For Cipolloni, The Road To Pros Has Been Rocky

Posted: February 21, 1986

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Yo, Adrian, who's the little guy with the Rocky Balboa body and Johnny Bench arm who's been hanging around with the baseball players at the Carpenter Complex this week?

Yo, yourself. First, he's not so little. Stretch his 5-8, 180-pound frame out to 6-2 and he would still be built like a middle linebacker - which is what he played while weighing 165 pounds at Washington Township High School, just a catcher's throw to second from the Sewell, N.J., home of Phils assistant to the president Paul Owens.

Second, he's a real professional baseball player - which is what just about everybody who didn't know him well predicted he would never be.

The Phillies' version of Rocky is born-in-South Philly catcher Joe Cipolloni. Or, as the license plate on his racing red Porsche 944 informs, he's "Joe Cip."

Cipolloni is a rarity in several respects.

He's a professional overachiever, for one thing.

Rival teams would giggle and point at the scowling, undersized runt playing offensive guard and middle linebacker for the Washington Township Minutemen. They usually let out a big grunt and gasp of air and stopped laughing just about the same time Joe Cip stuck his hat in their sternums. He made honorable mention All-State.

After football season, he was an All-South Jersey wrestler. Nobody laughed at him on the mats, but he had to wrestle at 141 pounds. The problem with that was wrestling ended just a few weeks before baseball started. "It wasn't that easy to put the weight back on fast," he said. "I was a little guy starting the baseball season every year."

That's when pitchers began to giggle again at the gaunt, little twerp who played second base as a sophomore and caught for coach John Bush as a junior and senior. Cip would throw a basestealer out by 10 feet with what is probably the best pure arm in the Phillies organization, then hit a baseball into the trees. That wiped a lot of smiles off a lot of faces.

Would there be life for a 5-8 Minuteman after graduation? The world said no, just as people are saying that catching for the Portland Beavers this season will probably be the end of the line for him in professional baseball. Just watch, Joe Cip said. He said it again yesterday.

Cip is also that rarest of the baseball species - a Phillies player who grew up within 20 miles of Veterans Stadium. Even though a national-caliber American Legion program that has sent more than a dozen players to Division 1 colleges over the past few years exists in Brooklawn, N.J., the suggestion that there may be some talented baseball players in athlete-rich South Jersey usually draws blank stares at the Vet executive level. Think Franco Harris could have hit the long ball? Lydell Mitchell stolen a few bases? Orel Hershiser broke a lot of strikeout records at Cherry Hill East High School, but he had to move to Ohio to be discovered by the scouts. Now he earns $1 million a year for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Cipolloni went to Phoenix Junior College in Arizona with no scholarship.

"My first love was football. I walked on and took one look at the size of the other linebackers," he said. "I was just giving away too much size. The next day I was on the baseball team."

After he went from third string to the starting job, Phoenix JC gave him some aid - books.

The Phoenix JC baseball coach, Joe DiCaro, delivered a familiar message. In his second year, Cip asked about his chances of playing if he transferred to the University of Arizona, a perennial Division I powerhouse.

"Coach said he didn't think I could play at that level," Cip said. "He said he'd rather see me go to a small Division III school."

Cipolloni bulled his considerable neck and transferred to Arizona - without a scholarship, of course.

He could have gotten some aid at the University of Texas-El Paso. "And I could have had scholarships at some smaller programs," he said. "But I wanted that challenge."

He walked on and began the season as the fifth-string catcher on the strength of a tip from the brother of a Phoenix JC teammate that the catching position at Arizona would be wide open.

It turned out to be a good tip.

"I packed my bags and I was there," Cipolloni said. "I knew I should have been starting from day one, but I had to wait my turn. Halfway through the season I came in and pinch-hit and beat UCLA with a home run. The next day I was in the lineup,"

The Pirates had drafted him in the 25th round after his second juco season, but it was one of those insulting offers low-round choices get if they're not from California, Texas or one of the glamour Sun Belt baseball states that promise so much and produce so little.

Cipolloni came home for the summer and was playing for Gibbstown in the Tri-County League to stay in shape for Arizona's fall program. He was working with his father in Atlantic City, building casinos. "I'd shower, jump in the car and drive to the games two, three days a week," he said. Joe Reilly, the Phillies' area scout, watched him make the All-Star team at the prestigious Bridgeton Invitational Tournament. "I signed with the Phillies that night after the game," Cipolloni said.

Yo, Adrian, Joe Cip's a pro.

Yeah, but he'll never make it out of the bush leagues.

In fact, he went directly to the bushes. His college coach asked him if he wanted to play for a team in the WBC tourney in Wichita in 1981. Why not? The Phillies didn't ask him to report until the following spring.

He was in the middle of tournament play when he got a frantic call from Phillies scout Doug Gassaway. "He said they were all out of catchers in Helena and could I report right away?" Cipolloni said.

It did not sit well with his tournament coach when Joe Cip informed him he had signed a professional contract and had to go to work.

"I played two weeks at Helena and the next year I went to 'A' ball," he said.

In two full seasons he earned an invitation to spring training as a member of the Phils' 40-man roster and he made early exhibition headlines with a three-run homer off Blue Jays lefthander Jimmy Key. But a freak shoulder injury turned the 1984 season into a nightmare for Joe Cip. He was not invited to camp last season and it hurt.

Now, after a solid year at Reading - his defense is so outstanding anything Cip hits is a plus - he is back in camp and ready to make a strong run at his highly publicized rivals, Darren Daulton and John Russell.

He says it will be a true competition if the Phillies let it be one.

"I finally learned last year that you have to hit the ball to rightfield

because the pitchers do pitch you away," said Cipolloni, who has worked with Mets batting coach Bill Robinson the past two years. Robinson conducts popular offseason batting clinics in Pitman, N.J. "I've found out you can't pull the breaking ball away unless the guy hangs one," Cip said.

He had two passed balls in 87 games last year and his arm is a cannon. But the days are long gone when a rookie came into a baseball camp and actually earned a job. Last year, Russell had first base handed to him on the basis of two games in the field and a half-dozen good at-bats. It was a joke.

So, understand, that Cipolloni and Ronn Reynolds are penciled in as the catchers at Portland this season. It will take a lot to change that.

But at least Joe Cip will be in familiar water - swimming against a tide of "hecantdothis" and "hewontdothat."

"I think I have as good a chance as anybody else if they give me a chance," he said. "If I get half the chance these other people got to make the team, I'll be the starting catcher - if I get the chance. And once I get that chance, I'm never gonna let go."

Yo, Adrian . . . You wanna hear a hot one . . . Remember Joe Cip? Now he's saying he's gonna be the Phillies' catcher on opening day.

It would be a good idea not to let Joe Cipolloni see you laughing.

comments powered by Disqus