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Jersey boy salutes roots

Indians catcher DiFazio keeps uncle in mind

Uncle Vin, not one second, a day or a game goes by without thinking of you. Grandma says I remind her the most of you. Although it makes her cry, it makes me proud. I wish that I grow up to be half the man you were. I miss you, and every baseball game I play, every kid I throw out, is dedicated to you … who else? Dad taught me to hit, but he told us both that we were morons for going behind the plate. Thank you for teaching me more things in life than anyone I know. I love you more than anything. God bless you. Little Vinnie DiFazio, age 15, Hampton, N.J., 2002

Vinnie DiFazio hit his first professional home run the other night, wearing a Spokane Indians uniform, in a tidy little stadium in Everett.

Immediately, all circuits were busy back in New Jersey, even though it was close to 11 p.m. DiFazio time. The first call was from Grandma. Then sisters Angela and Francesca phoned, and Sal DiFazio knew he would not power down his computer until the final out, sometime after 1 a.m., lest he miss out should his son hit another one. And now this is how it is every night.

“The entire family is bleary-eyed,” he said, “walking around like zombies from no sleep.”

It was the same on draft day. First it was just Vinnie and his mother, Arline, tracking the picks, but when the Texas Rangers called the 23-year-old catcher’s name in the 12th round, relatives began showing up at the door within five minutes. Fifteen cars appeared in the driveway. Then there was food, and you know the rest.

“I come from a big Italian family,” Vinnie said. “My dad had three siblings and they each had three kids, and my mom’s side is pretty strong. My grandma is from Sicily, my grandpa was from Naples. Everyone is close by. So there’s a lot of love – and a lot of food.”

There is a lot of everything: laughing and hugging and crying and joking and wisdom and faith and busting of chops and hearts worn on sleeves – “typical,” acknowledged Sal, “of what people think of the ‘emotional Italians.’ ”

Emotions, in this case, compounded by the conviction that no one would be prouder or more thrilled with the launch of Vinnie DiFazio’s pro career than the uncle who shared his name and steered him behind the plate and invested in his dream – and is not here to witness it.

• • •

Vincent DiFazio worked for the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, as he had in 1993 when the tower was bombed and he walked down all 104 flights to safety. When terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the tower at 8:46 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 – just floors below the Cantor Fitzgerald offices – he tried to call his wife, Pattie, but she was driving their three children to school. So he phoned his brother’s house and spoke to Arline DiFazio.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it out this time,” he said. “Tell everybody I love them.”

He was 43 years old “but lived like he was 76,” said his nephew. “He had twice the life of everybody else.”

This is a slice of the peace the DiFazios have come to, after all the vigils, despair, rage, grief and blessings – the rituals repeated for nearly 3,000 Sept. 11 victims, many whose lives were intertwined. Sal DiFazio also lost a cousin, Salvatore Lopes, who worked in the South Tower, and two other close friends.

Vinnie DiFazio lost a little something else: a kindred spirit.

The DiFazios “keep with the old tradition,” as Sal explained. He was named for his grandfather and his brother, six years his junior, for his father – as was Sal’s only son.

“So if my Vincent has a son,” cracked Sal, “he knows his name will be Sal DiFazio or he’s out of the will.”

But this is where it got a little eerie: The two Vincents shared more than a name. If his uncle was “the life of the party, to say the least,” as Vinnie maintained, then he is the encore. Functions at the DiFazios invariably find Vinnie entertaining a circle of guests with stories, mimicry, jokes, sound effects – in other words, pretty much anything for a laugh.

“He does a great impression of me suffering through a kidney stone,” Sal said.

They also shared a position, and a passion.

“It was his idea to put me behind the plate,” said Vinnie, whose uncle was his first Little League coach. “He was a catcher – and a pretty danged good one.”

How good? Well, he wasn’t much of an off-speed hitter, but he caught future Yankee Ed Figueroa at college and as a high school senior threw out 25 of 28 potential base stealers. The other three? Well, they all happened to be a player named Willie Wilson, who would steal 668 more in the major leagues.

“I stood up to throw the ball,” he told his brother after the game, “and Willie was waving to me from second base.”

Vinnie is a better stick, but like his uncle was “born to be a catcher,” in the eyes of Sal – tough-minded, a leader, with an easy rapport with pitchers. Still, he is a work in progress, which is only to be expected. After a solid freshman year at UConn, he transferred to a Florida junior college in hopes of landing in the Southeastern Conference – which he did, at Alabama. But he suffered a meniscus tear and then contracted brachial neuritis, a 1-in-500,000 condition that inflames nerves in the arm and results in extreme pain and restriction of the muscles. He sat out one entire season and played just nine games as a junior before a rebound senior year that saw him hit .329 with seven home runs.

“Most doctors tell you they don’t know and a couple didn’t think I’d play again,” he said, “but that went in one ear and out the other. They weren’t going to tell me I wasn’t going to play baseball again.”

The game means too much to him, and so does the legacy.

“Absolutely, I take a lot of inspiration from my uncle – not just him, but everyone who helped me get here,” Vinnie said. “And even though I miss him every day, I know I’m making him proud.”

• • •

There is one memory Sal DiFazio can’t shake: standing with his brother, their teenage sons spraying Wiffle balls across the backyard as a sticky summer evening receded into the New Jersey twilight. Joey DiFazio is not just Vinnie’s year-younger cousin but his best friend, though he is more on the stoic side. Next fall he’ll attend law school at Seton Hall – which just happens to be Sal’s alma mater.

The brothers fell into a brief silence cut short, inevitably, by Vincent.

“Isn’t it amazing,” he asked, “that my son is so much like you and your son is so much like me?”

That’s genes, Sal replied – the unpredictable family lottery of what gets passed on to whom over the course of generations.

“Well, look at it this way,” Vincent said. “If, God forbid, anything happens to one of us, we’ll have each other in our children.”

The year was 2001. The month was August.

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