CLEARWATER, Fla. -
Jim Stassi always encouraged his three boys to try anything, provided they gave it their all. But this was ridiculous. Each time Brock Stassi faded back to pass for his seventh-grade football team, the opposing defense followed close behind.
"It was take the snap," Jim Stassi was saying over the phone, "and run for your life."
Football seemed like a good idea at the time. Brock Stassi was big enough, strong enough, had the kind of throwing arm even then that immediately thrust him into the quarterback position.
"I had watched it on TV and figured with those pads on this wasn't going to hurt," the Phillies "prospect" recalled at his locker. "I got hit and I was, like, 'Oh, my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' And as the season went on, I got laid out over and over again. So I said, 'Dad, I don't want to play this anymore.'
"And he said, 'No, you started this, you're going to finish this.' "
Fourteen years later, after getting laid out over and over again both physically and psychologically, Brock Stassi is on the verge of making his first major league roster. A phenomenal spring in which he has hit for power and for average has at least paused the plans of the Phillies' brass, a plan that had not allotted for a 27-year-old, slick-gloved, lefthanded, late-draft first baseman with a total of 42 home runs over six minor league seasons.
There is a healthy suspicion that Stassi is no longer that guy, that an adjustment in stance made late last season and carried into winter-league play has radically altered his narrative, the way it once did for late-arriving players such as Ryan Howard, Josh Donaldson or, to go back even further, Chris Sabo. Like Stassi, Donaldson toiled for six years in the minor leagues before his breakout season in Oakland. After toiling in the Reds system for five seasons, Sabo was a 26-year-old rookie of the year in 1988.
The difference, and it is significant, is that Donaldson was a first-round pick of the Cubs and Sabo was selected in the second round. Howard was a fifth-round pick. When the Phillies used a 33rd-round pick to select Stassi out of the University of Nevada-Reno, it was as a lefthanded pitcher. By the time he arrived at Williamsport, he was a first baseman. That year he hit .200. Two seasons later, he hit .295 at Clearwater. Two seasons after that, he was nearly released after batting .232 at Reading. In the season that followed, he was the Eastern League Player of the Year.
"He's pretty much done that his entire career," said his father, who might be a little to blame/credit for that. A gym teacher and longtime baseball coach in Yuba City, Calif., Jim Stassi has always preached a go-the-distance approach. "Because there's guys like Mike Piazza," he said of the 62nd-round Hall of Famer.
"Those stories are out there. Why can't it be you? That's what I have told all three of my boys. I told them play until they tell you that you can't play anymore. If that's what you want to do. That way there's no regrets. I always have guys in their mid-40s saying to me, you know what? I wish I had done that, I wish I had done this. And they have those regrets. My big thing with kids has always been, give it your all. See what happens."
"I look at my roster from when I played in the Cape Cod League," said Brock Stassi. "I was a pitcher and I told them I could hit. They said no, we don't need you. So I pitched out of the bullpen all summer after my sophomore year. There were first-rounders on that team that aren't playing anymore. And I'm still around.
"This sport isn't meant for everybody. The daily grind. Some guys just don't embrace it, love it. This is what I love to do. Whether it's a 14-hour bus ride, going down to Venezuela every winter . . . I mean, I just love the grind and love competing every day."
"He might play for nothing if you asked him," said Charlie Manuel, who has gotten to know Stassi since becoming one of the Phillies' roving minor league instructors. "I'm serious. I mean, I know he wants to make a living and eat. But really, he's that kind of guy. When I think of makeup . . . He's off the chart in makeup."
For Manuel, Stassi conjures up another first-round pick: James Loney, the first baseman of the 2008 Rays team that lost to the Phillies, who is now with the Mets.
"No knock on Loney, but Stassi does everything better than Loney," said the former Phillies manager. "Across the board . . . Stassi knows how to play the game. Not only is he a very good defensive first baseman, he throws good and he's a good hitter. He can definitely get the big hit for you."
That would be the role, should he squeeze onto this team: a bench player, a lefthanded backup for Tommy Joseph at first base. It would be the latest challenge for the player who has always found his way into the starting lineup at whatever level he landed. Can he thrive with limited at-bats and playing time? Even prolific everyday veterans - his current hitting coach, Matt Stairs comes to mind - have struggled in that role.
That, he said, would be a nice problem to have. Coming off the bench in Thursday's 4-2 loss to the Twins, he singled in his only at-bat. The greater and more likely challenge is in dealing with starting another season as a minor leaguer.
"Wherever I'm at, I'm making it my big leagues," he said. "If they send me to extended spring training, I'm going to treat it like that's the big leagues for me. I've had to do it my whole career. Yeah, it wouldn't be fun, but I mean that's just kind of how my life has been anyway.
"Dealing with adversity, things not working out the way I wanted it to. It would be just another bump in the road. But it wouldn't stop me."