Interview: Former Jesuit, UNO and MLB second baseman Johnny Giavotella reflects on career, ponders future
He defied the odds every step of the way.
Not tall, not big, not fast and an average fielder by Major League standards, Johnny Giavotella had to prove himself at every level.
That began at Jesuit, where he overcame talented players to earn a starting spot and led the Blue Jays to a state championship in his senior season.
It continued at the University of New Orleans, where he was a star and helped lead the Privateers to NCAA Tournaments.
On the professional level, Giavotella was drafted in the second round of the Major League Baseball Draft in 2008 by the Kansas City Royals and had to prove himself in a talent rich organization.
Giavotella hit very well over four seasons in the minor leagues before the Royals finally called him up in 2011.
Over the next four years, Giavotella split seasons between Kansas City and Triple A Omaha.
Giavotella was traded to the Los Angeles Angels and finally got his shot in 2015 and proved himself to be a solid regular. The same was true in 2016 before the Angels decided to move on from him.
Giavotella battled constant hip problems and got one more shot in the big leagues with Baltimore in 2017 but did not last. In his final professional season of 2018, he was a shadow of himself, closing out his time in his hometown with the Triple A team in New Orleans (Metairie).
Giavotella had his first great memory at Zephyr Field, winning the Class 5A state championship there in 2005, beating Destrehan 8-2 in the title game. He reflected on that and much more on All Access on 106.1 FM Wednesday night.
“That was the first year they held the state championship there,” Giavotella recalled. “I have very fine memories of going there and playing. Not just in high school but in college (UNO) and in the professional ranks. I remember when we first played there, it was a huge field. It was big for a college or high school facility. Playing LSU and Tulane there with UNO was incredible. I have a lot of good memories. It feels like yesterday but that was almost 15 years ago. Time flies.”
Giavotella is sorry that the team formerly known as Zephyrs has departed for Wichita but feels the New Orleans area deserves and would support another minor league team.
“Absolutely,” Giavotella said. “I think New Orleans is a baseball town. You look at how many kids play the game 12 months out of the year in this city. It’s unbelievable. If you can get a good product, a good, talented team, I think fans would come. New Orleans has a sense of pride. It’s local businesses and local ownership that matter. To see Zephyr Field go from what I remember when I was playing there as a minor leaguer to only having 1,000 to 2,000 fans a game, if they could build it up to 6,000 to 7,000 a night, I think people would really take pride in in it.”
Giavotella remembers his University of New Orleans days fondly.
“When I first came to UNO, I was a right fielder and second baseman,” Giavotella said. “I didn’t really know where I would be able to fit in the lineup. Tom Walter gave me a shot and I was able to be the starting second baseman opening day as a freshman and my career kind of blossomed from there. Getting the opportunity at UNO was very important to me and I owe a lot of credit to Tom Walter for giving me that shot early on in my career and taking advantage of it.”
When Giavotella was drafted by Kansas City, the proving process started anew and he accepted the challenge.
“I’m five-foot-8, 185 pounds and in my freshman year of college, I ran a 7.2 in the 60 (yard dash) which is very slow for a middle infielder,” Giavotella said. “I didn’t really have a whole lot of tools but when I stepped on that field, I feel like I’m the biggest player in that uniform, especially when I’m in the batter’s box. I don’t think there’s many people that could swing the stick like I could. I had that confidence. It didn’t matter how big you were, you still had to put the barrel on the ball.”
When the call finally came, it meant everything to Giavotella.
“I had just gotten done with a Triple A game,” Giavotella said. “It was a rain-delayed game and it was 10:30 at night when the game ended. The manager in Triple A calls me aside and asked me if I still wanted to do infield tomorrow since it was a late game. I kind of paused and I thought about it for a second. He paused and said, ‘or would you rather go to the Big leagues? You just got called up and they need you in Kansas City tomorrow night.’ That was probably the best moment of my career, possibly life.”
Giavotella will never forget the first weekend with the Royals.
“I had a great weekend,” Giavotella said. “I went 5-for-9 with two doubles and a home run. I faced some intense competition. I faced Rick Porcello, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, all three Cy Young winners but I did great, proved that I should be there and I got to do it in front of my friends and family so it was a fantastic weekend.”
Then came the opportunity to finally be a full-time starter with the Angels in 2015.
“In Kansas City, I had a brief opportunity,” Giavotella said. “They were a very defensive-conscious team. Offense is more my skill so they didn’t really give me a great shot to be an everyday guy. When I got to the Angels, I was the third or fourth second baseman in spring training. I was able to beat everybody out and won the opening day job at second base. I did it for two years and it was probably the joy of my career. It was a surreal time.”
Giavotella was forced to retire in 2018 due to a worsening hip condition that made it hard for him to even run, much less to get the rotation he needed at the plate. He was in tremendous pain in his final season which forced him to retire. Giavotella would ultimately get his right hip totally replaced.
Giavotella spent a year as a student-assistant at UNO when he went back to finish his degree in business. Now, “Johnny G” is in the process of getting his Masters degree at Tulane, looking to continue building a real estate portfolio and selling real estate while giving hitting lessons.
As a Major League player for seven years, Giavotella understands the bad situation professional baseball is in now.
“It’s kind of sad to see,” Giavotella said. “I’m not in the negotiation room so I can’t speak too much on it but the nation needs some sense of normalcy and hope. It seems like to me that the owners need to be a little more lenient to give the players what they want. At the end of the day, it’s the players who are playing. It’s the players health that is at risk. The players want to play. I’m pretty sure it (playing again) is going to happen relatively soon.”
Giavotella played in small markets in his minor league career and understands how tough it is for Major League Baseball to plan to contract many lower level teams in those towns.
“I played for a lot of really small cities and they really get behind their players and their team,” Giavotella said. “It’s really fun to be a part of. You feel like you’re a part of the community and a part of the fans lives. I’m sure they are really struggling as is the rest of the nation during this crisis and it is sad. Some Major League teams are still playing minor league players. Hopefully, teams can come back next year.”
Despite being out of the game, Giavotella wants to remain part of the game.
“I definitely would like to stay in the game in some form or fashion, whether it’s coaching or lessons ” Giavotella said. “I really know the game well, I have a lot of experience with the game so I think not passing on all that knowledge would be a detriment to their development and knowledge so I definitely intend to stay in the game in some form or fashion. I still need to make some money, somehow and support my family so I definitely want to stay in the game as much as I can.”
The game is better with Johnny Giavotella in it. The little engine that could came up big and made New Orleans area citizens proud at the highest level.
Meanwhile, to see some of Giavotella’s career exploits, visit the family restaurant on West Napoleon Avenue near Transcontinental, which bears the family moniker, a place where Johnny took teammates when they were in town to play the Zephyrs.
“Gio’s is the best pizza in the city,” Giavotella said.
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