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From the Bushes to Yankee Bullpen

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mike Borzello has pitched to sluggers Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and Tino Martinez and caught pitchers Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and even Hideki Irabu.

The former Taft High and Cal Lutheran player has even earned a 1996 World Series championship ring and received another commemorative ring for his work at this summer’s All-Star Game.

Yet Borzello has never played in a major league game.

After five years as a minor-league catcher in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Borzello, 26, has found his way to the major leagues as a bullpen catcher and batting practice pitcher for the New York Yankees.

“This is the next-best thing [to playing] and it sometimes feels too good to be true,” Borzello said as he sat between Dwight Gooden and Tim Raines in the Yankee clubhouse. “I mean, what better could happen?”

It would be tough to top his first season, when the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves in six games to claim their first World Series title since 1978.

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“I think of all the people who have been in this game 30, 40 years and have never had that opportunity, and I feel really fortunate,” said Borzello, who grew up in Tarzana and resides in Studio City.

Said Gooden: “You see? He’s a front-runner, but at least he admits it.”

Borzello, in town through tonight for a four-game series with the Angels, was never named to an All-City team at Taft or an All-District team at Cal Lutheran. Many players had more talent, but few could match his desire.

Former Cal Lutheran Coach Rich Hill remembers Borzello as one of his most intense players.

“We were clinging to a lead in the last inning of the district championship game and players were at the top of the dugout, screaming their lungs out,” he said. “I look over and there is Mike, laying on the steps and praying. He wanted the game so bad.”

Not much has changed.

“I did the same thing [last year] in the World Series,” Borzello said. “I didn’t see the last inning when [John] Wetteland was out there. I just couldn’t watch.”

But desire alone doesn’t put you in Yankee pinstripes. In Borzello’s case, an inside connection helped open the door.

Mike’s father, Matt, grew up on the sandlots of Brooklyn alongside current Yankee Manager Joe Torre. That friendship remained strong through the years and led to their 15-year partnership in the operation of the Joe Torre Baseball Camp in Encino.

Torre was named Yankee manager before the 1996 season, about the same time Borzello was working for his father as a delivery truck driver after being released by the Cardinals.

Torre invited Borzello to spring training to try out for a spot on New York’s support staff.

“I wanted to get to the major leagues more than anyone, but I didn’t have the ability and had resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to play anymore,” Borzello said. “When this happened, it felt like maybe that desire was noticed, that somehow a back door was opened that allowed me to sneak through.”

Said Torre: “I don’t like to mix the business with the personal. But he paid his own way down to spring training so we could take a look at him and, luckily, the players took to him right away.”

Borzello was immediately treated like one of the players--one of the rookie players, at least.

During one game, Yankee pitchers wrapped Borzello in athletic tape and left him in the bullpen while fans howled. On another occasion, while Borzello warmed up a reliever, the other pitchers buried his jacket in the dirt.

Wetteland, the former Yankee bullpen ace, regularly would throw coffee on Borzello’s jersey (while he was in it) just before game time.

After winning the championship, those same players voted Borzello a three-quarter share of the World Series payout. A full share was worth more than $240,000, and the approximate $180,000 cut was significant for Borzello, who reportedly earned less than $3,000 a month for the sixth-month season.

“Now, [the players] treat me like I’m just as important as anyone else around here,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling.”

Borzello has become so respected as a batting practice pitcher that Yankee players jockey to be in his group.

“Good batting practice is definitely hard to find and it’s pretty rare to get a guy like Mike who serves up strike after strike,” said Martinez, currently second in the American League with 39 home runs.

Borzello is happy to oblige.

“I’m enjoying every day I’m here,” he said. “I’ll probably keep doing it until they tell me I can’t.”


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