South Xtra: Bethel grad holds on to a 'natural' dream

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SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- There is a natural tendency to look at new Edinburg Roadrunners' first baseman John Sciullo and be reminded of Pop Fisher's line to Roy Hobbs upon being introduced to him in the baseball film classic "The Natural."

"Fella, you don't start playing ball at your age, you retire."

To be fair, at 29, Sciullo, a 2003 Bethel Park High School graduate, is six years younger than Hobbs, the character portrayed by Robert Redford in the aforementioned 1984 movie.

But this past February in the Texas Winter League Sciullo's Hobbs-like .410 batting average earned him a spot on the roster of the two-time defending United League (Independent) champions.

Roadrunners manager Ozzie Canseco, also Sciullo's manager in the TWL, drafted the slugger for his United League club at the conclusion of the San Antonio-based showcase league's season after batting him cleanup throughout the 18-game campaign.

Sciullo also won the league's "Most Improved Player" Award. After all, he spent five years after playing at Southern Wesleyan University searching for the opportunity to play baseball professionally before getting a chance two years ago.

"He opened a lot of eyes, especially mine," Canseco said. "It's too early to pencil guys in, but I do think he has a legitimate shot to start.

"His attitude was tremendous. He was a natural leader. As the instructors gave information on hitting, you could tell he was taking in every word we said. That was very impressive."

A personal fitness trainer when not playing baseball who has a 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame, Sciullo was contemplating becoming a professional bodybuilder after an unsatisfying five-game stint with the United League's Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings in 2012 before his agent, Jim Hayes, called with one more playing opportunity for 2013 with the Prescott Montezuma Federals of the independent Freedom Pro Baseball League.

Playing initially for former Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson, Scuillo put up modest statistics (.269, two home runs) during the 41 game season.

"All things are possible with commitment and sacrifice," Sciullo said. "This is what I want. To me, it's a joy."

Paying to play in the TWL was next. This offered Sciullo the chance to be seen by professional scouts from both major league and independent minor league organizations, a postseason draft offering a seven-game commitment with various independent minor league teams to players, and the opportunity to be tutored by former major league baseball players as well.

Included were Ozzie's brother, Jose, the 1988 American League Most Valuable Player who has spent the past decade involved in independent baseball after his steroid use admissions, and former minor league hitting instructor Orv Franchuk.

They got Sciullo more in tune with the mental aspect of baseball, such as trying to pick up what pitch a pitcher may throw based on his windup, improved his swing, and encouraged him that even as muscular as he is, it would be in his best interests to shorten his stroke with two strikes.

"The little talks with Ozzie and Jose and Orv catapulted me to the next level," Sciullo said.

It also got Sciullo the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Mark McGuire for a game on Feb. 8 when Jose, who at 49 still suits up and plays an occasional independent minor league game, took the opportunity to play for his twin brother's TWL team and hit third in the lineup, just in front of Sciullo.

Not only did the two burly sluggers pull off a double steal, but Sciullo also collected three hits in the game, including a game-tying single during afour-run final inning comeback to give his team a 4-3 victory.

Two days later Sciullo hit the longest home run of the 51-game TWL season when he launched a drive to left center field onto the berm behind the fence at Nelson Wolff Stadium against a 26-mile per hour wind gust.

And after spending as much time throwing to and encouraging hitters in the batting cage as taking cuts himself, Sciullo was so well received by his teammates he received handshakes from the opposing infielders as he rounded the bases.

After his customary "point to the heavens," of course.

"My faith in God has instilled in me a desire to be a baseball player," Sciullo said.

Still, although his barrel chest is an attraction to teams, it may also be a hindrance. One TWL manager commented Sciullo's frame, which has added 50 pounds of muscle since college, is unusual in baseball and therefore scares off some scouts.

Up until the 1980s much of baseball culture even discouraged weightlifting for fear it would make a player too stiff.

Ozzie Canseco has even suggested his new slugger take yoga lessons.

"It will help him have longer muscles, breathing techniques and relax; helping him with the stress that comes with playing baseball," the manager said.

The United League traditionally begins play in late May and at press time have not finalized a location for the Roadrunners to play in this season.

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