Hanging with the big boys
St. Edward's Pirozzolo grew up surrounded by big league stars
CARY, N.C. -- Joe Pirozzolo and some friends were in the stands at a baseball game not too long ago when some of his buddies started booing the hometown Texas Rangers.
"Shhhh", Joe told them. You can’t do that. Not here.
Well, why not? That’s part of the game, booing. Going to a ballgame and not booing is kind of like going to church and not praying.
Because this is the Rangers’ family section, that’s why. The wives of the players are all around us, and their kids, too.
Of course, that’s just one of the perks you get when your dad is Dr. Fran Pirozzolo, a neuropsychologist who has served at one time or another as the mental skills coach for the Houston Astros, New York Yankees and Rangers. He’s also worked with the Houston Texans of the NFL and extensively with golfers on the PGA Tour.
Joe is a senior right fielder for St. Edward’s, and has learned the game of baseball from some absolute superstars through the years. He’s friends with Mike Piazza, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. He once rode in a World Series parade through the streets of New York City with Derek Jeter.
No, really. He did.
It doesn’t stop there, not by a long shot. Joe has taken batting practice using Josh Hamilton’s bat. The glove he’s using in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship was given to him by Nelson Cruz. It says so on the stitching of the thumb.
Joe wasn’t the only Pirozzolo sibling who got in on the incredibly cool baseball action. His older brother John served as a visitors clubhouse bat boy at the old Yankee Stadium during the team’s late 1990s heyday. Dwight Gooden once set his shoes on fire while giving him a hot foot.
Joe has lived the dream of every baseball fan everywhere for as long as he can remember, but don’t even think about getting jealous. Joe was just spending time with his dad at work.
“My dad has always been really great about wanting to take me everywhere he goes,” Joe said. “It’s kind of funny now, but I think he kind of misses me traveling with him. It’s been part of my life forever. I really don’t know any different.”
As tremendous an opportunity as all this has been for Joe, here’s what might very well be the best part of the story. He’s kept the whole thing in perspective and not let it go to his head.
The pride in Fran’s voice comes through loud and clear when he says that Joe is not that kind of kid.
“The honest fact is that Joey never talks about any of this to anyone,” Fran said. “It would be a shock to most. They hear that I’m a coach or whatever, but I don’t think anyone would know the experiences he’s had. He just doesn’t talk about them.”
Joe had an outstanding game in right field in St. Edward’s razor-thin 1-0 victory against Grand Canyon Sunday, making a diving catch, another on a dead run and also throwing out a runner at home to end the Antelopes’ threat in the bottom of the sixth inning.
At the plate, he had a bunt single and struck out twice.
With Fran working on the road and Joe playing ball for the Hilltoppers these days, their conversations about Joe’s approach to the game are mostly phone conversations. That’s not the case this week. Fran is in Cary, N.C., watching Joe.
Fran has worked with players like Hamilton, Jeter, Cruz, pitcher C.J. Wilson of the Los Angeles Angels and many more. The same advice he’s given them has always been available to his youngest son, if and when he wants it.
“I’ve tried to be a dad and I’ve tried to respect those kinds of boundaries,” Fran said. “I wouldn’t say that I haven’t coached him. As a neuroscientist and researcher, I’ve researched some of the motor-control fundamentals and have been hanging around some of the best hitting coaches in the world.
“Joe has benefited tremendously from that since he was eight or nine. I started with both boys by saying, ‘I’m going to be your dad and I want to know how you want me to be.’ I’ve tried to provide a stable home environment and certainly make available all of the resources I have.”
Joe recently graduated from St. Edward’s and has been accepted into a doctoral program in developmental psychology at the University of Houston. He’s not exactly following in his dad’s footsteps -- their careers will be more parallel to each other.
“I’m more interested in learning rather than sports,” Joe said. “I have the same love for baseball and golf as he does, so I would really love it if my career was a lot like his. I’m definitely interested in both education and learning how to apply research and cognitive psychology to sports.”
For all the exciting moments Fran has been able to share with his sons, one memory in particular stands out for him. There were no famous baseball players or golfers around, no parades in which to ride. It was just the four of them -- Fran, his wife Priscilla, John and Joe.
They were riding a hurricane out at home in Texas and doing it together. The power was out, so they just hung out by candlelight, cheating at cards and talking about baseball.
“He’s my best friend,” Fran said. “His brother is my next-best friend. We do everything together and I’m shocked that that continues -- that he thinks it’s cool to hang out with dad.”