From as far back as his days on the dusty diamonds of Mead Park in New Canaan, Curt Casali always had a strong work ethic.
“I spent so many countless hours with my dad in the basement of our home in New Canaan,” said Casali. “The winters are rough up there, so we would go down there and hit whiffle balls. He would duck behind one of those big bouncing balls after he would throw it to me; it was actually pretty funny.”
Now it’s Southern League pitchers who are ducking out of the way of Casali’s hits. And they aren’t laughing.
In 20 games since being promoted to the Tampa Bay Rays AA affiliate, the Montgomery Biscuits, the 2007 New Canaan High School graduate is hitting .412 with 3 HRs and 20 RBI. His on-base percentage is .494 and he is sporting an eye-popping 1.111 OPS, a metric of a hitter’s ability to get on base and hit for power…two things Casali has done his whole life.
“I’ve gotten off to a good start and I’m just trying to keep it going,” said Casali. “It’s a small sample size, but I’ve always looked at it from the perspective of if I play hard, play the game the right way, and do things in life the right way that good things are going to happen. Fortunately for me they’ve been going in the right direction so far.”
The 24 year-old Casali’s success is even more impressive considering the tumultuous year he’s had.
After starring at Vanderbilt University, Casali was selected by Detroit in the 2011 MLB Draft, and spent the next two seasons making the slow rise within the Tigers organization. He split 2011 between the Short-Season Class A NY-Penn League and Class A Midwest League. After rising from Class A to A-Advanced in 2012, Casali was seemingly headed back to Detroit’s A-Advanced affiliate in Lakeland for the start of the 2013 season.
But with only one week left in Spring Training, things changed quickly for Casali. Detroit sent him to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for the rights to minor league pitcher Kyle Lobstein.
Assigned to the Rays A-Advanced Port Charlotte club in the Florida State League, Casali promptly made an impact as the Stone Crabs’ starting catcher, hitting .269 with 5 HRs and 22 RBI in only 46 games. By the end of July, he earned a well-deserved promotion and was on the move again…this time to Double-A.
Again, Casali wasted no time in making his presence known with his new club.
In his first game on July 25, Casali was a perfect 3-3 at the plate with an RBI and a run scored. Just over a week later, he hit his first Double-A HR, finishing with 3 hits and 5 RBI. And last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, he went a combined 8-12 with 2 HRs, 6 RBI and 5 runs.
“I attribute it mainly to a comfort level,” said Casali. “Normally when you change teams there’s a transition and there’s meeting new people and getting adjusted to a new manager, new hitting coach, and new pitching coach. And I have to credit them with a lot of it because they’ve just made me feel so welcome and comfortable, as well as my teammates.”
Having a familiar face in the clubhouse has also helped. Biscuit infielder Robi Estrada first met Casali when they were kids playing summer ball in California’s youth league.
“You want to talk about a small world,” said Casali. “I hadn’t seen Robi in a long time, not since I had moved to New Canaan when I was 10 or 11 years old. But when I got traded, having him there…we rekindled the bond, and it definitely made the transition a lot smoother. He’s a great guy and a great player. I’m really thankful that I got the opportunity to play with him again.”
Sometimes being traded can hurt a young players’ confidence. In Casali’s case, it might have been the best thing to happen to him. With current Tampa backstop Jose Molina approaching 40, and no significant Rays catching prospects in front of him at AAA Durham, it looks like Casali has a clear path to reaching his dream of playing in the majors. That being said, the prospect of making it to “The Show” is not something he takes for granted.
“The minor leagues are no joke, and I mean that when I say it,” said Casali. “You can ask anyone who’s playing right now. The long bus rides, the long hours, the little pay…it definitely gets to you. But it’s like the beginning stages of any job. It weeds out the weak. And as I’m getting older and moving up the ladder, it becomes clearer. And the dream gets a little bit closer and you want to work harder just to make sure that someday it might happen.”
Montgomery is more than 1,000 miles away from New Canaan. Even so, Casali has kept in close contact with his roots. When younger brother Andrew led New Canaan to their first state title in 63 years, Curt was along for the ride, at least in spirit.
“I followed the whole thing,” said Casali. “I would get text messages from my mom and dad and Andrew talked to me almost every day about his baseball and how well he’s doing. Andrew…he’s a great player, and I was happy that the FCIAC noticed him with the Player of the Year. He works hard at it. I think a lot of people take it for granted how hard he works and what part of his summers that he gives up doing the high school circuits to try and elevate his game and make it to the next level.”
The work ethic that helped Curt land a scholarship at Vanderbilt apparently runs in the Casali family. Andrew will be playing baseball next year at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
“He did the same things that I did when I was in high school,” Casali continued. “I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Despite the fact that his younger brother was the one who actually brought the Rams home the State Title, a small part of Curt Casali was on the field when the Rams clinched.
“Casey Ouellette was still rocking my high school catchers’ mask,” Casali told Patch. “If you notice, he’s wearing red gear, and a gray All-Star mask…and that mask is mine.”
Asked whether he wants the mask back, Casali said, “He can keep it now. That thing should be retired in the Hall of Fame.”
And while he’s putting up numbers that could lead anyone to Cooperstown, Casali is keeping his recent success in perspective.
“It’s a game…I get paid to play a game,” said Casali. “And whether I strike out, fly out, hit a home run, a line drive, you have to approach it the same way and enjoy it as long as you can, because you’re not going to be able to play forever. The amount of time you’re going to be able play is too short not enjoy every moment of it.
“It’s taken me a while to realize, but I think right now I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life.”
Not since his days on the dusty diamonds of Mead Park.
Editor's note: This article originally was published by New Canaan Patch.