LAKELAND, Fla. — His teammates call him Johnny .300.
Detroit Tigers infielder John Valente, a 21st-round pick in the 2018 draft from St. John’s University, hits for average but doesn’t hit for power. He is comfortable at multiple positions but isn’t considered a superstar.
The 27-year-old played 82 games for Triple-A Toledo last season, hitting .293 with two home runs, 23 walks and 25 strikeouts. Now, he is competing for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic.
In a 25-minute phone interview with the Free Press, Valente talked about playing for Team Italy, his style as a hitter, his relationship with his grandmother and his “angel in the outfield” when he plays.
(This Q&A has been edited slightly for length and clarity.)
What’s your connection to Italy, and what does it mean to be playing for Team Italy in the WBC?
“My grandmother (Angelina Valente) was born there. She came to the United States sometime during the 1950s. She was from a small town, Calitri, and she’s very proud to be from there. She represents it. A couple years ago, Italy reached out for me to play in the Olympics. That was during COVID, so it was harder to get dual citizenship and never really went through. As the World Baseball Classic was approaching, at the end of November or beginning of December, I reached back out to them to see if there was any interest and what the qualifications were. Luckily for me, it went pretty smoothly. I filled out a questionnaire to be a citizen and had to prove ancestry. I think I have like 60 family members that I don’t even know that still live there. As far as me playing for Italy, and representing the country, it’s a huge honor because my grandma and me are very close. When I told her the news, she was smiling from ear to ear for weeks. She probably still is.”
What’s your relationship like with your grandmother?
“I’m gone for a lot (because of baseball), so we try to talk twice a week on the phone. During the offseason, I normally get to go to her house about three or four times a week. She’s a ‘Jeopardy’ watcher, so I watch ‘Jeopardy’ with her. We just talk. It’s awesome to have someone like her in my life. Unfortunately, a few years ago my mom (Donna Valente) passed away, so she’s really been that mother figure to me.”
When did your mother pass away?
“It was tough. My mom passed away in November 2018. She was sick before that, but they didn’t tell me. They didn’t want it to ruin my play. She was going through the worst time of her life when I was going through one of the best times of my life. We just won a Big East championship in college. A couple weeks later, I get drafted by the Detroit Tigers. During her last couple months of pain, I was at least fortunate enough to know I made her happy in those times. I was able to share the draft with her and all these cool things. Unfortunately, she never got to see me play professional baseball. That kind of stinks. But the way I look at it, she’s my angel in the outfield. She’s basically at every game now.”
Do you feel her presence with you?
“Definitely. There are things I do on the baseball field sometimes, and I’m like, ‘How did I do that?’ And then you see something that you remember her by. You do something crazy on the field, and the first thing you see when you get back to the dugout is a penny on heads or a cardinal flying through the air. It’s cool to know that she’s looking down and watching over me.”
How did you tell your grandmother that you would be playing for Team Italy?
“I tried to keep it a secret, but it hit social media pretty fast. Luckily, she doesn’t use social media and doesn’t know how to use an iPhone. My whole family knew but her, and they’re all calling me. I’m like, ‘Can we relax for a couple seconds? I want to tell grandma first.’ I wanted to tell her. I didn’t want the surrounding people to tell her that it was happening.”
Did you get to tell her first?
“Oh yeah. She loved it. I got two kisses on the cheek and a big hug for about two minutes.”
Let’s go right to Team Italy’s first game in Pool A against Cuba. Tied 2-2 in the top of the 10th inning with no outs and a runner on third base. Walk me through that moment.
“I felt like I was in two-strike counts pretty fast that game, and wouldn’t you know, I got in a two-strike count. The pitcher from Cuba (Raidel Martinez) was bringing it, throwing like 93-94 (mph). His report said he had a good slider, so I knew that was going to be his go-to pitch. With a runner on third base, my job is to get the ball in play and do something to get him in. I swung at a pitch that was out of the strike zone, I got a good piece of wood on it, and I was able to get it through the middle.”
That’s kind of the hitter you are, right? Bat-to-ball skills.
“I’m able to put balls in play, and in college, that’s the game. I brought that into the next level. I don’t really mind hitting with two strikes because I know my bat-to-ball skill is good, but one thing this offseason that I put an emphasis on is, because I don’t mind hitting with two strikes, I want to take more chances early in the count and get those power numbers up a little bit.
“We had some talks with the guys in Detroit about this. It’s just getting those power numbers up because everything else is pretty solid. I know the power is there. It’s just maybe being a little bit more selective early in count. It’s really looking at those advanced stats, seeing where my hot spots are in the zone and focusing on that until I get to two strikes.”
What has it been like playing for Team Italy, especially with Hall of Famer Mike Piazza as your manager?
“I grew up in New York and watched him play for all those years with the Mets. Getting to really talk with Piazza, but not only that, Nicky Lopez, David Fletcher and Matt Harvey. I’m learning from their knowledge about the game and how they come to the field and get their work in every day. I’m zoning in on all that stuff. The biggest thing for me is the experience. Normally, at this time, I’m playing on the backfields doing some bunt defense, a live batting practice, playing three or four innings in a game, and then that’s the end of the day. You blink and you’re playing in front of 10,000 people, and you’re up to bat in the 10th inning with the go-ahead run on third base. But I’m trying to really talk to these guys and absorb all the information I can.”
What was it like playing against the Netherlands in the final game of Pool A? (Team Italy won, 7-1, and advanced to the quarterfinals in the single-elimination bracket.)
“We had a big position player meeting before. We knew what we needed, but we didn’t at the same time. If we beat the Netherlands, all five teams would have a 2-2 record. They gave us all the different scenarios for tiebreakers. It goes head-to-head, runs scored, runs against. There was a whole sheet of formulas. We needed to win, but we had to think of it as we’re starting that game down 4-0 for our scoring tiebreaker. The Netherlands took a 1-0 lead in the third inning, and we battled. That’s the kind of team we have. We have nine guys in the lineup that are going to put together really good at-bats. We’re scrappy guys, and no one on this lineup is an easy out.”
What about Joe LaSorsa’s celebration in the sixth inning? (LaSorsa, who inherited the bases loaded with no outs, got Didi Gregorious to pop out, then struck out Jonathan Schoop and Roger Bernandina.)
“I can’t say enough about that guy. We went to college together. We both live in the Westchester area, both went to St. John’s. In the offseason, we face each other in live at-bats. I give him the feedback that he needs. He gives me the feedback that I need. Joe has got that dog in him. He always had that in college, and now it’s really starting to show. He doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, and he’s ready to attack anyone at any time. He doesn’t care who’s in that batter’s box. At the end of the day, it’s about getting outs. That’s what he does.”
Big game coming up. What’s the team mindset? (At 6 a.m. Thursday, Italy plays Japan — led by MLB superstar Shohei Ohtani — in the quarterfinals in Tokyo. The winner advances to the semifinals in Miami.)
“We’re playing on the biggest stage in baseball right now. The biggest thing is the momentum that we have from Pool A. I think that’s really going to take us to the next level. We have to take it pitch by pitch, play clean defense and throw strikes. One of the things that we’ve done is attack hitters early, throw strikes and avoid the walks. When we’re playing like that, and we’re playing fundamentally sound baseball, we’re a really good team and know we can compete with the best of them. It’s going to be a packed house. Japan has a lot of good players. They’re a tough lineup, as well. It’s going to be interesting. We’ll see what unfolds.”
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