SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Every six months or so, Nelson Cooper, an associate professor in the recreation and park management program at East Carolina University, has come to expect a phone or Facebook message from one of his former students, Mark Minicozzi.
The gist of the message: “Don’t forget me. I’m still coming back.”
Cooper has no doubt the messages are sincere. After all, Minicozzi returned once before, after the infielder was cut loose from the Giants’ organization for the first time five years ago, and completed the coursework necessary to earn a management degree.
All that’s needed to finish the degree is an internship. But that remains on hold, as it has since Minicozzi, who at 31 years old has taken perhaps the most improbable route of all to the Giants’ big-league camp this spring, came to Cooper a couple years ago and said he wasn’t finished chasing the dream of playing major-league baseball.
“He said, ‘I think I can take one more shot,’ ” Cooper said by phone. “I know enough to know that only comes along once in your life. You take it when you can.”
Or does it? Nine years since he was drafted by the Giants in 2005, Minicozzi’s career has taken him from minor-league affiliates in San Jose and Connecticut to independent teams in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Worcester, Mass., and leagues in Nicaragua and Venezuela, when he was out of the Giants’ organization.
Injuries forced him to contemplate the possibility of retirement, and yet here he is sharing a clubhouse again with Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo – his Class-A teammates in 2007. Friday against the Kansas City Royals, Minicozzi slugged his team-leading second Cactus League home run. It brought his spring batting average to .429.
“It’s surreal,” Minicozzi said. “I’ve got to pinch myself every day.”
As, no doubt, does anyone who listens to the story of the stocky Wayne, Pa., native with the shaggy hair and stubble. It starts with the Giants drafting Minicozzi in the 17th round in 2005, after which he spent the 2005-07 seasons in the lower levels of the minors.
In 2008, Minicozzi was in spring training when he took a ground ball at shortstop, made a throw and felt his elbow pop. He tried to rehab it but settled on Tommy John surgery two months later and didn’t play that season. The following spring, the Giants released him.
Out of affiliated baseball, Minicozzi turned to independent leagues to stay in game shape. He joined the Kansas City T-Bones of the Northern League and hit .242 in 57 games, but he wasn’t right. In the season’s first week, he had dived into second base and herniated a pair of disks in his back.
The pain dogged him for two years, through stops in Winnipeg, Camden, N.J., and Worcester. At times, he recalls, “it took me 20 minutes to get out of bed, I was in so much pain.” He briefly looked into starting a limousine service in Philadelphia. “That was my transition” out of the game, he said.
And then, in 2011, Minicozzi underwent emergency back surgery, recovering in time to play 86 games for the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Can-Am League. He hit .328 with 15 home runs, no longer hampered by the discomfort in his back.
“It was night and day,” he said. “I could run. I could actually hit without having pain. It felt dramatically better.”
Revitalized, he played that winter in the Nicaraguan League – a four-team league where “they live and die for baseball.” The next spring, he was preparing to leave his Pennsylvania home for Quebec, where he’d signed with another Can-Am League team, when he saw the Giants’ Double-A Richmond affiliate was about to play a series in nearby Reading.
At the time, Richmond was managed by Minicozzi’s former manager Dave Machemer and included several players he knew from his Giants days. So Minicozzi made the 45-minute drive to “watch the game and say hi to everyone.” When he saw Machemer and instructor Shane Turner before the game, he mentioned he was still playing.
“They came over during the second or third inning and were like, ‘Hey, do you want to hit tomorrow?’ ” Minicozzi said. “I was like, ‘I’ll be there in a second.’ ”
Minicozzi turned out for batting practice the next morning and took 20 to 30 swings in a cage on a rainy day. Three days later, he said, he got a call from Giants assistant general manager Bobby Evans offering him a minor-league contract.
“I felt like a little kid again,” Minicozzi said. “You always sit there and think, ‘Man, I hope someone will give me a chance, someone will take a risk on me. To get that call, there’s nothing better than that.”
He started at Class-A Augusta for 15 games, then joined Machemer in Richmond, where he batted .284 in 81 games. Then in 2013, he flourished in Richmond, leading the Eastern League with a .309 average and driving in 66 runs with 40 extra-base hits in 128 games.
And now, he’s in big-league camp, in a lineup with Buster Posey one day, sharing first base with Albert Pujols the next. It’s not likely Minicozzi will make the Giants’ 25-man roster, but he could start the season at Triple-A Fresno and admitted he “(envisions) that day of getting that call or getting called into the office and told, ‘You’re getting called up.’ It’s going to be a special day, an amazing day.’ ”
Asked earlier this week about Minicozzi, Giants manager Bruce Bochy said the infielder is “taking advantage of some playing time” and added: “You’re happy for the kid.” Then Bochy caught himself.
“He’s not a kid,” Bochy said. “But here he is, getting another chance.”