By Al Doyle
Look up the word “persistence” in the dictionary. Vinny Rottino’s photo could serve as an example of that trait.
Imagine a guy with some major league experience (he had 97 at-bats in six big league cups of coffee) along with plenty of time at AAA going down to Class AA at age 29 and 30 to stay in baseball. Then there was the season in Japan with the Orix Buffaloes in 2013 followed by a year in Korea before going back to AAA at ages 35 and 36.
Rottino was something of an underdog from the time he entered college at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. It takes a lot to get noticed by scouts at a cold weather Division III school, and hitting .410 with 15 home runs, 50 RBI and just 16 strikeouts in 195 AB as a senior wasn’t enough to get selected in the 50 rounds of the 2002 amateur draft.
“I know Harvey Kuenn Jr. (Brewers area scout) put my name in for the draft,” Rottino said. “Maybe they drafted more position players than they expected. Stuff happens.”
Rottino played in an amateur league in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin before spending a semester in pharmacy school. He had other career plans besides filling prescriptions.
“I went to a tryout right before spring training in 2003,” Rottino said. “There were a lot of independent league players. I had a good showing.”
Then came a big surprise for the former college shortstop.
“They asked me to get behind the plate even though I had never caught before,” he recalled. “I told them ‘Let me have a chance. I’m better than these other guys.’ I went to spring training with the Brewers. I was 23, which is old to start in professional baseball. The story is that Ed Sedar and Jim Skaalen (future Brewers coaches) fought for me. I made some adjustments and shortened my swing.”
Rottino hit .311 at Helena in the Pioneer League with a single home run and 20 RBI in 222 at-bats. The power and run production improved considerably at Beloit (Midwest League) in 2004. The .304 average came with 25 doubles, 9 triples, 17 HR and 124 RBI. Ironically, the 2004 Brewers Minor League Player of the year didn’t have a position.
“I bounced around different positions and did some DHing,” Rottino recalled. “Since I was really crude as a catcher, I caught 100 to 200 balls a day in the winter. Catching moves really fast. Bullpens and catching machines help, but there’s no substitute for game experience.”
The trend continued throughout Rottino’s career, as his versatility and uncomplaining attitude made him an ideal utility player.
A .296 average, 6 HR, 52 RBI season at AA Huntsville in 2005 followed by a .314 average at AAA Nashville led to being picked for the Arizona Fall League in 2005 and 2006. Competent performances with Nashville from 2006 to 2008 were rewarded with a trio of September call-ups. Rottino was able to play before family and friends, as Racine is just 20 miles south of Milwaukee.
The highlight of those short stints (24 AB total) with the Brewers was a game-winning RBI single off Joe Thatcher on Sept. 29, 2007. The local guy’s 11th inning pinch hit locked up Milwaukee’s first winning season since 1992.
“I caught Thatcher in AAA and knew what to expect - a first-pitch cutter,” Rottino said.
How did Rottino end up in AA in 2009 and 2010?
“The Brewers took me off the [40-man] roster because I had a bad year at AAA in ’08,” he said. “I asked to go to AA. I played with Taylor Green, and he got me locked back in. You have to have the edge, and I didn’t have it for a couple years, but I kept grinding.”
There was one bright spot during that time. Rottino appeared in two games for Italy in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
“Thirty percent of the team were Italians who played in the Italian professional league,” he said. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in baseball. My dad is 100 percent Italian. He grew up in the Bronx.”
Rottino’s exile in the Southern League included stints in the Dodgers and Marlins organizations. Florida promoted him to New Orleans of the Pacific Coast League in 2011. A .304 season with 31 doubles, 10 HR, 59 RBI and 17 stolen bases while playing four positions was enough to earn another September trial. He was 2 for 12 (.167) with a pair of walks in eight games for the Marlins.
Rottino’s longest stretch in the majors came in 2012. He hit just .148 (9 for 61) in 36 games with the Mets and Indians. On the plus side, the season included all three of Rottino’s home runs in the “Show.”
“The big leagues is the holy grail,” Rottino declared. “Baseball is about running with your opportunities. You have to produce right away, and bench guys get limited opportunities. If you go 1 for 20, the manager won’t trust you. Compared to AAA, you’re facing much better pitching in the majors.”
Add in stints with Buffalo and Columbus of the International League, and it means Rottino played for four teams in 2012. His .297 average with 28 doubles, 9 HR, 66 RBI and 14 steals at AAA didn’t go unnoticed.
“The Japanese scouts look pretty hard at AAA,” Rottino said. “There was a spot for me on the Orix roster.”
Stories of how Japanese managers have a totally different mentality than what is found in America - such as removing a player from the starting lineup based on his batting practice swings - are not a myth.
“Talk about a short leash,” Rottino said. “They’ll pinch hit for you if you’re 0 for 2.”
A .206 average in 97 AB with four homers led to a demotion to Orix’s minor league squad. It was on to the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization in 2014 where Rottino hit .306 with 18 doubles, two HR and 22 RBI in 216 AB. He teamed up with former Tigers lefty Andy Van Hekken as the first American battery in KBO history for a 5-2 win over the Kia Eagles on April 11, 2014.
“I played well in Korea, but got hurt with hamstring problems,” Rottino said.
He returned to America to play for New Orleans in 2015. Being 35 is often an ideal age in other fields, but it’s ancient by AAA standards. A late season slump dropped Rottino’s average to .266 with 10 HR and 51 RBI.
The White Sox took a flyer on Rottino’s versatility in 2016. He played six positions for the Charlotte Knights, but hit a AAA career-low .208 in 78 games. It was Rottino’s ninth and final season in AAA.
“I was raking in April and May, then my bat speed slowed down,” he said. “It was the aging process.”
The .165 career average wasn’t much, but Rottino was 5 for 5 in big league stolen base attempts. He didn’t commit an error in 84 chances at five positions (C, 1B, 3B, LF, RF).
The end of a playing career didn’t mean Rottino was switching to the 9 to 5 world. The Texas Rangers hired the baseball lifer as a scout in late 2016.
“I cover the Brewers, Cardinals, Red Sox and Blue Jays. My job is to be an expert on those teams from A ball to the majors,” he said.
What if a creative manager such as Joe Maddon had the opportunity to use Rottino as a superutility guy? He might have had more than a year and 20 days of major league service time, but Rottino has no regrets.
“I was an overachiever,” he said. “I got every ounce out of my abilities. I just love the game, and I love going to the ballpark every day.”
What if a scout signed a moderately talented young guy with an unquenchable love for baseball combined with the work ethic of a farmer and a play me anywhere attitude?
That scout would have discovered the next Vinny Rottino.
Al Doyle is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.