Sacramento River Cats

At 38, veteran Miguel Olivo still hopes to catch on with Giants

jvillegas@sacbee.com

Miguel Olivo could have retired years ago. Instead, he drives 80 miles to his job in West Sacramento, then back to his home in Oakdale after just a few hours of work at Raley Field.

Olivo, 38, the River Cats’ backup catcher, has earned more than $17 million since 1996, when he left the Dominican Republic to play baseball in the United States. He has played in 1,024 major-league games, but his last one was more than two years ago. He has gone to great lengths to try to play one more.

“I want to finish my career in the big leagues. Nothing tops the big leagues,” Olivo said. “But I’m just thankful. I thank God that I’m still in baseball.”

Olivo also said he wants to stay in professional baseball long enough to play alongside one of his teenage sons. Miguel Jr. plays for Central Catholic High School in Modesto, Minaya for Oakdale High School. Sergio, 18, his oldest son, will join the Army in August, already giving up the game his father can’t seem to quit.

Olivo still has most of the muscle that helped him hit 145 major-league home runs, 39th among catchers. He has eight this season for the River Cats, tied for third on the team entering Wednesday’s game. And he hits soaring drives in batting practice that few teammates can match.

Andrew Susac, 26, the River Cats’ starting catcher, remembers watching Olivo on TV as a teen in Carmichael.

“He was a dominant catcher back in the day,” Susac said. “Really fun to watch. A big power bat. … He lets me know in (batting practice) sometimes: ‘I’ve still got it!’ 

Olivo has played in 56 games this season – many when Susac was injured – but only eight this month. If the Giants need to call up a catcher, Susac likely would get the call, but Olivo remains optimistic he’ll get a chance to play in San Francisco.

“I’m here trying, working hard every day to see what happens,” Olivo said. “My goal ... is to help the San Francisco Giants win the World Series.”

Said River Cats manager Jose Alguacil: “He’s 38 years old, but he works like a young kid. He’s just looking for another opportunity.”

Olivo made his major-league debut with the White Sox on Sept. 15, 2002, at Yankee Stadium. Andy Pettitte, a seasoned ace with four World Series rings, started for the Yankees that rainy afternoon, but Olivo said he wasn’t intimidated.

“When you’re that young (24), you don’t even think about that. … You just go in and have fun.”

In the third inning, Olivo drove the second pitch he saw over the center-field wall, becoming the 84th major-league player to homer in his first at-bat.

Olivo’s power kept him in the big leagues for more than a decade, but he never landed a long-term contract. He has played for seven major-league teams, but his on-base percentage often was among the lowest in baseball and he leads active catchers in errors and passed balls.

But it was Olivo’s behavior and anger that likely did more to derail his career.

Frustrated by his lack of playing time with Miami in 2013, he left Marlins Park before a June 15, 2013, game without permission and eventually departed from the team. The next season, he made national headlines when he bit off part of outfielder Alexander Guerrero’s ear during a fight in the Albuquerque Isotopes’ dugout. Olivo was cut two days later.

Olivo brushed aside questions about the fight, saying “that happened two years ago, and I don’t want to refresh that.”

After Olivo hit 14 home runs last season in 89 games for the Tijuana Bulls, a Mexican Baseball League team, the Giants signed him to a minor-league contract in February.

But Alguacil said he had no concerns about Olivo joining the River Cats.

“I never go through people’s past; I give them a chance,” Alguacil said. “There’s a reason that we signed him. When I heard he was coming to the team, I wanted to give some time to get to know him.”

Alguacil found Olivo to be “a professional, all around. He puts his work in. He understands his role. He tries to help the team in any way that he can.”

“Miggy,” as he’s known to teammates, has become a beloved figure on the River Cats. As an aging catcher on a minor-league team, Olivo might remind baseball fans and movie buffs of Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character in “Bull Durham.” Like Davis, Olivo mentors younger players, and he’s become close with Susac, even though they are competing for a spot with the Giants.

When Susac was going through a 2-for-31 slump earlier this season, Olivo lifted his spirits with protein shakes and pep talks.

“You’re a better player than that,” he told Susac. “You’ve got to believe it, though.”

Susac eventually escaped the slump, and has hit .315 with 15 RBIs in July entering Wednesday’s game.

“It’s always nice to have a guy with so much experience helping you get better every day,” Susac said. “Confidence is everything in this game. Miggy doesn’t lack that. He really brings it out in himself and in other players.”

Though Olivo has been inconsistent at the plate, he always looks cheerful, fist-bumping his teammates and flashing a warm smile.

“Everyone has bad days, but it seems like Miggy always has a good day,” Susac said.

“I want to keep playing until the day they don’t want me to play,” Olivo said. “The day they tell me to stop, I’ll stop.”

Josh Mandell: 916-321-1076, @Joshuamandell

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