Wisconsin work ethic fuels Rottino

Wisconsin work ethic fuels Rottino

MESA, Ariz. -- Vinny Rottino is a Wisconsin native first and a Brewers catcher second, but he didn't have much time Tuesday to mourn the retirement of Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

A day after Rottino caught a six-inning "B" game in the morning and then warmed up nine different pitchers throughout a 3-hour, 19-minute afternoon affair, he started behind the plate Tuesday when the Brewers took on the Cubs.

With apologies to the rest, Rottino might just be the hardest-working Brewer -- the kind of guy who is not comfortable unless he's in motion. He was an undrafted free agent who has defied all odds to climb oh-so-close to the big leagues. He's not the biggest, the strongest or the fastest player on the team, and until this winter he still was searching somewhat for a position.

But Rottino has heart, and until he's told otherwise, he still has a shot.

"He's always looking for a chance to play, wherever he goes," said Brewers bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel, who, like Rottino, hails from Racine, Wis., and knows what it feels like to knock on the door of the big leagues.

"That's Vinny's work ethic," Hanel said. "Nothing is going to stop him from getting where he needs to go. If that means making it as a catcher, there's no part of him not willing to do it."

Racine is less than an hour south of Miller Park, so Hanel is not the only local pulling for Rottino to crack the Opening Day roster. Rottino was the last position player cut last year -- the Brewers instead opted to keep Tony Gwynn, Jr. as an extra outfielder -- and he faces somewhat long odds again this spring. The Brewers brought in Jason Kendall, the only catcher in baseball to start at least 130 games in each of the last six seasons, and they have more experienced backup options in camp in Eric Munson and Mike Rivera.

Still, Rottino works on. And this time, instead of going for a utility spot, he has a "C" for catcher in front of his name.

"I'm a catcher," said Rottino, who went 0-for-3 against the Cubs. "In the past, I've come in here trying to hook on as a 25th man. Now I feel like I can help this team. I can play."

The Brewers originally signed Rottino in 2003 as a catcher, he remembers, but he did not play there extensively until he reached Double-A Huntsville in 2005. It did not go well at first, so Rottino was moved back to the infield, though he eventually found his way back behind the plate for 18 games in '06 and 57 in '07 with help from Charlie Greene, a roving Brewers coach.

His bat always has been there. In 2004 at Class A Beloit, Rottino set a Brewers Minor League record with 124 RBIs, eclipsing the mark set the previous season by super prospect Prince Fielder. In all, Rottino is a .303 hitter with 301 runs scored and 293 RBIs in five Minor League seasons.

So he continued to search for a comfort zone in the field. The quest took him last winter to the Dominican Republic, where he played for La Romana and former Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca. Rottino started about 50 of the team's 60 games.

It made for a long season. Rottino was on the Brewers roster when the season ended Sept. 30, then he headed south on Oct. 12 and played through Dec. 24.

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"Playing so many games after playing such a long season already, it shows you how much you can push yourself," Rottino said. "That was one of the harder things I've done in baseball, so I feel like everything is at a little less of a volume here."

The money was good. American-born Major Leaguers can earn $6,500-$7,000 per month playing in the Dominican Republic, Rottino said.

But the biggest benefit was not financial. In the Dominican, Rottino cemented his position.

"I love it back there; I really love it," he said of catching. "I felt like I was a catcher going into it, but now I feel like I've really got a lot of experience underneath my belt.

"It's all about winning down there. It's real competitive, and they play great, great baseball. Every pitcher is either a big leaguer or a big league prospect."

Brewers manager Ned Yost said he can see the difference. He has used Rottino extensively in recent days to get a better sense of his progress. Yost has said defense will guide his choice for Kendall's backup.

"You know a catcher is doing good when you don't notice him," Yost said after Monday's "B" game. "I was really trying to focus on Vinny, and because he was so smooth and so good, I didn't notice him back there."

Hanel, who caught 486 Minor League games in the 1990s, sees a change, too.

"When I first saw him, he still looked a little stiff, like a guy really trying to be a catcher," Hanel said. "Now you can see that he's relaxed -- he sits nicely. He's not really thinking about it anymore. He's just doing it."

Hanel, Rottino and Brewers infielder Craig Counsell -- all Wisconsinites -- helped each other grieve Tuesday. News of Favre's retirement broke just as players reported to Maryvale Baseball Park for the morning workout.

"Man, I bet Wisconsin is really in shambles today," Rottino said with a smile. "It's shocking to me, really. He had such a great year last year, and now that the Packers are good and he had a great year, it's surprising to see him go."

Said Hanel: "We're working a little slower today."

But in Rottino's case, still working.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.