By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Nick Ammirati had a catcher’s mitt in his crib, and it’s taken him on a nationwide baseball odyssey. His latest stop is Starkville, and it’s there that he has found a place to stick.
Ammirati is pulling full-time duty at catcher for No. 16 Mississippi State (33-10, 10-8 SEC), which visits No. 3 Vanderbilt (36-6, 16-2) for a three- game series starting tonight at 6:30. Saturday’s game is at noon, and Sunday’s is at 1 p.m.
A year ago, Ammirati was a junior college transfer drawing little playing time behind another juco transfer, Mitch Slauter. It was a frustrating period, and at the end of the season, coach John Cohen was expecting the well-traveled Ammirati to transfer.
A native of Sparta, N.J., Ammirati began his college career at Seton Hall, then left after one year and transferred to Panola (Texas) College. He’s played summer ball in California and Wisconsin. In all, he estimates that baseball has taken him into more than 30 states.
But he wasn’t about to leave Starkville.
“He was like, ‘If you feel like you need to leave, I’ll help you find a good place to play,’” Ammirati said. “I was like, ‘No, that’s definitely not the case. I know I can play here.’”
He’s made good on that vow. Ammirati was splitting time with Slauter this season, but now that the latter is out with a hand injury, it’s all Ammirati behind the plate. Cohen likes the work he’s done back there, handling a pitching staff with the second-lowest ERA in the league (2.34).
Ammirati is used to catching quality pitching. One of his high school teammates at Seton Hall Prep was Rick Porcello, who’s now with the Detroit Tigers.
Ammirati said he’s always considered himself a defensive player first, but his bat has played a big role this season. The switch-hitter is batting .306 with 18 RBIs, and he was named the SEC player of the week on Monday after going 6 of 11 with three RBIs in a series against Auburn.
“I don’t know if I’ve had a player in my entire coaching career who’s evolved the way Nick Ammirati has,” Cohen said.
Being a switch-hitting catcher makes Ammirati, who was drafted in the 46th round out of high school by the Florida Marlins, an attractive prospect. And that’s exactly what his dad was going for when he bought a catcher’s mitt for his newborn son nearly 22 years ago.
Path to MSU
Chris Ammirati was a third baseman for Iona College in the 1980s. According to Nick, his dad was told by professional scouts that had he been a catcher, he’d have had a better shot at the pros.
So that’s why Nick wound up a catcher, and his dad also taught him from an early age to be a switch-hitter. Nick first started batting both ways in games his sophomore year of high school.
“He’s been my biggest teacher with all that stuff,” Ammirati said.
In his one year at Seton Hall, he played in 22 games and batted .241. So why did he leave?
To play in warmer weather. That led Ammirati to Panola College in Texas, and it was there that MSU stumbled upon him.
Assistant coach Lane Burroughs, who’s now the head coach at Northwestern (La.) State, attended a game between Panola and Northeast Texas to scout a player – the Northeast Texas catcher.
Panola coach Todd Shelton told Burroughs he ought to check out Ammirati, who had a good game and the next day got a call from Cohen while in class. Without ever visiting campus, Ammirati committed.
He’d looked up MSU online and saw a picture of a packed-out Dudy Noble Field. He knew then it would be his final college destination.
“I wanted to play at a big program in front of a lot of fans,” Ammirati said. “It fit perfect.”