COLUMBIA — It’s the fall of 2003, and Dan Pietroburgo does not need to be here. After checking in at an uninspiring 6 feet, 157 pounds, giving up at-bats in intrasquad games is about the last thing he needs to be doing. Scarcely recruited out of high school, Pietroburgo is at Missouri as a walk-on catcher, having earned consideration for a spot at least in part because his father pitched for the Tigers in the ’70s.
Miles behind the other freshmen, redshirted and playing for a coaching staff that harbored few hopes for him, he needs to impress, not to mention improve.
Instead, Pietroburgo has been saddled with baseball’s least glamorous job, bullpen catcher, and is crouched 60 feet, 6 inches from soon-to-be third-round draft pick Danny Hill, who is snapping off breaking pitches and throwing low-90s fastballs the likes of which Pietroburgo has never seen.
“It was definitely overwhelming,” Pietroburgo said of the experience more than four years later. “I just kind of kept it in perspective. That’s what I was going to be doing for a year, and if I just did it the right way, it would pay off in the end.”
Had those efforts not paid off, Pietroburgo likely would have followed the path of most others in his situation, surviving final cuts as a walk-on only to quietly fade away upon mastering the art of splinter collection. The fate of the Tigers is less certain. Currently mired in a stretch of play unbecoming a team so universally praised, they could collapse. Without Pietroburgo, they might not have reached such heights to begin with.
Looking back, it’s fairly clear why those efforts paid off. There is also little doubt why Missouri’s young standouts are looking to a co-captain coach Tim Jamieson never dreamed might still be around.
“I never really approached it like I was any different than any other player,” Pietroburgo said, looking back. “But at the same time, I knew the expectations from that side of it weren’t that big. I had to prove myself outworking the other guys.
“I think I had an energy about it and tried to help pitchers, not just catch them, but try to give them feedback and try to make them better. I think that from that they’d just tell the coaches, ‘Hey, this is a guy we want with us, because he can help us even though he’s not on the field.’”
With his teammates’ endorsement, Pietroburgo earned a roster spot and the right to travel with the team the entire 2004 season, an almost unheard of responsibility for a redshirt freshman. With that measure of respect though, also came a yearlong supply of aches, pains, bruises and exhaustion that go with such a thankless job.
Heading into 2005, the catcher’s spot was not entirely settled, and Pietroburgo capitalized, earning 11 starts despite his inexperience. But throughout the course of that season, J.C. Field established himself as the starter, and Pietroburgo said he saw himself as the odd man out in 2006, with then-catcher Jacob Priday also battling for time. Though he enjoyed the team’s success, the end result for Pietroburgo was a frustrating 13 at-bats.
It was last season, however, that Pietroburgo was supposed to have his big chance. Field graduated, Priday switched positions, and the catcher’s spot seemed to be his to lose. He had bided his time, put out the effort, and earned the respect of everyone involved. And then eventual Freshman All-American and Big 12 Conference Freshman of the Year Trevor Coleman exploded onto the scene and took the job, limiting Pietroburgo to 66 at-bats.
The demotion itself tells you far less about Dan Pietroburgo than does the way he handled the situation. Though he was down, he refused to wallow.
“It was disappointing, because I felt like, in one sense, I let it slip through my fingers,” he said. “But at the same time, going in to that year, nobody really expected a lot out of that team. It was disappointing personally, but at the same time, it was very, very gratifying, because I felt like I was a leader on that team.”
In speaking with him about baseball, it quickly becomes apparent that Pietroburgo will not talk about himself long before he turns the focus back on the team. According to his coach, this is just how Pietroburgo is.
“There are a lot of guys that want to be the chief. There are a lot of guys that aren’t comfortable being the chief, and would rather be the Indian,” Jamieson said. “He’s a guy that he’s a great leader, but also accepts his role. He’ll do whatever the team needs him to do, but also be a take-charge personality, and that’s a rare combination.”
Such praise, however, is not uncommon from the coach, who speaks of the fifth-year senior’s character the way that churches talk about saints, and with the same reverence that much of the media reserves for Brett Favre. If he didn’t receive the same type of compliments from his teammates, one might be quick to dismiss them.
“He knows how to do everything the program wants to do,” Priday said. “He’s what they want their players to be like.”
Considering that Pietroburgo is already a member of four NCAA tournament teams, and has the opportunity to become the only player in Missouri history to make it to five, his role-model status makes sense. And Jamieson, in an effort to get him more involved this season, not only has Pietroburgo catching, but also playing first base this season. In part-time duty, he has hit for a .278 average as of Saturday, albeit without any power, which the inconsistent Tigers’ offense could desperately use.
Regardless of how the season plays out, Pietroburgo’s ascension has been remarkable, and though the team is built around its pitching staff, one has to wonder where the Tigers would be would be without him.
“It’s hard to find a guy that hangs around for the length of time that Dan has without all the rewards that you get by playing every day,” Jamieson said. “He’s a big part of why we’ve been successful the last five years.”
Pietroburgo, however, sees his own rise as slightly less meteoric than another, which, coming from a guy that was once an afterthought, might be the most astonishing thing of all.
“More than anything, it’s just the ultimate success of the team that I’m enjoying,” he said. “I would have imagined myself playing before I would have imagined us being at this level.”