New Castle News

June 15, 2013

Soni’s Season: Neshannock grad reflects on playing major college baseball

Dave Seanor
New Castle News

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It was late afternoon Monday by the time the Sansones embarked on their bittersweet drive to New Castle.

Florida State second baseman John Sansone had just completed his exit interviews with coaches following the previous day’s loss to Indiana, the Cinderella team that eliminated the vaunted Seminoles — on their home turf, no less — from an NCAA Super Regional. Over the next 26 hours on the road, including an overnight stay in Charlotte, N.C., father and son would rehash the season, a conversation punctuated by disappointment and optimism.

The Sansones — John Jr. and John III, the latter known among a close-knit family as “Little Johnny” — had expected the next stop in their baseball odyssey to be the College World Series, which begins tomorrow in Omaha, Neb. Instead, he’ll get an earlier-than-hoped start on summer ball with the Amsterdam Mohawks of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League in upstate New York.

“I wish I didn’t have to be there so soon,” said Sansone, clearly in need of more decompression time after his first season of elite college baseball. The former Neshannock High standout will report to Amsterdam on Monday or Tuesday, and play roughly 35 games for the Mohawks over six weeks while living with a host family.

Such are the demands of success.

As a freshman unheralded beyond western Pennsylvania, Sansone played in 63 games for Florida State (47-17), starting 60 at second base. The Seminoles reached NCAA post-season play for the 36th year in a row, but finished as a footnote to Indiana’s improbable ascent to its first CWS appearance in school history.

Sansone hit .233 for the season, far below his career .479 batting average at Neshannock. Yet he emerged as a steady role player whose productivity was higher than his batting average might indicate. He ranked fourth on the team with 33 walks; sixth in RBIs (62); and was seventh in total bases (62). Sansone led the ‘Noles in the hit-by-pitch category, absorbing 13 errant throws. Batting ninth in FSU’s order, he delivered an on-base percentage of .379.

“My stats aren’t too great compared to what they were in high school, but I feel like I’m a well-rounded ballplayer now,” Sansone said. “I’m definitely a smarter player than I was a year ago. I know way more about baseball than I did in high school. Certain little things like what pitch is coming, what we’re going to throw. I almost know our pitchers to a T, what we’re going to throw on every pitch.”

Eric Luallen, a former FSU football lineman who has been a play-by-play radio voice for Seminole baseball since 2007, praised how quickly Sansone acclimated to the program.

“Florida State has a certain approach at the plate,” said Luallen. “It’s not the most natural, and it’s not easy for kids to grasp when they arrive here. Sansone has done a good job of coming in and embracing what FSU is trying to do.”

Mike Martin is Florida State’s wily, engaging head baseball coach. He’s been at the Seminoles’ helm for 34 seasons, producing 15 trips to the College World Series. He preaches patience at the plate and practices “small ball,” the art of reaching base however possible and systematically advancing runners.

Martin characterized Sansone’s numbers as indicative of “a winner.”

“He doesn’t care how he gets on base,” Martin said. “He wants to help the team in any way he can. It’s things like that that have kept him in the lineup. He’s a great team player.”

Exhibit A is Sansone’s willingness to hold his ground in the batter’s box, ducking only from pitches that are coming toward his head.

“Getting on base and getting our leadoff guy up to bat is a huge part of my game as the nine-hole hitter,” Sansone said. “Anything I can do to get on base helps the team. I’m willing to do anything.”

Sansone paid for his bravado on March 17 at Maryland, where temperatures that day were in the 30s. (“And I was just getting used to the Florida weather,” he said, laughing.)

Batting in the eighth inning, Sansone faced a hard-throwing reliever. “I usually wear a shield on my left elbow, but I didn’t have it on for some reason,” he said. “The first pitch just plunked me right on my elbow. For probably a good week, I couldn’t feel my arm.”

Sansone had two days the nurse the huge lump on his elbow before the next game, at home against Stetson. He struck out twice in two at bats before Martin replaced him in the eighth inning for pinch hitter as FSU rallied with four runs and a 5-3 victory.

Those two Ks contributed to Sansone’s team leadership in an ignominious category — strikeouts. It would have been delusional to expect him to match his gaudy numbers at Neshannock, but 56 strikeouts — 16 more than any other Seminole — was sorely disappointing.

“I knew I was going to strike out a lot, but I wasn’t expecting to do it that many times,” Sansone said. “It’s all a learning curve. Just seeing a lot of pitches is the key right now.”

Sansone’s discomfort at the plate is partially traceable to swing changes his coaches have been trying to ingrain since he arrived on campus. “They always harp about my bat plane,” Sansone said. “I kind of swing up, and they want me to swing down at the ball.”

At the Super Regional, which was shown nationwide on ESPNU, Sansone twice was pulled for a pinch hitter. In Game 1, with two out and the bases loaded in the second inning, he lined out to left field. He advanced a runner on a fielder’s choice in the 4th; grounded out to short with two out and a man on second in the 5th; and drew a walk in the 7th. Sansone was due up second in the 9th, with FSU trailing 10-8, when Martin opted for a pinch hitter. The ‘Noles lost, 10-9.

In Game 2, with two out and a runner on second in the 2nd inning, Sansone walked and eventually scored as FSU cut Indiana’s lead to 4-2. In the 4th, with one out and a runner on first, he struck out on three pitches.  With FSU trailing 5-4 in the 5th, Martin deprived Sansone of a chance at redemption, calling for a pinch hitter with two out and the bases loaded. Ironically, that batter took a page out of Sansone’s book and was hit by a pitch. That briefly tied the game, but the Hoosiers won, 11-6.

In both games after he was benched, Sansone was the first player at the top of the dugout to greet teammates between innings and after scores.

“Coach Martin said he liked the way I handled myself despite all the strikeouts,” Sansone said of his exit interview. “And he was happy with how I played in the field.”

Martin expects Sansone’s patience and work ethic to pay dividends.

“A lot of freshmen take a year to learn,” Martin said. “A lot of freshmen have hit ninth for us, then turned around and hit second the next year. I don’t know what the future holds; I’m just anxious to see John continue to work hard and go from there.”

Consider, too, that Sansone, a shortstop at Neshannock, was learning a new position.

“Second and short are totally different worlds,” Sansone said. “I played short my whole life; I never played any other position.

“Just seeing the ball come off the bat from second as opposed to short is (different). I never realized it. I thought second would be a piece of cake. Just getting a jump on balls to my left or right is so much different. I’m still not totally adjusted, but I feel like I’m coming around.”

Sansone had a fielding percentage of .959 (90 put-outs, 144 assists, 10 errors). That pleased Martin, since “no way was I looking at him as a starter” when Sansone was being recruited.

“We signed him with the understanding that he could play third or second, and thought he would be a good backup (as a freshman),” Martin said. “It would keep both of those positions honest. It would make each guy hustle to keep his position because Soni could really challenge them.”

Easier said than done.

“I definitely wasn’t ready for the mental grind (of college baseball),” Sansone said. “Just thinking about every single pitch, every single game, every single inning — that takes a toll on your mind. In high school I’m playing 20 games in a season, and here I’m playing 60, at a way better level, obviously. That was the biggest thing for me.”

But circumstances conspired in Sansone’s favor.

Early in the fall, during inter-squad games, Martin moved Sansone to first base as the backup for John Nogowski. “He was very impressive,” Martin said. “He won that job.”

As the fall progressed, Martin said he “didn’t like what I was seeing at second base. I just didn’t like it.  So I made up my mind I was going to move ‘Soni’ in the spring to second.”

By the time the Feb. 2 season opener against Rhode Island rolled around, Sansone had beaten out the incumbent, sophomore Giovanny Alphonso. His status was solidified in March when Alphonso was shifted to shortstop after starter and senior captain Justin Gonzalez suffered a hip injury that required season-ending surgery.

Gonzalez’s misfortune aside, Martin is quick to emphasize that Sansone “earned everything he got. Life’s all about opportunities, and John got an opportunity with hard work, and he’s taking advantage of it.”

Of course, Martin hasn’t posted a 1,770-611-4 record at Florida State by allowing players to become complacent.

Several days before the season opener, Martin announced that Sansone would be his starting second baseman. During an ensuing practice, Sansone missed a short-hop tag, which Martin seized as a teachable moment. He stopped the drill and yanked Sansone off the field, telling him he was demoted.  It was a ruse, intended to reinforce the lesson that elite college players must concentrate not only during games, but also during routine workouts.

“Freshmen grow every day,” Martin said. “There’s always something you see in them, and sometimes it’s the concerned — for lack of using the word fear — look when the game is tight. John overcame all of that. I don’t worry about Sansone. He’s done a good job, and I’m very, very proud of him.”


Florida State action a family affair for Sansones

Florida State baseball has become a family affair for the Sansones.

John’s parents, proprietors of Soni’s Italian Restaurant on Wilmington Road in Neshannock Township, rented a condo not far from campus and for four months made it their base for attending every FSU game, both home and away.

John Jr. describes his son as “an Italian momma’s boy,” which his wife, Mirella, doesn’t dispute. She acknowledges trepidation about encouraging their youngest child to pursue his dream so far from home. Those fears proved groundless, and Mirella Sansone said she’s proud of how self-reliant “Little Johnny” has become.

That was no small feat, considering not only the transition from obscure Neshannock High to the high profile, 32,000-student campus of Florida State, but also the culture shock.

FSU, like any large state university, is a melting pot. Nevertheless, it’s still very much a Southern institution. Only five of 34 Seminole baseball players hail from the Midwest or Northeast. Sansone is one of only two Pennsylvanians to appear on a Florida State roster in 25 years.

“It was definitely different at first, I’ll say that,” Sansone said. “Just the way they talk.”

That’s a matter of perspective, as evidenced by the quizzical looks Sansone encountered when he’d ask where “yunz” are going, or suggested to his roommates that they “redd up” the apartment.

“I had to kind of change how I talk,” he said with a laugh.

Sansone also had to adjust to the sheer bigness of his new environment. He took a biology class with 1,000 students — more than three times the senior high enrollment at Neshannock.

If 30 people attended a Lancers baseball game, it was a big crowd. Florida State’s Dick Howser Stadium can accommodate 6,700 spectators and the Seminoles attracted 183,770 fans this season — nearly eight times the population of New Castle.

It’s a notoriously animated crowd. Several sections of reserved seats along the first base line belong to “The Animals,” whose exuberant cheers and chants are more evocative of a European soccer match than a baseball game. Sansone said he couldn’t help but laugh during Game 2 against Indiana, when The Animals heckled the Hoosiers’ 6-foot-10 starting pitcher, Aaron Slegers, by calling him Lurch (after the Addams’ Family character).

Along with four other freshmen on the baseball team, all from Florida, Sansone lives in FSU’s athletic apartments, a 5-minute walk to the ballpark. His claim of being the best Xbox player among the roommates is debatable, but his culinary skills aren’t.

“In the fall, I cooked for them almost every Sunday,” Sansone said. “Just a couple of nights ago, I made dinner for them. My mom taught me how to make sauce and chicken cutlets from scratch. They loved it.”

Which may help to explain why Sansone enjoyed a class in Hospitality Management so much that he’s considering switching to that major from Sports Management.

Sansone posted a 3.0 grade point average as a freshman, but he’s the first to admit he’d rather be on a baseball diamond than in a classroom.

He learned the two are intertwined even before arriving at FSU, when he jeopardized his scholarship eligibility by letting his grades slip as a junior at Neshannock. He buckled down and raised his GPA to an acceptable level, and he took the SAT exams several times until he met FSU’s eligibility requirements.

“Same thing as baseball, he’s all in,” said Sansone’s coach at Neshannock, Mike Kirkwood.  “He may not be the greatest student, but he’ll outwork 95 percent of the people around him.”

Indeed, there’s no room for slackers in Division I baseball. Competition for financial aid is especially fierce, because the NCAA limits each program to 11.7 scholarships, which can be apportioned among as many as 27 students. So-called “full rides” are almost non-existent, meaning players must finance the balance by other means.

Sansone was the 1,204th player taken in the 2012 Major League Draft, selected by Detroit in the 39th round. He said the Tigers didn’t make much of an offer and actually suggested it would be better if he went to college. He’ll be eligible for the draft again when he turns 21, in September 2014.

Meanwhile, Sansone professes his love for Florida State and expects to be a ’Nole for at least a couple of more seasons. That makes Martin happy, if only because “I’m still waiting on that Italian meal his daddy promised me.”

(Dave Seanor is a former newspaper and magazine editor who lives in Orlando, Fla. He graduated from Neshannock High in 1971.)