COLUMBIA — When Tony Vitello elected to transfer from St. Louis Community College to MU to play baseball, the expectations weren’t exactly high. His own father, who was also Vitello's high school baseball coach, called him a "little bit above average" baseball player.
“When I told (Missouri coach) Tim Jamieson that my son would like to come to Missouri, Tim kind of rolled his eyes a little bit,” Greg Vitello, Tony’s father, said. “To be real honest with you, I thought his baseball career might come to a screeching halt.”
Instead, in 1999 Tony Vitello worked his way onto the field as a player, earned a volunteer assistant spot on the Missouri coaching staff after graduation and in 2004 became a full-time assistant coach. Now in his seventh year in a coaching capacity with the program, Vitello serves as Missouri’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator.
Greg Vitello, who is in his 41st year of coaching at DeSmet in suburban St. Louis, including 31 years of coaching baseball, described Tony Vitello as “the proverbial coach’s son.”
“He’s the age old story of ‘Live and die baseball,’” his father said. “It was tough to not have the ball bounce off the backyard wall because he was constantly throwing the ball.”
As part of his dual responsibilities, Tony Vitello has helped attract and develop some of the nation’s premier pitching talent year after year, in spite of spending his Missouri playing career as an infielder.
“I don’t think it’s ever been much of an issue at all except for the fact that in recruiting battles, the opposing teams like to bring it up,” Tony Vitello said of his playing background. “Hopefully the numbers are there that now we can point to and say, ‘Hey, as a group, we coach our guys with success.’”
Two main examples of that success earned first round picks in Tuesday's Major League Baseball Draft. The Kansas City Royals chose former Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow with the 12th pick, and the Minnesota Twins took Missouri pitcher Kyle Gibson with the 22nd pick.
“To have those two guys in that small, small group is going to be special for the program because of the attention it’s going to get from others,” Vitello said.
Crow, the 2008 Big 12 Conference Pitcher of the Year, was actually drafted ninth by the Washington Nationals last year, but opted to forgo signing a contract and reenter the draft after a season with the Fort Worth Cats, an independent minor league team from the American Association.
Gibson was Missouri’s ace this season going 11-3 with a 3.21 ERA. He went in the first round despite developing a stress fracture in his throwing arm in the final games of the Tigers' season.
At the moment, though, the crown jewel of Vitello’s portfolio of pitchers might be Max Scherzer, who is in the starting rotation for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In his first major league appearance, Scherzer set the major league record for consecutive batters retired to open a career, striking out seven batters in 4 1/3 innings of relief work against the Houston Astros.
He was the No. 11 player selected in the 2006 MLB Draft after posting a 2.30 career ERA with 232 strikeouts at Missouri.
The polish Scherzer shows on major league mounds is a testament to his time under Vitello and others at Missouri according to Vitello’s father, who coached against Scherzer in a district game between DeSmet Jesuit High School and Parkway Central.
“He had that velocity that he still has right now, but it was uncontrolled,” Greg Vitello said. “His body language was horrible on the mound, and I think once he got to Missouri, with a little bit of direction, he really turned his qualities into a first class act. I’ve seen that happen to any number of pitchers on the Missouri staff.”
Although his work with Missouri’s pitching staff may garner the most praise, Tony Vitello’s work as Missouri’s recruiting coordinator might be just as vital to the program’s rise in recent years.
Missouri’s national profile has expanded under Tony Vitello’s watch. Among Gibson, Crow, and Scherzer, only Scherzer hails from the state of Missouri.
Missouri’s 35-man roster features 17 players from outside the state. Tony Vitello cites the recent success of the entire athletic program and “goofy connections” for helping expand Missouri’s reach.
He said recruits are getting tougher to read, although his background with pitching prospects can make the job a little bit easier.
“More and more, I feel like I have a little less power than I really think I do. Most guys find a match for what they’re looking for, whether it be a nice stadium or whatever,” Tony Vitello said. “If it happens to be they want to improve as a pitcher, kids on their own now are bringing up Max or Aaron, as opposed to us having to force feed it to them.”