Phillies' 1989 trade for Sal Agostinelli still reaping rewards

Scouting director Sal Agostinelli in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in January.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It was a transaction not worth mentioning in the newspapers at the time, a minor-league deal between the Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals that did not even create a blip on baseball’s radar screen. The Phillies got a 27-year-old catcher who barely had a triple-A resume. The Cardinals received a 24-year-old infielder who had been a fifth-round pick, but would never get higher than the triple-A level.

Twenty-eight years later, it ranks as one of the best deals Lee Thomas made during his decade as the Phillies general manager and it is the only one still reaping benefits for the organization. Sal Agostinelli never played an inning for the Phillies in the big leagues, although he does have a couple of great stories about getting into two spring-training games in Florida. His value, however, has come as a scouting superstar, and much of the Phillies’ hope for the future rides on his decisions as the team’s international scouting supervisor.

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Sal Agostinelli, as a catcher for the Phillies’ Reading minor-league team in 1989.

By now, even the most casual of Phillies fans should know Agostinelli’s name and the most ardent ones are well aware of his contributions. This is his 25th season as a scout with the club. Agostinelli, 55, is best known for signing Carlos Ruiz out of Panama for $8,000, but his contributions go well beyond that. If you think it’s an exaggeration to call him a scouting superstar, listen to former Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle’s opinion on the matter.

“I think he’s absolutely a superstar,” Arbuckle said during a recent phone interview. “When you look at the number of players around the game that he signed, it’s incredible. And, remember, most of them weren’t million-dollar signings. They were low- to mid-level guys that you had to dream on. You know about Chooch, but think about [Cleveland’s] Carlos Carrasco and [Milwaukee’s] Domingo Santana. Sal signed a lot of good players and it was done with resources that were not nearly as big as a lot of clubs in Latin America.”

Ruben Amaro Jr. agreed with Arbuckle.

“I would say he is a superstar because of the level of his success and longevity,” the former Phillies GM said. “The proof is in the pudding. A lot of people sprayed through the major leagues that he put a stamp on and, honestly, he has done really, really great things without the greatest resources. Sometimes I think that was good for him. He really fared well with guys who didn’t require the big dollars. He loved finding the true diamonds in the rough.”

Preparing for the future

Agostinelli spent his first six seasons of professional baseball in the Cardinals organization after being selected in the 22nd round of the 1983 draft out of Slippery Rock University, where he played baseball, majored in international business, and minored in Spanish.

“I broke the school record for batting average my sophomore year,” Agostinelli said.

The record of .467 held until 2009, when future major-leaguer Matt Adams, another late-round pick of the Cardinals, broke the mark with a .495 average.

Agostinelli was a good player. Good enough, in fact, to play with Terry Mulholland, Jamie Moyer, and Mike Trout’s father, Jeff, in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League after his junior year. He was drafted after his senior season following a tryout in Erie, Pa., with the Cardinals.

At the time, Lee Thomas was the St. Louis farm director and Jim Fregosi was the manager at triple-A Louisville. Agostinelli slowly climbed through the Cardinals’ minor-league system, but he was making an impression beyond what he did on the baseball field and honing skills that would serve him well in the future.

“When I got to the minor leagues, I met a ton of Latin guys and for some reason I just gravitated toward hanging out with them,” Agostinelli said. “I found them to be humble and the more I talked to them the better I started to understand the language. I had seven years of Spanish between high school and college and I was fluent in Italian, which helped me, too. My dad also spoke Spanish because his uncle had lived in Argentina.”

The 5-foot-9 catcher also had a feisty side that one day caught the attention of Thomas. In his third season with the Cardinals organization, a 19-year-old pitcher stopped in front of Agostinelli and sarcastically suggested that it was a joke the vertically challenged catcher was working out with the double-A Arkansas club.

Agostinelli turned to teammate Roy Silver in disbelief.

“Did he just say that to me?” Agostinelli asked Silver.

“I don’t think he was talking to me,” Silver said.

“If he ever does that again, I’m going to knock him out,” Agostinelli told Silver.

Sure enough, the 6-4 pitcher repeated the routine the following day.

Agostinelli followed the pitcher to the area in the spring-training clubhouse where the sanitary socks were stored, tapped the 19-year-old on the shoulder, and decked him with one punch.

“He fell inside a locker and looked up at me,” Agostinelli said. “I said, ‘You ever talk to me like that again and I’m going to kill you.’ ”

Thomas witnessed the entire thing.

“What are you doing?” the farm director asked Agostinelli.

“You tell that guy to stay away from me or he’s not going to wake up tomorrow morning,” Agostinelli told Thomas.

Agostinelli spent the night in his St. Petersburg, Fla., hotel room wondering if he’d be released. Instead, he long outlasted the pitcher, remaining with the Cardinals system through the 1988 season.

“I think it might have helped me with Lee,” Agostinelli said.

Thomas admitted during a recent phone interview that he liked seeing Agostinelli stand up for himself, especially since the other guy was a lot bigger and a bully.

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Sal Agostinelli, (center) has been a Phillies scout for 25 years.

The day of the deal

Even though the Sal Agostinelli-Todd Crosby trade was an ignored minor-league transaction, it had a major impact on the catcher who was born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island by Italian immigrants Donato and Antonia Agostinelli.

“I was in spring training [in St. Petersburg] in 1989 and I got a call that Ted Simmons, the minor-league director, wanted to talk to me in his office,” Agostinelli said. “I thought I was being released.”

Nope. He had been traded.

“Everybody loves you around here and nobody wants to get rid of you,” Simmons told Agostinelli. “But we’re backed up with catchers and we need some infielders and Lee and those guys over with the Phillies, they really want you over there. I think it’s a great opportunity.”

Agostinelli said he was simultaneously sad to be leaving the Cardinals and thrilled that Thomas, who was hired as the Phillies’ general manager in the middle of the 1988 season, wanted him.

“I was kind of in shock,” he said. “I couldn’t believe Lee wanted me there.”

[Phillies prospect Elniery Garcia pitching well after suspension]

Thomas knew he was not getting a future major-league player, but he was confident he was getting a future major-league contributor.

“I liked him and I knew he was going to do something after he played,” Thomas said. “He has a great personality. He always treated people with respect and he still does. You didn’t have to worry about him causing problems.”

That’s how you last a decade in the minor leagues without any real hope of ever getting to the big leagues.

“Honestly, there was not one point in my career that I ever thought I’d make it to the big leagues,” Agostinelli said. “I knew that I was good, but I also knew I wasn’t as good as the best guys. I did everything I could to stay around. I didn’t want my life to be without baseball. I knew I wanted to be there, and there is a lot of crap you have to be able to take to stick around.”

A lack of money is one of the hardships for so many minor-leaguers. Agostinelli never made more than $3,500 a month during his playing career and once was overjoyed when Thomas gave him a raise from $1,200 to $2,000 a month during his time with the Cardinals.

Brush with the big leagues

Agostinelli never played in the big leagues, but he does have two hilarious memories of getting into spring-training games with the Phillies when Nick Leyva was the manager.

“The first time was in the eighth inning of a game against the Pirates,” Agostinelli said. “They called me in to catch Joe Boever. The first pitch he throws me my glove breaks. So I go to the dugout and they throw me a brand new glove. The next pitch hits my mitt and bounces halfway back to Boever.”

Agostinelli got through the inning, but before he got a chance to hit in the ninth the game was called because of rain.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Sal Agostinelli hugs a player at the new Phillies Dominican Republic academy in Boca Chica. 

He did get a chance to hit the next year during a road game against the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla.

“It was like the seventh inning and there were runners at first and third and all of a sudden they start waiving for me down in the bullpen,” Agostinelli said. “I thought they were going nuts.”

Agostinelli did not have his bat or his batting gloves with him because he did not think he’d be leaving the bullpen that day.

“I went up with somebody else’s bat and walked on four pitches,” he said. “Wally Backman came up after me and smoked a ball and I started running as hard as I could. Andy Van Slyke made a great catch in the gap. That was it. Two times I made the big leagues in my life.”

From coaching to scouting

Unlike 1990 and 1991, Agostinelli was not invited to big-league spring training in 1992. By then he was 30 years old and the Phillies had other plans for him. Thomas envisioned Agostinelli as a manager one day and he was not alone in that line of thinking. Agostinelli’s best friend in the St. Louis system was Jim Fregosi Jr., whose father was now the manager of the Phillies. The elder Fregosi loved Agostinelli like a son.

When Agostinelli arrived at spring training he was summoned to a meeting with Del Unser, the farm director at the time, and was told the Phillies wanted him to become a coach in their minor-league system. He agreed and spent that season first as a rookie-league coach in Martinsville, Va., and later as the hitting and catching coach at double-A Reading.

“I really thought he would be a manager,” Thomas said. “I tried to steer him toward that. I think he would have been outstanding at it.”

Jay Hankins, the Phillies’ scouting director at the time, had another idea. He thought Agostinelli would make a great scout and the two men discussed the idea before a game in Reading late in the 1992 season.

“I thought scouts were a bunch of old guys who wore hats, sat in chairs, and chewed tobacco,” Agostinelli said. “But I went home and talked to a lot of people about it and they thought it was a great idea. They told me I’d be home more because I’d be scouting New York and New Jersey and I decided to take the job.”

[Phillies promote centerfielder Carlos Tocci to triple A]

Shortly after that, Hankins was fired and replaced by Arbuckle.

“Now I have no coaching job and I don’t know if I have a scouting job,” Agostinelli said. “I went to work for my uncle as a waiter in Manhattan. For like two days I couldn’t get a hold of Lee and I’m a nervous wreck. I finally got a hold of Mike Arbuckle and he told me that I still had the job.”

Hablo beisbol

By his fifth season as an area scout, Agostinelli’s territory had expanded to New England, Delaware, and parts of Canada. It was about to expand to some of the most fertile scouting locations in the game. Arbuckle noticed that Agostinelli was able to speak fluent Spanish with the Latin players on the roster and the two talked about it in spring training.

“I told him I knew all the curse words,” Agostinelli said.

Arbuckle realized that Agostinelli entirely understood Spanish and the game of baseball.

“A lot of people told me I was crazy when I decided to make him the Latin supervisor,” Arbuckle said. “They wanted to know why I thought I could take a guy out of New York City and put him in Latin America. I thought he’d be ideal for the job. I knew he’d succeed because he is an aggressive guy and the mentality of a lot of scouts in Latin America at the time was that they’d get to things tomorrow. While other guys were looking at two or three prospects, Sal was seeing 10 to 15 and signing two or three.”

The Phillies’ Latin American presence was pathetic before Agostinelli’s arrival.

“I started going down to the Dominican Republic as soon as they gave me the job,” Agostinelli said. “We had this old stadium in La Vega in the middle of the country and the living conditions were not good.”

Agostinelli started the facility’s weight program by going to Modell’s on Long Island and buying weights that he’d put in the overhead compartment during his flights to the Dominican Republic.

“I’d bring 75 to 150 pounds at a time and stuff them in the overhead,” Agostinelli said. “I always worried about the turbulence. I drove by that stadium recently and the part where the players used to stay is shut down, but I could still see the weights. Carlos Ruiz used those weights.”

Arbuckle said that after just two years with Agostinelli in charge of the Latin program the Phillies were back as a serious player in the vital countries of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Sal Agostinelli deals with players at the Phillies’ Dominican Republic academy in Boca Chica.

Hiring his friend

Jesus “Chalao” Mendez was among the many Latin American players Agostinelli befriended during his minor-league playing career with the Cardinals and he was the man who came to mind when  the Phillies’ newly hired international scouting supervisor went searching for help in recruiting Venezuelan players.

“Everyone in Venezuela knows Jesus Mendez,” Agostinelli said. “He was my bridge to Venezuela. Once I knew him, I got to know everybody. He played baseball with [former Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez. He played with [current president] Nicolas Maduro. The president mentions him on TV.”

Most important from the Phillies’ standpoint is that Mendez, with the help of Venezuelan scout Carlos Salas, has made the organization into one of the best at finding talent in that unsettled country. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez, shortstop Freddy Galvis, and pitchers Edubray Ramos and Ricardo Pinto were all signed out of Venezuela.

Twelve of the Phillies’ top 30 prospects as listed by MLB.com were international signings by Agostinelli, who has had the trust of every general manager he has worked for since Lee Thomas made that spectacular trade for him 28 years ago.

“I did not know Sal at all prior to my arrival,” current GM Matt Klentak said. “I had a lot to learn about how those markets worked and Sal and his staff have been incredibly helpful to me. I think I mentioned a few times around the trade deadline when we acquired international pool money that I believe we have one of the best international groups in the business and I think you see that with how our system is flooded with international signings.”

Love and sacrifice

The friends who told Sal Agostinelli he would not have to travel as much if he chose scouting over coaching 25 years ago obviously did not know enough about the man or the business. Agostinelli estimated that he is away from home about 200 days a year, which is nice when it comes to airline miles and hotel points, but not so great for family life. He believes at least part of the reason his first marriage did not last was because of his work, but he always tried to be the best father he could to his three children: daughter Toni-Ann and sons Danny and Anthony.

“Meeting my second wife, Sharon, when I was already doing this I think helped her understand things,” Agostinelli said. “She means the world to me. If you don’t have a family at home, it doesn’t really matter as much what you’re doing. You work to provide for your family.”

Agostinelli does, however, love his work.

“I don’t know any job that would fit a guy more than this one fits me,” Agostinelli said. “I loved baseball and I really saw a chance to go out and impact the organization. You didn’t have to wait around like you do in the draft and I really felt wanted in this job. It was like a drug. You did it and you wanted to do it more.”