The Milwaukee Brewers would be hard-pressed to find a more engaging hometown hero to be representing them in the upcoming World Baseball Classic than utility man extraordinaire Vinny Rottino, who was named one of the catchers for Team Italy this week.
Rottino, 28, grew up in Racine, Wis., graduating from St. Catherine's High School before playing his college ball at Division III Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Undrafted out of college in 2002, Rottino actually started working on his graduate degree at pharmacy school before deciding to give baseball one more try. He ended up getting signed by his hometown team out of a tryout camp and the rest, as they say, is Brewers' history.
After hitting .311 in his 2003 debut at short-season Helena, Rottino moved up to the club's Class A team, the Beloit Snappers, and pretty much became a local legend. He hit .304 with 17 home runs and a team-record 124 RBIs, breaking the mark set the year before by Prince Fielder, and was the Milwaukee Brewers' Minor League Player of the Year.
By the end of '05, he was at Triple-A Nashville and while he has yet to become a full-time established big leaguer, Rottino has gotten callups to the Majors the past three seasons while compiling a .295 average over six pro summers.
He really made his mark in his '07 promotion when his 11th-inning RBI single against the San Diego Padres gave the team a 4-3 win and clinched the Brewers' first winning season in 15 years.
But this year, as Rottino vies to make the Opening Day roster for the first time, he's putting his Spring Training quest on hold for a little while to represent the country of his paternal ancestors in the World Baseball Classic.
And you can bet his grandfather, Antonio, would be especially excited for him.
Dr. Antonio Rottino, who passed away in '91, left behind a baseball legacy in more ways than just his talented grandson.
The elder Rottino was the chief pathologist at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City and head of the hospital's Hodgkin's Disease Research Foundation. He spearheaded the research for a cure for that disease and even after his 1968 retirement continued to actively conduct research for nearly 20 more years.
"His research team got grants from Mickey Mantle, because both his dad and uncle died from Hodgkins," said Rottino, whose given name is actually Vincent Antonio in honor of the hospital and his grandfather. "We have a lot of pictures of my grandfather with Mantle."
Rottino was recently outrighted from the 40-man roster with the acquisition of veteran reliever Braden Looper, but as soon as he had cleared waivers the Brewers immediately added him to their non-roster invitee list.
What he brings to the table, along with a live bat and a ton of enthusiasm, is his newly cultivated abilities behind the plate.
This past season was the first time he'd been a full-time catcher, getting through the grind of 101 games after serving predominantly as a third baseman, first baseman and outfielder.
In fact, though a shortstop in high school and college, he was signed as a catcher despite having never caught in his life.
He's worked tirelessly with Brewers catching instructor Charlie Greene.
"He's the most incredible teacher," raved Rottino. "He could teach catching to anyone."
Rottino wasn't necessarily expected to be the Nashville Sounds' full-time catcher, but became just that when fellow backstop Lou Palmisano went down with a knee injury in the spring.
"It was definitely a grind, but I'm glad I went through it," he said. "It was a learning process and I love catching."
Rottino looked at the opportunity to play for Italy as a bonus for several reasons. With veterans Sal Fasano and Mike Napoli choosing not to participate, he should be the starting catcher with Yankees rookie Francisco Cervelli as his backup. So he should see playing time he might not have gotten as much of in camp with the Brewers, behind Jason Kendall and Mike Rivera.
He had been invited to play in the '06 World Baseball Classic as well, but that came at a different time in his career -- his first big league Spring Training.
In fact, Rottino had some reservations about this year as well, given that the Brewers have a new manager in Ken Macha. Rottino hoped to be able to make a good first impression. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash assuaged those concerns, though.
"They told me 'Go ahead and play, it will be a great opportunity,'" he said. "So ever since I got that go-ahead, I've been waiting to wear the Italian uniform with pride."
MLB: Of what accomplishment, on or off the field, in your life are you the proudest?
Rottino: Making it to the big leagues after not being drafted. Six years ago I was in pharmacy school in Madison (Wis.) thinking my baseball career was over.
MLB: What do you think you'd be doing now if you weren't playing baseball?
Rottino: I don't know, but I don't want to be a pharmacist. Nothing against pharmacy. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I had majored in chemistry in college. I wanted to play ball, and I thought that door had closed.
MLB: Everyone has a "hidden talent." What's yours?
Rottino: I'm a phenomenal singer on Rock Band.
MLB: Complete this sentence: It would surprise people to know that I ...
Rottino: Am obsessed with the band U2.
MLB: If you could trade places with one person for a day who would it be and why?
Rottino: Bono, obviously.
MLB: What reality TV show would you kick butt on?
Rottino: "American Idol." I got hooked on it last year. My current favorite, no doubt, is the kid from Milwaukee who lost his wife (Danny Gokey), but it ticks me off that his friend (Jamar Rogers) got kicked off because he was better than half those people who made it. Last year I got hooked on it during Spring Training when it's easy to watch, but during the season I lose touch with it and have to follow it in the paper.
MLB: Which aspect of life in the Minors do you find to be the biggest challenge and why?
Rottino: Probably the travel, I'd say. Just because it's long and you're playing every day and not getting much rest. I'd rather take a 14-hour bus ride right after a game ends than have to wake up at 4 a.m. and fly commercial to the next city and get in at 2 p.m. and have to go right to the park.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.