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I grew up playing baseball in Rhode Island in the 1980’s. I played with a future Major League Baseball player, Sean Maloney, at North Kingstown High School. I played against a handful of future draft picks like Ken Giard, Jason Rajotte, and Brian D’Amato. I played with 5 or 6 players at Springfield College who would go on to get drafted into Major League baseball. In total, I have played with or against well over 100 players who were professional baseball caliber players. But one player stands out, amongst all those I played with and/or against in any level of baseball I played in, as the most memorable player I ever played against. His name is Brandon Pico.
One summer night in roughly 1988, I was playing on a North Kingstown Babe Ruth team at Cardines Field in Newport. That night we were playing against Middletown, RI who always had a fantastic team. I played first base that summer night and remember one particular at bat by a Middletown player, Pico. I was holding a runner on first base. The summer air was moist, the night lights at Cardines lit up the Newport field, and the conditions were perfect for summer baseball. Cardines Field made you feel like a Major Leaguer, even though we were all just teenagers. Pico stepped into the batter’s box. He was a left handed batter. I hadn’t played against him previously, as Middletown and NK were in different divisions for high school baseball. Our pitcher wasted no time and went right after Pico. Pico swung early and lifted a ball foul over Mudville Pub, which was a tavern positioned just off right field at Cardines. The ball left the park in an instant, but that foul ball remains in my head some 30 years later.
The next pitch, Pico hit it even further foul. This time he missed a home run by a few feet. The ball traveled into the Newport night sky over at least one house that abutted Cardines Field. I got a really good view of the ball traveling from first base, as it sizzled over me like a cannonball. The third pitch of the at bat, Pico merely straightened the ball out and hit it over the right field fence, clearing it in mere seconds. There was a buzz on the field by the players, in the stands by the player’s parents, in the dugouts by the managers – all buzzing the same noise. “This maybe the greatest hitter I have ever seen.”
I told Brandon Pico that story recently as he and I connected after nearly 3 decades. Brandon agreed to answer a few questions about his early days of Rhode Island Baseball, the Chicago Cubs organization, and the state of baseball as he sees it. It was great catching up with him. I know you will really enjoy his honesty and humor as he speaks about the game of baseball and why calls his Rhode Island Baseball Experience a “gift.”
RIBBE – So growing up in Rhode Island, did you play Little League? If so, for whom? What was the Little League® experience like for you? Any state titles or championships?
Pico – I was lucky enough to play in the 5th Ward Little League. I now live about 1500 feet from the field. Every so often, I go over to the field and am amazed at how lucky I was to be able to play at a field ON the harbor. Some of my fondest memories was being a dirty-faced eight-year old jumping into the water to get home run balls from the kids in the majors. Now, if you go there during May or June, you get some of the most picturesque sunsets. But, it’s lost on 12 year-olds just trying to play ball. My LL experience was perfect. Every aspect of what I experienced, I would want every kid to experience as well. Now that baseball season is underway, I’ll swing by, and just SMH that kids are so lucky.
I had two of some the best, most supportive baseball coaches in my time in Little League. Mr. Mac and Mr. Maclead. Mr. Mac was essentially the bloodline / backbone of Newport baseball for many years. His company R&R Construction, sponsored multiple teams from Little League thru the Sunset League. If not for Mr. Mac, who knows wat Newport baseball would be right now. Mr. Maclead coached me from the time I was nine-years old to twelve. Most of my firsts were under his watch. First pitching victory, age 9 against FOP. We won 5-2. Jeff “Lovey” Pelletier hit TWO HRs off of me. But, on one, he missed first base. We appealed and got the call. Ha. I remember that so vividly.
First no-hitter at age 10. First HR off of one of the country’s best squash players in the early 90s – Ryan O’Connell. Thanks Oak! The best part is that whole time in the LLs, when I didn’t pitch, I played Shortstop. Lefty shortstop. Yep. Still my favorite position on the field !!! In LL, we never got out of our Districts. It seemed we’d always run into the buzz-saw of the Darlington American or Nationals. Always felt like those kids had beards.
RIBBE – How about the next phase in your baseball youth development? Was it AAU, a travel team? Anyone special you would like to point out or acknowledge?
Pico – I learned something from every single baseball coach I’ve ever had. From my first every LL coach, Mr. Schwartz, to Mr. Mac and McLead, to Mr. Schenk in Babe Ruth. I was also lucky to have drop-ins from guys like Mr. Full (who became my HS coach) and Andy Andrade who was at Salve. I even got to spend some time with Chris Patsos at a clinic when I was 16. Lots of great baseball minds and fans of the game. Mr. Roche’s (Middletown Varsity Coach) passion for the game was unparalleled. And Mr. Fucile taught me so many nuances about pitching. Just pure pitching genius. Even one of my early HS arch rivals in Bristol’s coach, Steve Anarumo, helped me out a ton by chaperoning us RI kids to Long Island during the fall of 1990 so we can get exposure with the Bayside Yankees.
After LL, I relocated to Middletown and played in the Middletown Babe Ruth. I’m not even sure AAU baseball was a thing. If it was, I was unaware. I think – even with playoffs – we would play maybe 20 total games. I know kids now, in AAU, are playing some 50+ games. The 13 year-old me would froth at the mouth for that opportunity. But, it’s also why kids (in all sports) are excelling once they get into the next levels (college / Pros). They are just playing WAY more and are exposed to competition of all shapes and sizes. My 15 year-old Babe Ruth team did win the RI State Championship. Which was phenomenal. FINALLY beating the new Darlingtons in my life… the Warwick PAL teams. Sadly, despite pitching back-to-back ONE-HITTERS, our Middletown team bowed out in the Regionals held in Stamford, CT.
RIBBE – At what age did you feel you could see a future in professional baseball? 5, 10, 15, 18?
Pico – Despite having success on Aquidneck Island, I had never really thought I had the ability to play at a high level until I was lucky enough to play for the Bayside Yankees. Manny DaSilva (athletic God), and Brian D’amato (maniac / stud), would drive to Long Island, NY in the fall of my Junior year in High School. We got to play with a bunch of Long Islanders that have all known each other and were like, “who are these guys.” In our first games all three of us hit home runs. So, that sort of eased the tension and the guys were like, “these guys are OK…”
That weekend, we played against a team that had their own Manny. A guy by the name of Manny Ramirez. I was playing CF and a very very young, Billy Koch, was on the bump throwing close to 90 at age 15. I remember it so clearly. We played a field that had no fence in center. Just tennis courts on left field. Koch was amped and pumped one by Manny. The next pitch Manny hit a ball so far over my head that, by the time I reached it and tried to heave the cut off – who was a mile away – Manny was slow jogging half-way from 3rd to home. Apparently, he was jogging the whole time.
Later that same game, Manny DaSilva hit a moon shot over the actual fences in left field. As he’s rounding third base he’s saying “I’m the Manny.” Priceless !!! That was probably his fourth homer in the four games we played that weekend. The guys on these Bayside Yankees had people that had been drafted and we’d have scouts at all of our games. Then, at age 16, is when I was like, “oh, maybe I can get a scholarship somewhere.”
RIBBE – What was your primary position?
Pico – My position shifted as I got older. Oddly enough, in Little League, I would play shortstop when I was not pitching. SS was actually my love. Yes. A LH SS is impossible, but I somehow made it work. Plus, in LL, we weren’t turning double plays like the LLWS kids do nowadays. In HS, I would pitch and then play a lot of first base and OF.
RIBBE – How did you manage with the weather being such a factor in Rhode Island most of the year as opposed to say sunny Southern California?
Pico – Growing up in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t have instant access to all the social media resources kids do now. So, we weren’t jealous of the SoCal or kids in the south. Our life was our life. Sometimes I feel there’s a difference in the cold weather baseball player vs the warm climate kids. At least back then. Nowadays, kids are doing FL and AZ tournaments year-round. So, they get the opportunity to get game experience in months where we’d be outside practicing sky hooks on slushy snowy outside basketball courts.
I lived in LA from 2005 to 2012. I joined a softball league for fun and we played right next to the Santa Monica LL fields. I’d often go over and just SMH that the season for them started in January, I think. So, I was probably more jealous in my 30’s of not being able to start baseball until mid-March / early April.
RIBBE – Once you were in high school, did you play American Legion or did you play in the showcase circuits around New England and the US?
Pico – I played American Legion and some travel baseball for the Bayside Yankees. I was also lucky enough, in 1991, to play in the Junior Olympic Festival in Los Angeles. From that, I was picked to play on the Junior Team USA team. AJ Hinch and Aaron Boone were also on that team. We picked up the bronze in Manitoba that summer. Great great experience. One of the first times I felt, “oh crap, I can compete on a National level.”
RIBBE – When did the scouts start showing up for HS games?
Pico – I would say scouts probably started showing up for my games my Senior year. After the 1991 Jr. Olympic Team. There were probably scouts at games I played in prior to, but they were for other players that were being scouted / recruited. Funny. We had an injury fund game in 1992 at Portsmouth Abbey. There were about 15 or so Scouts out there with their radar guns. After the first inning, all the guns went down. They quickly realized I was not going to be drafted as a pitcher. Not throwing in the low 80’s.
RIBBE – How was the process of getting drafted? Stressful? A lot of letters and phone calls I’m guessing since the internet was not really a factor back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Pico – Stressful AF! Admittedly, I was not ready or mature enough for the process. I didn’t know enough to enjoy it for what it was worth. The College part is not really “recruitment” but more of a sales pitch. An amazing opportunity sales pitch, but these coaches are well schooled in the Tom Hopkins closing techniques. Just a lot to handle for a 17 year-old who is just realizing what type of opportunity was in front of him.
Same thing for the draft process. It all happens so fast. I had two scouts from I think the Pirates and Twins show up at my high school and talk to me only to tell me I was over striding. Yeah, dudes, I’m trying to hit a jack every time I get up, of course I’m over striding. Sadly, over striding was something that plagued me forever – even in the Minors.
RIBBE – When were you selected in the professional baseball draft? And by whom? Do you remember where you were and what that felt like?
Pico – Drafted in the 4th Round of the 1992 Draft by the Chicago Cubs. I was disappointed. I did not think of myself as a first rounder, but felt I could have landed in the 2nd. I played pretty awful my senior year and didn’t make enough adjustments or play well enough when scouts were at my games. On a random side note, I never got to take BP in front of scouts that whole year. Cardines was re-sodded behind home plate so we never took live BP on the field. Perhaps, that could have shown some of my ability rather than me chasing off speed pitches out of the zone with my long stride only to hook five-hoppers to the second baseman. In hindsight, I really should have just tried to take everything the other way and developed more of a full field approach. Just hard playing at Cardines field with right field being a sneeze away.
RIBBE – I’m not sure how high up you got, so feel free to expound on the various levels of professional baseball you played at.
Pico – I made it to high single A – Daytona Beach. But most of my time was spent in the Midwest League. I got to learn and see a lot of the Midwest in my five season in the minors.
RIBBE – What was Spring Training like? Did you attend?
Pico – Spring Training was a lot like going to High School. The first year, you’re a bit nervous and are clueless to the process. But, each subsequent year, you are more comfortable and learn what to expect. We were in Mesa, Arizona. Spring Training, like most training camps, is full of excitement and hope. Though, as you get further into the camp, you start seeing friends getting released. That was tough. Watching someone’s dreams crumble as they start to clear out their locker. Those moments make it clear that you’re not just “playing a game” anymore. But. You are in a business.
RIBBE – Who were some of the players that made you “star struck” even though you yourself were a professional baseball player?
Pico – I’ve been lucky and honored to have been around some of the best players to have ever played. Played with Kerry Wood. Played against A-Rod. But someone I still think about is Jose Molina. The kid couldn’t hit himself out of a paper bag in the early minors. But, if you took a half centimeter bigger lead off first-base than you should have, he’s going to gun you from his knees. He had himself quite a MLB career.
In 1994, during the beginning of the MLB strike, Jim Thome – who is from Pekin, IL – asked if he could take BP with us. I was on the Peoria Chiefs. I used to be a “BP hero” with the ability to get balls over the fence from time-time. Much to the dismay of our Manager, Steve Roadcap. They Cubs wanted me to be more of a gap-to-gap hitter, but the long ball just seemed more efficient to me. So, Jim Thome takes BP in our group. It was that day, I realized the difference between someone who can hit Home Runs and a POWER hitter. Now, little did I know he’d be one of the most prolific power hitters to ever play the game, but what the ball did off his bat and my bat was not even comparable. I’d hit one off the top of the scoreboard, let’s say it would have traveled 390 or so… I mean, as good as I can hit it… He’d hit balls over that same scoreboard that were going UP as they traveled over the scoreboard…. But the best part, he’d wince and say, “sh*t, I missed it…” I then tried to pick up his bat and it felt like it had weights on it.
Did I shift my approach? Nah, I still tried to ‘turn and burn.’
RIBBE – When was it time to call it a career? How was that feeling? A relief? Disappointment? Did you feel that an injury shortened your career?
Pico – After my third surgery, it just felt like IT wasn’t going to happen. I had missed out on that ‘traditional college experience,’ so I felt going to school full-time in my early 20’s would allow me to have some of that experience. Now, shit, I wish I had played until both of my arms fell off. Retiring and not playing anymore – Professionally – was devastating.
RIBBE – What advice would you give RI baseball prospects who have hopes and dreams to make it in professional baseball such as yourself?
Pico – First off. Coach Lyons from Coventry, back in 1990, told me “someone is always watching.” That was after I threw a bat about 100 feet after losing to Pilgrim. You never know if a travel team coach, college coach, or pro scout is in the stands. So, learn to win and lose with dignity. I know the game has changed a bit and as MLB marketing is trying to get younger eyes on the sport it’s become a bit more ‘showy.’ I’m OK with that. I know baseball is changing. But, still, you can be a bat thrower after going Big Fly and not be a total d*ckhead.
Play GOOD travel ball. It was Coach Lyons who initially got me involved with the Bayside Yankees travel team. That was a huge step in my development.
Enjoy the game. If you can get true enjoyment from the game, the game will give back to you.
Train you’re a** off. The game has changed. You see a lot less John Kruk’s and a lot more Trouts and Goldschmidts. It’s a different type of athlete that excels in the game.
Learn to hit to all fields. It’s great to be a dead red pull hitter, but players are so savvy nowadays, you’ll be an easy out.
Learn a tool I learned a lot later in life as I did Improv at Second City in Los Angeles. Learn to “yes and…”
Baseball is political AF. Everything is. Paraphrasing a legendary baseball mind, Syd Thrift, who used to tell us that you get to the Show with three things. 1. Gift. 2. Guts 3. Gab. The gab being having people talk about you in a good way. I never fully embraced that. I was a cocky knucklehead from the “rough parts” of Newport and Middletown. Tact and protocol was not something I had in my tool box. If you are Mike Trout, you can walk around the locker room naked with your hair on fire, and probably still make it. Odds are… you’re not Mike Trout. But, there are a lot of Counsell’s out there that get to the big leagues for maximizing the three Gs.
RIBBE – Do you still play, coach a family member (son or daughter), work with your community baseball league?
Pico – Unfortunately, I don’t have that much time to play. Also, not sure my body would allow me to play. When I lived in LA from the time I was 32 to 38, I played in a bunch of Men’s Leagues. But, really as more of an excuse to wear a uni and crush a few beers after the game. And, over the years, I’ve played in the RIMSBL. Those leagues are great to be on the field, with your buddies, and still see what you body can do…
RIBBE – What is one thing you love about professional baseball and one thing you would like to change?
Pico – Love: When I was playing, it’s hard. There’s so much internal pressure to get that hit, play well, and to get to the next level. I had moments where I’d be player of the week, or make an All-Star team, but – because I never made the Show – it’s hard to look back at those moments and appreciate them for what they were. What I love now about baseball is everything. Sure the bat flips get annoying, but – done the right way – you can keep another team from bat flipping. A) Don’t give up a 400 foot dong B) Other ways pitchers can keep bros from Joey Batting.
Change…Not just going with the obvious of “making the Show,” I guess I would have just told myself to appreciate the moment more. That, in the future, you’ll be making sales calls behind a desk and all the stress and anxiety that came with the Minor Leagues was a Gift.
My whole baseball experience was one Big Gift. I don’t want to say “this is what I wished” I would change. Or, “should’ve” changed. But. If I could change one thing, it would just be to wonder what it would have been like to never have any shoulder injuries. Just see how my overall outlook / perception / or experience with the game may have been.