Gabriel Di Feliciantonio woke up and drove to Phoenix’s Seton Catholic Church at 98th and Bell. He knelt down and lit a candle for John Marzano. This was an important day, the day the Mariners decided who would make the team.
And as the third catcher on a club that rarely keeps three catchers, Marzano needed all the help he could get.
“I had to say a prayer for my boy,” Di Feliciantonio said.
They’ve been together for what seems like forever - the stocky catcher with the dark eyes and a quick laugh and the squat old man with an iron grip of a handshake.
It goes all the way back to Columbus Park in South Philadelphia, one of those rough old neighborhoods where arguments are always settled with fists and you have to fight hard to have a chance to make it out.
Di Feliciantonio, a man with a last name so tough to pronounce he’s called Spanky, coached Marzano on those broken-down old parks and thought the kid was the best player he had ever seen. They stayed friends while Marzano played at Temple University. In 1990, when Marzano’s father, John Sr., died of a heart attack, Spanky became his surrogate father.
Wednesday, they waited out the future together.
From the beginning of spring training, the end seemed to be near for Marzano. He is 35, has never played regularly in the major leagues and had become the third catcher after the Mariners decided they needed left-handed-hitting Rick Wilkins to back up Dan Wilson.
But as spring rolled on, Marzano refused to let Seattle cut him. He hit .333 in 18 games with a home run. More important, he made himself more valuable, working with the pitchers and settling them down in games.
By the time manager Lou Piniella decided the last roster spot, signs pointed to Marzano. It would cost the Mariners Pat Listach, a former Rookie of the Year and a middle infielder. But Marzano had made the choice for the team.
Wednesday, when Spanky and Marzano reached the clubhouse, Piniella called Marzano in.
A few moments later, Marzano stood before a group of reporters in the locker room. “I’m just so happy,” he said. “I don’t know, can you tell?”
Spanky watched from a few feet away.
“My boy made it,” he said. “Nobody gave him a chance, but he made it.”
Then again, you never bet against a kid from South Philly in a fight.
“You can only be three kinds of things if you’re from South Philly - a baseball player, a singer or a gangster,” Spanky said. “Fortunately, he chose the right one.”
No, they couldn’t count out John Marzano. He has worked too hard. A few years back, right after he left the Red Sox, he suffered an elbow injury that required surgery. The problem caused him to miss the season and could have ended his career. He spent that summer in South Philly hitting every afternoon in a batting cage a friend erected in a warehouse.
“It’s been a real struggle for John,” Spanky said. “He’s had to work hard. Oh, man, he’s had to work his tail off. But he’s a good kid. John’s a survivor, you’ve got to know that.”