Catching Bloodlines

Stassi follows family tradition behind the plate




It's the eighth inning, and all eyes are on Max Stassi.

No, he's not at the plate hitting his third home run in three at-bats, which he's done.

And no, he's not smashing a playoff game-winning grand slam, which he's done.

He's not even blocking a ball in the dirt or gunning down an overzealous baserunner, which he frequently does.

In fact, Stassi is not even in the lineup for the USA Tournament of Stars fifth-place contest—a tweaked hamstring limited his role to that of a first-base coach. Instead, Stassi has his teammates in stitches with his pants hiked up well above his waist and the characteristic limp that goes with his classic impersonation of a coach.

Even when he isn't playing, Stassi's teammates, coaches, opponents and you can bet scouts are still conscious of where the good-humored catcher is at all times. And that's thanks largely to the things the lethal hitter does when he is on the field.

As a junior at Yuba City High School (about 45 minutes north of Sacramento), Stassi hit .471, set a school record with 15 homers and knocked in 45 runs despite rarely seeing a pitch in the strike zone. He also led Yuba City to its second consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section title.

In doing so, Stassi emerged as the best catching prospect in California and one of the top prospects in the nation.

But he isn't worrying about the scouts in the stands or the stats in the scorebook, even though he has both of them right where he wants them. Instead, he's just taking it all in and enjoying the ride. Stassi exists on a separate plane than most, at the intersection of fierce competitor and class clown.

The stocky 17-year-old catcher is devoted to self-improvement and says he won't be content with his game until the day his career is over.

"As soon as you get satisfied with yourself, as soon as you think you're the best hitter, as soon as you get convinced by all the hype and the scouts and the agent guys, you start thinking, OK, I'm good at this game," Stassi said. "Once you start thinking that, you're toast, man, because then you're not going to work hard, you're not going to want to strive to get better.

"I go to a big league game, and I see those hitters. Most people are in awe, they think, you know, he can hit the ball far. I almost think in my own mind, I want to be better than that guy right there. I don't want to be as good as him; I want to be the best guy out there."

But then he sits back and that quick smile reappears. Then it becomes clear why he became the undisputed leader of Kangaroo Court, a gag tradition in the clubhouse to dish out punishment for violating team rules.

"He's kind of a happy-go-lucky guy, likes to have a good time," said Jim Stassi, Max's father and high school baseball coach. "But he also knows when it's time to get serious."

The Family Business

Jim is part of a long line of Stassis that played professional ball. He, too, started at Yuba City before eventually playing three minor league seasons in the Giants system. But it doesn't stop there.

Jim's father and uncle both played for the Hollywood Stars in the 1940s. Their father, Sam Stassi, played for the San Francisco Seals. To top it off, Max's great, great-uncle, Myril Hoag, played 13 seasons in the major leagues in the 1930s and 1940s, including stints in the same Yankee outfields as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Even Max's grandmother played baseball—not softball—for her high school team.

Now, it is Max (a third-generation catcher) and his two brothers, Brock and Jake, who are moving up the ranks of the baseball world. Brock is a sophomore pitcher at Nevada-Reno, his father's alma mater, and Jake is an up-and-coming hurler for Yuba City.

Diamond Dweller

Max Stassi, it seems, was destined to play ball right from the start.

"I think when he was born somebody, as a gift, somebody did give us a little glove and bat," Jim said. "So it was probably pretty much right after he was born he had a glove."

From that point, it wouldn't take long for him to get out on the field. When Stassi was young, he showed up to his father's high school practices, and nobody could keep him off the diamond.

"We put him right in BP groups and hitting stations," Jim said. "We'd put him in defensive groups and he'd work out like one of the players. Obviously the older he got, the more he kept up with everybody, but he wasn't last the whole two and a half hours when he was younger."

In seventh grade, Stassi started waking up at 5:15 a.m. with his father to lift weights with some of Jim's friends in the high school gym. Then he'd go home and get ready for school.

This early dedication to the game helped establish what Max calls his greatest asset.

It's not his bat, which helped him to three-year high school totals of .506, 29 home runs and 124 RBIs.

It's not his glove, with which he only committed four errors in 224 chances and let just two passed balls squeeze by.

"It's my never-give-up mentality," he said. "I always go up there and I'm going to give it 100 percent. I'll block balls in the dirt, I'll wear it off the arm, do anything to keep that guy from moving up bases."

Stassi committed to go to college at UCLA in his sophomore year, and he said it'll be a tough sell to keep him from attending. The Bruins wooed him with their coaching staff, players, reputation and the whole college atmosphere.

Still, his mind is not made up, and Stassi said he'll wait to see what happens on draft day.

But as he downed a slurpee at the Cary Towne Center, in North Carolina for the Tournament of Stars, in plaid shorts and a surfer tee, his speech filled with "dudes" and "mans" as he debated West Coast rappers with TOS teammate Blair Moore, it is clear his thoughts are far from his future career in the game he loves.

He's probably just planning his next impression.