With the swipe of a pen Thursday afternoon, 2011 Tunkhannock graduate Mike Papi signed a contract worth $1.25M to play baseball with the Cleveland Indians, and will start the journey to a Big League career with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers.
It’s been a long time since the last Tunkhannock grad was given a chance at the Majors - 22 years to be exact.
The alum in question, Marc Marini, who graduated from Tunkhannock in 1988, signed his contract, also with the Cleveland Indians, way back in 1992.
Though both have the Indians in common, the journey of a ballplayer signed as an undrafted free agent is far different than a player drafted as the 38th overall pick in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft.
More money in today’s game brings with it more opportunities, as does the willingness for an organization to see that its top prospects have every opportunity to succeed.
Early on, Marini, a career .295 hitter in the minors, made his own success, moving through the ranks of the Cleveland organization each year until finally reaching AAA ball and an arm’s reach away from the dream of playing for a big-league club.
Unfortunately, that dream was never fulfilled, but provided Marini with enough experiences to last a lifetime.
At Tunkhannock, it didn’t take long for Marini to start turning heads for the Tigers, playing under renowned head coach Stew Casterline. Tunkhannock won the Wyoming Valley Conference his sophomore season, and as a junior, Marini put up some incredible numbers at the plate.
“I think I hit over .600, it was pretty outrageous,” Marini chuckled. “I was probably getting two hits every game. Much like Mike (Papi), I squared up the ball and basically hit it on the sweet spot.”
In his senior season, college recruits began taking notice in Marini, including Clemson University, where he would have attended if the school hadn’t backed out.
“They were offering me a full scholarship without even seeing me play, but a week before they said they weren’t going to need me,” Marini said. “It brought me to tears.”
Luckily, Keystone College, then a two-year school, had two players from its team, Scott Marabell and Brian Evans of Tunkhannock, move on to play at Jacksonville University in Florida. Mike Mould, then head baseball coach at Keystone, put in a good word for Marini, saying he was just as good, if not better, than his former players.
Marini received a full scholarship as a true-freshman and began playing Division I ball. It didn’t take long for him to get into the swing of things.
“In my sophomore season I was the sixth leading hitter in the country and was facing some of the best schools and nationally ranked teams - that’s when I realized that I could do this,” Marini said. “Those guys were the top pitchers in college and I was hitting them. They could certainly get me out, but I could stay with them and I wasn’t intimidated.”
Though coverage was nowhere near as large as it is today, coaches began to notice, and word travelled fast of the outfielder’s powerful bat.
“We were playing Florida State and their manager came up to me and said, ‘We’re going to get you out today.’ I thought, how do you even know who I am?” Marini laughed. “You start getting this confidence and sort of a childlike cockiness like I’m somebody now.”
Marini worked his way up to batting third for the Jacksonville Dolphins, and even went so far as to land on the cover of their media guide and on billboards around town.
“That’s when I started believing I’m going to go pro, I know I’m going to do it,” Marini said. “But you see the guys playing in the College World Series who look good, and you have to remember that more than half of them wont even sign professionally. I can’t tell you how hard it is, let alone to make it to the Majors.”
The beginning of that journey came in ‘92. Marini was tuned in to the first day of the MLB Draft at his father’s house, and looked on as Tunkhannock graduate Mike Grohs was taken in the sixth round by the San Diego Padres.
On the third day, Marini finally got a call from the St. Louis Cardinals in the 42nd round for $5,000.
He turned it down.
“It was crushing to put so much work in during high school and in college and not get what I wanted,” he said.
Marini had already signed to play summer ball in the Cape Cod league, and played, “mad at the world.”
He hit over .400 that season and made it to the all-star game, hitting three singles in his three at-bats.
The head of the scouting borough asked Marini the next day why he wasn’t drafted, but he had no answers.
Eventually, the Indians came calling, and signed Marini for $20,000 and money for school to start playing Single A ball for the Columbus (Georgia) Red Stixx.
He went 4-5 in his first game, made the all-star team, and moved on to work out with the Double A club in spring training, alongside eventual Major League star Manny Ramirez.
“I sent a lot of number one picks home,” he said. “I don’t mean to say that selfishly, but I started hitting well and performed well at every level. I was nervous and excited because I was living my dream but I also knew I could go home at any time.”
Marini worked up to A+ ball with the Kinston Indians the following year and batted third, then moved up to the Canton-Akron Indians in AA.
“I kept putting the time and effort in the offseason and always loved the game,” Marini said. “I’d stay late and go early and I loved it, and continued to just work hard and be consistent at my craft.”
In 1995, Marini got the call up to the Buffalo Bisons, the AAA affiliate of the Indians, and one step closer to reaching his Big League dream.
“I was like a kid on Christmas morning,” Marini laughed. “I met the team during a game in Nashville and I barely got there before I was in left field. These guys are talking to me like I’m an equal, and I realized I belonged.”
One of Marini’s best memories of AAA baseball was when he got to play in front of his home away from home crowd against the Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre Red Barons.
“My father was an original season ticket holder for the Barons in about the sixth row behind the visitors dugout, so I remember being at games and how big everything looked. The next thing you know I was out there,” Marini said. “When I first stepped out there I looked at that seat, imagining I was winking at myself saying, ‘remember when you were here?’ There were Tunkhannock people in the audience and it was amazing hearing my name be announced.”
Marini was traded to the Columbus Clippers, the triple A affiliate of the New York Yankees. When Yankees outfielder Paul O’Neill got injured in June, Ruben Rivera got the call to the Majors ahead of Marini, even though he had a higher batting average.
Then, when Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry was sent down to the team to rehab, Marini was told he would be sent down to AA until Strawberry was called back up.
When Clippers manager ‘Stump’ Merrill called Marini in to tell him the news, he was barely listening and thought, “this is how it’s going to end.”
“I had to do it on my own terms, that was huge for me,” Marini said. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything more than I did. If you talk to anyone who knew me growing up, I was always throwing a baseball or hitting somewhere. Baseball was my life.”
After leaving the Clippers, Marini found himself at a crossroads, not really knowing whether or not to go back to school, and what he would study once there.
“You can go find something to do, but nothing can replace your childhood dream in my book,” he said. “I lived it, and you can’t replace that. You can ask anyone who is told they can’t do what they love anymore. You feel lost and a part of you is just gone.”
But as far as regretting his decision to leave the game, the thought has never crossed his mind.
“Not at all,” Marini said. “I say that because I busted my butt. I got the most I could get out of myself. I would have liked to do more, but now I look back and say I did achieve what I wanted. I was proud of what I did and how long I was able to stay in the game, and no one can take that away.”
Marini made the decision to go back to school and ended up receiving his master’s degree in counseling and therapy and moved back to the area.
When Marini first met Papi as his eighth grade basketball coach, he had no idea that he would also play Division I baseball and get signed by the Cleveland Indians.
“Pro ball is when I really developed into a more complete ball player, and Mike certainly has put a lot of critical pieces together that I may not have,” Marini said. “He may have special times in spring training when you realize this is real, and I think it’s a feeling I can’t describe to anyone who has never lived it. I don’t know many people who can say they wanted to do something since they were three years old and actually being able to do it. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Marini added however that the road through the minors won’t always be easy.
“The hardest part is working seven days a week, it’s just a long process,” he said. “It’s almost monotonous to do the same thing every day and the hard thing is to stay motivated and get excited for every game. You’re away from your family and staying in strange places, and sometimes it’s a lonely life. But I still had that desire, and I wanted to send every body home. If you stay motivated by doing the little things everyday, it can definitely pay off.”
One of those little things that Papi can do is pretty obvious: hit.
“There’s only one answer, and that’s to hit,” Marini said. “Be the best you can be every game and get out of slumps, have a positive attitude and be humble. You won’t make it to the top if you’re not a well-rounded person. But still keep fighting and clawing to reach that goal.”
“There’ll be better guys who are faster than him and guys who swing faster, so he’ll definitely be pushed. It’s not the fishbowl of Tunkhannock anymore; it’s the whole world. You have to love what you do and work hard because there’s a lot of competition. I did all of that with Cleveland and couldn’t get enough of it.”
After moving to Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife, Sonia, who was offered a promotion at Procter & Gamble, Marini would eventually find himself back in the game of baseball, this time as the head junior varsity coach for Archbishop Moeller High School, where he has been coach for the past four years.
“I should’ve stayed in the game all along, but I’m thrilled to be doing what I love to do. All this useless knowledge from the game is finally coming in handy,” Marini laughed. “I was exposed to so many people and that exposure gives you the knowledge of all those people.”
Marini is also a private hitting instructor in the Cincinnati area.
“To see a child light up and look over at the parents lighting up as well makes me so happy and thrilled to see that success,” he said. “It’s beyond rewarding.”
And when he’s not teaching youngsters how to be the next Manny Ramirez, Marini will certainly keep his eye on the next 21-year-old Tunkhannock native who will be fighting for his dream, just like he was doing 20 years ago.
“I wish him so much success,” Marini said of Papi. “I’m so proud of him and can’t wait to see his future, I really hope he can go as far as he can. I hope he can maximize his abilities and talents and do better than what I ever did.”