High School Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates to sign Braden River, Stetson product Garrett Russini to contract

BRADENTON -- Garrett Russini was looking for a job when he received the call.

The person on the other end identified himself as a Pittsburgh Pirates scout and asked Russini if he wanted to play for the club.

After making sure it wasn't a prank, Russini put aside the disappointment of going the last two years without getting drafted and gladly accepted.

"I want to keep playing baseball for the rest of my life. I thought I was done playing," the former Braden River High catcher said.

The 22 year-old wants to get into aviation and become a pilot. Right now he is flying high on emotion. He is scheduled to take a physical at Pirate City in Bradenton on Wednesday and was told he would sign as a undrafted free agent shortly afterward.

The odds are against Russini, but he doesn't care. One of his baseball tutors is Mike LaValliere, who signed as an undrafted free agent with Pittsburgh in 1981 and played 12 years in Major League Baseball, putting in a solid career as a catcher.

"I first started working with Garrett when he was a freshman at Braden River. He is very receptive and has a very good baseball aptitude," LaValliere said. "He is open to doing different things. Number one he is very talented and number two he works his butt off."

Russini started the past three years at Stetson. He was primarily a catcher and played that position and the outfield last season to give the Hatters their best lineup.

He thought he was going to get drafted after a stellar junior season in 2014, earning Atlantic Sun All Conference second-team honors by hitting a career-high .297 and

starting 59 of 60 games, including 46 as a catcher. He had a streak of reaching base in 21 consecutive games and led the Hatters with 21 doubles, four triples and four homers.

But the 6-foot, 200 pounder has learned to deal with disappointment after he was passed over again in this year's draft. He attended the draft day party of Lakewood Ranch's Seth McGarry, who was selected in the eighth round by the Pirates and remembers everyone tell him he was next.

"I've been friends with Seth since our Little League days, and it was awesome and well deserved when he got drafted," Russini said. "Afterward, people were telling me they need to get you."

Next never came for Russini, but now a new opportunity has. He doesn't have an agent figuring it's not necessary, at least not now. He had more scouts following him in high school, but when he decided to attend a four-year college, they drifted away.

"My batting average dipped last season (.272) because of fatigue, and I was pressing, but I worked out for them two weeks ago at Pirates City and then the call them," Russini said. "They see me as a catcher and told me they like my defense. It doesn't bother me that some may see me as a longshot. I just want the opportunity."

Russini grew up a Pirates fan, went to a lot of games at Bradenton's McKechnie Field, the team's home for spring training and minor-league Bradenton Marauders, and remembers his mom , Annie, tell him he would be playing for them someday.

"I never took what she said seriously, but here I am, and it's happening. You never know," Russini said.

LaValliere knows from experience that it's tougher on free agents, but he proved the most important thing is getting your foot in the door.

"Organizations have a tendency to stay longer with the kid they invested money in, so your back is against the wall," LaValliere said. "But whether you are drafted first or last, you are getting into pro ball, and then it's about putting up numbers. There is politics involved in everything, but if you do well they are going to keep pushing you forward."

That's all Russini asking for.

"I thought I was done," he said.