Frank Catalanotto knows what it takes to win. One of the most accomplished position players from Long Island in Major League Baseball history, he played 14 years in the big leagues, ending his career with his hometown New York Mets.
While Frank was with the Mets, he met ESPN beat reporter Adam Rubin and followed him on Twitter. Eight years later, the two men’s paths would cross again. In 2017, after 15 years on the beat, Rubin was ready for a change. He became the Assistant Athletic Director for Strategic Communications at the New York Institute of Technology, a small school known for its emphasis on applied scientific research. It was a fancy title for what is in fact a one-man media and media relations department, but regardless of the variety of responsibilities, he was able to be a fan again.
NYIT was never an athletic powerhouse, but the men’s baseball team used to be Division I. During the 1970s and ‘80s, the Bears finished every season with a winning record and saw a handful of players drafted or signed by major-league franchises. Unfortunately, that was a long time ago and after eleven consecutive losing seasons beginning in 2007 (including going 4-46 in 2014), the Bears dropped to Division II. Things did not change much in the lower division. Last year, the team went 13-25-1 and when the head coaching job opened up at the end of the year, Rubin decided there was nothing to lose by asking a former major leaguer he had once known to take over the team.
“If I remember correctly, it took him a few days to get back to me because I don’t think he’s on [Twitter] every second of every day,” Rubin said. “But he was intrigued enough to have lunch about it.”
“When I first saw the message, I thought to myself, ‘No I’m not interested,’” said Catalanotto, who hadn’t heard from Rubin in eight years at that point.
With appearances in more than 1,200 major league games, Frank had left baseball with a .291 career average and saw action at five positions – left field, right field, first base, second base and third base, as well as designated hitter. He had spent the time since leaving baseball shuttling his four daughters to athletic practices and flipping houses. But his daughters were in school most of the day and real estate transactions did not satiate his need for competition.
“I mean everyone thinks, ‘Oh, you’re 36 years old and you’re retired, you’re so lucky.’ And I was, don’t get me wrong. But there was something missing.”
So Catalanotto took the lunch. He reached out to Jimmy Goelz, an NYIT alum who spent seven seasons in the minor leagues, to ask if he would want to come onboard as an assistant coach. Goelz was a go and the idea picked up some steam. Catalanotto started to think that maybe this was exactly what was missing. He was a little bored, but he wasn’t bitter toward the game. He had rejected offers to coach at the pro level because he didn’t want to be back on the road and away from his family. But NYIT offered him the chance to stay close to home and still return to the diamond.
What surprised Catalanotto the most was how little the team knew about the game. Baseball fundamentals are second nature to him, but watching the Bears last fall, he saw the sort of mistakes that get pounded out of guys in pro ball. “I quickly realized that you have to tell these guys everything,” he said.
But the talent was there with the willingness to learn and a newfound faith in the program. Coach Cat taught the kids to hit the ball the other way, to eliminate parts of the plate and look for your pitch. He explained to them what to look for from the dugout, to be ready for their turn at bat. Rubin got David Wright and Hideki Matsui to come in as guest instructors. Almost overnight, a winning culture was established. The Bears went 32-14 this year and earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1983.
Winning is important to Catalanotto. He wants to make the Bears’ program a baseball destination; he wants to get his players scouted and maybe even drafted; he wants to win a College World Series. At some point, when his girls have all graduated high school and are away at college, he might even coach in the pros.
Those are the goals, but that does not explain why a man who was able to comfortably retire at 36 went back to work standing in the cold and rain reminding kids who probably won’t go pro to stop trying to pull the ball. You really can’t put it into words. It’s just about the baseball.