LIFE GOES ON

     I have spent the last several days here in Scranton with the PawSox.  A trip I have made dozens of times in my ten years in the International League.  This trip has been a little different and quite enjoyable.  Our old friend, Jeff Natale is on the Yankees.  The host of “At Bat With Nat” in 2009 on the PawSox radio Network, he was a career .298 hitter in his five years in the Boston system.  Nat was released by the Red Sox at the end of Spring Training.  After returning home to Boston, he was eventually signed by the Yankees.  After a quick few days in Tampa, he joined the Scranton club.  While he seems happy in his new surroundings, a lack of playing time has to be extremely frustrating. It is better than taking off the uniform for good and trying to find a “real” job.

     Jeff and I had breakfast on April 2, the day the Sox had informed him that his services were no longer needed.  We are good enough friends that it wasn’t awkward, at all.  Two buddies having some coffee and discussing the events of the day.  Although he didn’t let it show then, there had to be some hurt.  “It was tough.  You come up in the system.  You know the guys, you know the coaching, and suddenly, it’s like the carpet is ripped from under your feet.  It was tough to get over, but it’s like any relationship.  You take a couple of days to be upset about it and then you move on.  That’s exactly what I did.  I stayed in shape, I got an opportunity with the Yankees and I was happy to take it.”

     Jeff admitted that there were some anxious moments as he pondered retirement and what might lie ahead.  Surely there had to a team that had a need for a player of his caliber.  “Why hasn’t a team showed interest in me?  You think about hanging ‘em up and finding another job.  Luckily I had great support from my family and Leigh (longtime girl friend, Leigh Foster).  Everybody around me was telling me to keep my head up and keep after it.  I stayed in shape and things worked oout the way they should.”

     Natale grew up in Connecticut and starred collegiately in baseball and hockey at Trinity.  Right there in the middle of the greatest rivalry in sports.  He once confided to me that he grew up rooting for the “bad guys”.  “I was a Yankees fan growing up, so it’s pretty great to wear this uniform.  My grand father was a huge Yankee fan and when I was growing up, I’d go over to his house and watch Yankees games with him.  It’s a huge honor to wear their uniform.  I’m proud to do it.”  For the record, Natale wears the #3, which has long been retired in honor of Babe Ruth.

     Nat was at the plate in game one of the series when Fabio Castro uncorked a wild pitch that ended the game and allowed Scranton a win.  Earlier he had knocked in a run with a sacrifice fly.  Unfortunately, despite their hurry to sign him, Jeff has been languishing on the bench.  He gets used to it, but definitely doesn’t like it.  “It’s a challenge when you’re not in there every day, but I feel like I’m filling the need they have.  It’s tough, timing-wise.  I just try to be ready every day.”

     There are new friends and teammates.  Natale lives with Rene Rivera, a softspoken Puerto Rican catcher and  Reid Gorecki, a gregarious outfielder from Queens.  All three began the season elsewhere.  Gorecki started in Double A and earned the promotion to Scranton. Rivera was plucked from the Independent League.  The former Major League catcher with Seattle caught the eye of the baseball world earlier this season when he walloped a home run off Stephen Strasburg, the phenom from Washington, while he was pitching for Syracuse.  They share a house a few miles from the park and seem to enjoy each others’ company.  Nevertheless, Natale still has friends in Pawtucket and he was glad to see them.  He was putting friendship aside when he came to the plate.  “It’s different.  I never thought I’d be at the plate looking out at Mike Bowden.  I always thought I’d be on the field behind him.  I have a great relationship with those guys.  You grow up rooting for each other.  It’s strange.  I found myself rooting for Jonathan Albaladejo when he was throwing against (Aaron) Bates.   I do root for them to play well and stay healthy, except when I’m playing against them.”

     Natale hasn’t ventured off into broadcasting in Scranton.  He would love to if the opportunity was there.  He freely admits that he has listened to “Hanging with Chad”, this years version of the teammate interview.  He says he is a fan of Chad Paronto.  “I went into it wanting to hate it, but I’ll be honest with you, I like it a lot.  I think it’s hilarious.  I got to know Chad during Spring Training.  His locker was next to mine.  He really is a hilarious guy.  Like I said, I wanted to hate it, but it’s really good.”

     It seemed a little odd to interview him, sitting in his Yankees dugout.  It was clear that the transformation was complete.  Clad head to toe in Yankees gear, he managed to fire off a volley at me and my XXL sized noggin..  “I was going to get you a Yankees hat, but Size 9 was was sold out.”  That’s the way guys talk to each other in baseball.  He adds that he is looking forward to his McCoy Stadium return next week.  It was great to be together with my boy, again. 

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