West Xtra: Former Center star still swinging in Texas league

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SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Sam DiMatteo has been a Trojan and a Vulcan, now he's hoping to become a top Cat.

DiMatteo, a former standout baseball player at Center High School (now part of Central Valley) and California University of Pennsylvania, was drafted last month by the Fort Worth (Texas) Cats of the independent United Baseball League off his performance in the Texas Winter League.

In doing so, DiMatteo, 27, has been guaranteed a spot on the roster of the Cats when their season begins this spring.

But perhaps the bigger story is that in the three years since playing for the Vulcans he has finally gotten professional recognition of his talents, both from professional baseball and his Beaver County neighbors.

After hitting .480 as a catcher in his junior season of 2004 and being named to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's WPIAL All-Star team after leading Center to a Section 1-AA championship and the PIAA playoffs in his senior year, the one-time Trojans wide receiver continued to shine on the diamond at California.

Switched to the outfield in his senior season at Center to take advantage of his 6.6-second speed in the 60-yard-dash, this 5-foot-11, 180-pound right-handed hitter established California career records in hits (223), runs (175) and stolen bases (115 in 128 attempts).

His four-year career batting average with the Vulcans was .375 and DiMatteo hit 31 home runs with 50 doubles, and in 2010 he led Cal to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship and was named tournament MVP.

But an extended look from the Washington Nationals organization did not produce a contract, and all of a sudden DiMatteo's amateur career lost some luster.

"I had to prove myself all over again," DiMatteo said. "At the snap of a finger I went from the highest to the lowest in pro ball."

What "the lowest" meant was the Pecos League, an independent baseball league in the southwestern United States known for supplying Spartan living conditions for its players.

For instance, the standard contract in the Pecos League is $300 a month and teams often struggle to meet payroll.

Playing for the Trinidad Triggers in his second season in the league, DiMatteo would share a house with four other teammates to live in, but the conditions were little better than they would face at a campsite.

"We called it 'The Holding Cell,'" DiMatteo recalled. "We had no hot water. No Internet, TV or phone. We had to live among wolves and bears. Once we opened up a fireplace and there were bats!"

The kind that fly ... not the kind ballplayers swing.

Recreation meant riding a bicycle, repeatedly watching the same five DVDs, or perhaps merely observing wildlife in a way one would never get at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

"We watched bears go into dumpsters. It was wild!", DiMatteo recalled.

Yet he did not complain.

"As much as people say the league isn't so great, they are keeping people's careers alive," he said. "It's hard to stay alive in this business."

DiMatteo made many pitchers unhappy in the Pecos League. Debuting in 2011 with the Ruidoso Osos, he hit .333 with eight home runs in 40 games, becoming a starting outfielder as soon as he was placed on the roster of a team he found merely by searching the Internet.

Theorizing it was enough to stick with a higher level independent team, DiMatteo had several tryout invites with Frontier and Atlantic League teams but found himself lost in the shuffle of tryout camps.

"Once I got to hit off two live pitchers and took part in an outfield drill and that was it," said DiMatteo. "Another time I was supposed to have an individual workout but it got cancelled after two days of rain and I got lost in an open tryout."

As a result, DiMatteo did not play professional baseball in 2012 and was even contemplating playing in Italy when he was contacted by Trinidad manager J.D. Droddy to play again in the Pecos League in 2013.

With the Triggers, DiMatteo improved on his initial professional numbers. Playing every day as the starting left fielder, he hit .349 with 14 home runs and 68 RBIs in a 66-game season.

Frustrated with tryout camps, DiMatteo instead went to the Texas Winter League, a San Antonio-based showcase league where he would be displaying his talents not among dozens of other players in an afternoon workout but a three-week schedule of games playing in front of scouts and for managers from all aspects of professional baseball.

There was one catch, however. The TWL is a pay-to-play league, with a price tag of more than $2,000 to pay for lodging, meals, instructors, etc.

To defray the cost, DiMatteo found people willing to fund his endeavor. Jim Vance, whom he works for as a baseball instructor at the Next Level Indoor Sports Facility in East Palantine, Ohio, put up a portion of the tuition money. So did Andy Selby, a former schoolmate whom DiMatteo worked for at a restaurant when he was at California.

"To watch him, baseball has been his passion," Selby said. "I think it's really cool. I loved to help."

Batting third and playing center field every day for a team nicknamed the "Texas Stars," DiMatteo put up modest statistics with a .276 batting average, 14 RBIs and nine stolen bases in 18 games.

But he also made spectacular catches in the outfield and impressed former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mike Marshall, a TWL manager who will be piloting the Cats this season.

"I thought he was the best defensive outfielder in the league. I liked the jump he got in center field," said Marshall, who made DiMatteo Fort Worth's second pick in the TWL postseason draft. "I like him throwing his body around."

In fact, DiMatteo dislocated his left elbow on a diving catch he made in the final inning of the TWL semifinal game, but is expected to be fully recovered by the time the UBL season starts in late May.

"A .349 hitter is a .349 hitter. He's a right-handed hitter who I think I can make even better. If he's healthy and 100 percent, I would definitely see him as my opening day center fielder," Marshall said.

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