When Gino Tagliaferri watches baseball games at his alma mater, Kennedy High, he prefers to peer through the chain-link fence in left field and sit in the back of the pickup truck he bought with some of the $65,000 bonus money he received after he signed a professional contract in 1989.
These days, Tagliaferri prefers to sit in solitude. He wants to be on the outside looking in.
“There aren’t any scouts out there,” Tagliaferri said. “Nobody asks me any questions and I can just watch the game.”
After he informed the Detroit Tigers earlier this month that he is finished with professional baseball after 1 1/2 seasons, he can watch as much baseball as he wants.
Tagliaferri, the 1989 City Section 4-A Division player of the year, told the organization March 7 that he had had enough of the pressures of minor-league ball. In short, Tagliaferri, the City Section’s career home-run leader with 23, has retired at the ripe age of 20.
Some say it is better to burn out than fade away. In a strange twist that underscores the pressures of pro baseball, Tagliaferri says he is burned out and that he wants to fade away.
“When people find out about it, they say, ‘What!’ Everybody knows me from baseball,” he said. “But I’ve never lost so much confidence in myself so fast. I was too unhappy to handle it anymore.”
After a senior season in which he hit a City-record and state-high 13 home runs and led the Golden Cougars to the 4-A championship, Tagliaferri was chosen by Detroit in the third round of the June amateur draft. Two months later, Tagliaferri signed and reported to Niagara Falls, N.Y., a member of the Class A New York-Penn League.
What he thought was the beginning of a bright future was, instead, the beginning of the end. Tagliaferri, a shortstop in high school, played third base and batted .173. He struck out 54 times in 110 at-bats and managed just 19 hits.
Tagliaferri (5-foot-11, 195 pounds), who in his high school days was one of the most physically mature and aggressive players in the area, said he was in over his head.
“I think I was rushed into a level of ball where I was overmatched,” he said. “I hate to use that word, but that’s what it was. From day one I was trying to rebuild the confidence that I had in high school.”
It didn’t get much better in his second season. He batted a combined .192 for two Class A teams, drove in 44 runs and hit eight home runs. He struck out 162 times in 422 at-bats.
Tagliaferri said he called Dave Miller, Detroit’s minor-league director, March 7 and informed him that he was not going to show up for spring training, which began March 12.
“I said that I haven’t been injury free and that I wasn’t prepared,” said Tagliaferri, who last fall had surgery to remove a cyst on his right wrist and is experiencing pain in his right shoulder, which has bothered him since he was in his early teens. “I told them I would not be able to contribute, that I wouldn’t be effective.
“Basically, I told them I wasn’t going to play anymore.”
Tagliaferri said he somehow reinjured his shoulder--on which Frank Jobe performed surgery five years ago--over the winter. He said he contacted the club physician in Detroit, who advised him to ice the shoulder and refrain from throwing. After a few weeks of following the prescribed therapy, Tagliaferri said he again tried to contact the physician but that his phone calls were not returned.
“My attitude right now is that I’ve had two bad years with the Tigers,” he said. “And either they don’t want me or they just don’t give a . . .”
Miller, contacted at Detroit’s spring training headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., said Tagliaferri will be welcomed back if he changes his mind. Miller told Tagliaferri that if he still wants to quit in a few months, Tagliaferri should write a letter to the organization stating that he has voluntarily retired.
Miller said the organization, which would retain the rights to Tagliaferri if he decides to stage a comeback, has not given up on Tagliaferri, who is not drawing a salary and will not be granted a release.
“One year doesn’t make a ballplayer,” Miller said. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s fine if he wants to stay home until he’s (physically and psychologically) ready to report. We don’t give a player a release unless we’re though with him. We hope he gets things straightened away.”
Tagliaferri said his career began to unravel while playing for the Class A club at Fayetteville, N.C., last summer, when he was told at midseason that he would be sent back to Niagara Falls.
Tagliaferri said he willingly moved to the outfield and was finally showing signs of emerging from a prolonged slump when the decision was made. A few days earlier, Tagliaferri said, he hit the game-winning home run that gave Fayetteville the South Atlantic League’s first-half title.
Tagliaferri said he considered the move a demotion because the South Atlantic is a mid-level Class A league while the New York-Penn League is low-level Class A.
“After that (demotion), I never had a more miserable time in my life,” said Tagliaferri, who batted .177 and struck out 88 times in 243 at-bats at Niagara Falls.
There were other problems. After Tagliaferri rejoined Niagara Falls, he was accused of stealing money from the team trainer and said that he was strip-searched. Miller said Tagliaferri was falsely accused and that the trainer no longer is in the organization.
Miller allowed that Tagliaferri, who never played at the rookie league level, should have been given more seasoning.
“It could be . . . that starting him there was rushing him along too soon,” Miller said. “We took the word of the guys who scouted him in high school. They all seemed to think he was ready.”
Tagliaferri is living with his parents in Granada Hills and working part-time as a service station attendant for $7 an hour. He said he plans to attend a junior college in the fall and hopes eventually to earn a teaching credential and coach baseball.
“I didn’t want to be in a position where, six years from now when I’m 26, it all ended and I was stuck trying to figure out what I want to do with my life,” he said. “In this career, I was going backward when you have to move forward.”