For Mr. Irrelevant, A Pick Is A Chance

Jeff Passantino (Courtesy of Lipscomb)

Jeff Passantino sat patiently at his home in Cape Coral, Fla., surrounded by family and friends. It was the third and final day of the MLB Draft. A day by all accounts, the righthanded pitcher from Lipscomb was set to be drafted into pro baseball.

Based off of conversations he had had with scouts and organizations in the months and weeks leading up to the draft, Passantino had pegged the teens as the rounds in which he'd likely hear his name called.

Everybody had told him that from the 13th to the 19th round, he would be drafted. But the rounds kept going.

He looked to his mom, Elizabeth. "If this 20th round comes and goes, I'm going to start to get a little nervous."

She reassured him, told him to stay positive and that everything would work out as expected. But then the 20th round passed. His two best friends and Lipscomb teammates Brady Puckett and Michael Gigliotti had already been snatched off the draft board in the 15th and fourth rounds, respectively.

The nerves began to set in for Passantino.

"Well hell, this might not happen," he thought to himself.

He did everything he could to take his mind of the draft—to take his mind off the fact that his dream of playing pro ball might evaporate into the Florida heat. He played cards, paced around the house and fidgeted with the television clicker, looking for anything—a baseball game, a movie, something he could avert his attention to.

Then came the 25th round.

"This is kind of scary now," Passantino said, recalling his thinking at the time. "I was supposed to go 10 rounds ago."

He texted Puckett to calm himself down and assess his situation.

"Wouldn't it be funny if I was Mr. Irrelevant?" Passantino typed out. Mr. Irrelevant is the nickname doled out to the final selection of each draft.

"No, that would be awesome. Because that means you'd still get picked and still get to go play," Puckett responded.

"Yeah, you're right, it would be pretty cool," Passantino replied.

Around 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 14, the 40th round began—Passantino's last 30 chances. He knew which teams had scouted him the hardest—the Yankees, Astros and Cubs. At pick No. 1,201, Houston selected Chase Farrell, a righthanded pitcher from Valencia High in Santa Clarita, Calif. At 1,202, the Yankees went with Hayden Cantrelle, a shortstop from Teurlings Catholic High in Lafayette, La.

Just like that, Passantino's fate was left in the hands of 13 teams.

As each pick was announced, it was another potential opportunity to live a childhood dream thrown out the window.

But at pick No. 1,215, the last pick of the draft, the organization that had scouted him the hardest, the team that he had the most pre-draft meetings with and the area scout, Alex McClure, that had campaigned for him the hardest finally called the Lipscomb junior's name.

Jeff Passantino would be playing baseball for the Cubs.

“He is a hard-nosed kid who’s always had to prove himself,” McClure said. “He doesn’t light up the radar but he does a nice job of using the strike zone. He is a bulldog on the mound, and before you know it, he’s still pitching in the eight inning and getting outs.”

The moments following the draft were a rush for Passantino. The fear and anxiety of not being drafted to immediate elation—he’d gotten his chance to prove himself.

"It was super craziness. It was jumping up and down, screaming," Passantino said, reflecting on the moments following the pick. "But then it's a dream come true, so you cry. It was just the ultimate high you could ever expect of excitement and pure joy."

It's ironic, really, that Passantino lasted until the 40th round. Because all that the 5-foot-9, 225-pound righty from Lipscomb with a fastball that just touched 90 miles per hour had done for the previous three seasons was prove that he was anything but irrelevant.

He posted a 2.69 ERA as a freshman with the Bisons, one year removed from Bishop Verot High in Fort Myers, Fla. He followed that up with a 3.40 ERA in 15 starts as a sophomore.

Then came Falmouth and the Cape Cod League and his chance to show out for a litany of scouts who flocked to games each summer.

But nothing was guaranteed. He was with the Commodores on a temporary contract. His teammates Puckett and Gigliotti were granted full-season deals. Passantino was left to do what he does best, fight.

"I knew deep down, just how prestigious the Cape Cod League is," he said. "So I knew if I go there and do really well, and really kind of show everybody who I am and what I'm about . . . show them what's in my heart and what's in my head—that I can do this, that I can compete with everybody—I knew I'd have a pretty good shot (of getting looked at by scouts). Someone would take a chance on a kid like that."

Passantino did that, and then some. In seven starts, he posted a 0.64 ERA, struck out 39, walked just three, started for the West in the Cape League All-Star game and was named the B.F.C Whitehouse Pitcher of the Year—an award won previously by the likes of Chris Sale and Andrew Miller.

Just like that, Passantino was somebody.

He spent his fall meeting with MLB teams, discussing his future. Teams liked what they had seen on the Cape, and Passantino liked his chances in the draft.

"As the meetings came, I said 'You know what? I think I'm going to have a chance to play professional baseball,'" Passantino said.

His junior season hadn't even started, and his outlook was brighter than ever.

But in November, tragedy struck the family. Passantino's dad, Jeff, passed away. Passentino’s dad was everything to him—a friend and his biggest fan. Passantino's upcoming season—the most crucial season of his life as far as getting drafted was concerned—would be the first time he took to the mound without his dad watching.

Once again, Passantino fought.

He pitched his first game without his dad on Feb. 13 against Oakland. He allowed just one earned run over five innings pitched, struck out six and walked just one.

"The first game of course was emotional," he said. "That was the first game I had thrown without my dad. I was thinking about that the entire time. Baseball was always my No. 1 thing, and that was our relationship. I knew he was would want me to be happy and he would want me to continue to be the bulldog competitor that I am every time I stepped out there."

All while dealing with the grief of losing his father, Passantino knew he still had a job to do. His junior season was his best yet. In 15 starts, he record a 3.09 ERA, struck out 99 and walked just nine.

To McClure, it was his performance on the mound and the way he handled himself off of it that drew him to Passantino.

“He will use his internal motivation to carry him as far as he can,” McClure said. “He kept a meeting with me in the fall a week after his dad passed away, which I know was very tough on him. That spoke to me about his desire to want to play and be successful.”

Added Passantino, "I hope I made (my Dad) proud. I hope he's in heaven right now smiling down. He's probably a little bit irritated he's not here, celebrating and getting to see me pitch in person. I know he's excited and proud."

Statistically, the odds are not in Passantino's favor as the last man off the board. No Mr. Irrelevant from the past 10 years has made the majors. But for Passantino, what's irrelevant is where he's drafted. All he'll have to do is what he's done time and time again—fight.

"I'm excited to be that guy to go out there and beat the odds. To go out there and keep proving everybody wrong. For the Chicago Cubs to pick me, it shows that they believe in me. I've got to get in there and make them proud and say, "Hey man, I belong.'"

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