsements and red carpet fame, an element they tend to overlook is the major league health plan. If you are a ballplayer, and you spend so much as a second on a major league roster, you are entitled to a year of coverage that, says one major league executive, "takes care of pretty much everything you can think of."

That's why, in 2007, Fasano was thrilled to spend 16 games with the Toronto Blue Jays. Last season, being called up by the Cleveland Indians in June was an answered prayer. "We need the coverage," Fasano says, noting that, thus far, Santo has undergone two surgeries exceeding $1 million in costs. "Playing major league baseball is awesome. I love it, I enjoy it. But this is about my family first. About Santo."

Alas, life -- and, as the nation is now learning, health care -- isn't always so simple. Fasano appeared in 15 games as a backup with the Indians last year, earning a little more than $300,000 before the organization let him go. Entering this season, he had the option of purchasing Cobra health coverage that would run him somewhere around $20,000, but would continue the high-level care. Fasano, whose family lives modestly in Minooka, Ill., says he and Kerri struggled with the decision, before deciding not to go that route. "People don't always understand the reality of a situation," Fasano says. "Yes, I made [decent money] last year. But I was taxed at 46 percent. To take a $20,000 chunk out of that is huge. We couldn't afford it"

So the Fasanos took a risk. Sal's agent, Barry Meister, called around the majors, looking for a team. Although the market for declining 38-year-old catchers wasn't great, Fasano still boasted some valuable upsides: Along with his attitude and approach, few call better games, and no catcher this side of Crash Davis is a more able tutor for young arms. As Tom Gordon, the longtime major league closer, once said, "There's nobody I'd rather throw to than Sal Fasano."

The Colorado Rockies bit, inviting Fasano to spring training, then sending him down to Triple-A Colorado Springs before Opening Day. According to Fasano, Dan O'Dowd, the team's general manager, told him, "Whenever we can, we're going to try and get you up to the bigs." For his part, O'Dowd insists his words were somewhat misconstrued. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sal, but I never told him he would definitely be called up," he says. "I told Sal that he did a terrific job in spring training, and that if he played well and was the best player at the time, he stood a good chance of being given an opportunity."

Whatever the case, as the season progressed and various catchers came and went through the Rockies' clubhouse, Fasano failed to get the call. Once, O'Dowd says, the team nearly brought him up, "but Sal had a sprained ankle at the time, and what good is an injured backup catcher? So it never happened. The last thing I'd ever want to do is hurt Sal, but it was simply the case of being fair to our other catchers who were also working to be brought up here."

The result: misery. Fasano considers 2009 the worst professional season of his career. Yes, he says, Colorado Springs is a nice enough place. And yes, it was good to play alongside his longtime pal, pitcher Glendon Rusch, who back in the day rose through the Royals' minor league system alongside Fasano. But nearing 40, the romance of minor league ball, what with its dinky stadiums, sparse crowds, sparce accommodations and $20-per-day meal money, is long removed. One can only hear YMCA played during a dizzy bat race so many times.

"It's often hard to get out of bed ... hard to want to go to the field," says Fasano, who batted .236 with four home runs in 61 games. "This year I made $12,000 per month before taxes, and my wife is home with the kids, serving as a mother and a father. You can't help but question your sanity. You're driven by one thing -- hope."

Hope, sadly, is fleeting. A battered, fatigued, frustrated Fasano arrived home two weeks ago, just in time for Santo's second birthday on Sept. 21. Next Thursday, Santo will undergo his third -- and, hopefully, final -- major heart surgery. The Fasanos are uncertain how much of the operation, which will costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be covered by their minor league-provided health plan, which is far inferior to the MLB option.

"Look," Fasano says. "I played in the majors for parts of 13 years, and I thought I had one more run me. I believed this would all work out.

"I really believed."

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