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Minicozzi travels improbable road back to Giants

Chance visit to former coaches gives baseball lifer another shot in Minors

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As a seventh-grader in Wayne, Pa., Mark Minicozzi received a career-assessment survey and treated it like a hitter would regard a curveball in the dirt.

He completely ignored it.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As a seventh-grader in Wayne, Pa., Mark Minicozzi received a career-assessment survey and treated it like a hitter would regard a curveball in the dirt.

He completely ignored it.

Under the list of professions matching the survey's possible responses, "ballplayer" wasn't among them.

"My whole life, that's what I wanted to do," Minicozzi said. "It's awesome to be out here and still do this."

Many players share Minicozzi's passion. Few have sustained the effort and savored the adventure that Minicozzi, 31, endured to stay in uniform. He underwent three significant surgeries, nearly quit as an active player due to health reasons, spent three years with independent-league teams after sitting out a season to heal himself, played in Nicaragua essentially because he'd go anywhere to find a game and rejoined the Giants organization largely through happenstance.

The baseball gods whom Minicozzi worships obviously want him on the diamond. A non-roster invitee to big league camp, Minicozzi went 2-for-4 Wednesday as the Giants outlasted the Los Angeles Angels, 3-2. His Cactus League performance, highlighted by a home run last Friday against Milwaukee, includes a .556 batting average (5-for-9) and team highs in slugging percentage (.889) and on-base percentage (.667).

Primarily a first baseman, Minicozzi's destined to begin the season with Triple-A Fresno. But his mere presence is something to appreciate.

"The fact that he's here in big league camp is indicative of how far he's come," Giants assistant general manager Bobby Evans said.

Minicozzi's improbable journey took a dramatic turn in May 2012. He was at home in Wayne, between stints in the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League and awaiting the start of the Can-Am independent league, when he realized that the Giants' Double-A Richmond affiliate was playing in Reading, about 35 miles away. Having entered pro ball with the Giants in 2005, Minicozzi hoped to see coaches he knew, such as Richmond manager Dave Machemer and Shane Turner, San Francisco's player development director who was then the organization's coordinator of Minor League instruction.

By coincidence, Richmond needed depth at first base. Minicozzi made his visit and happened to mention that he hit .328 with 15 home runs in 86 games the previous year with Worcester. It didn't matter to Machemer that Minicozzi compiled those numbers in an independent league. Machemer asked Minicozzi to take batting practice the next day.

After watching the right-handed batter take two or three swings off Machemer, Richmond hitting coach Ken Joyce murmured, "Wow, he can hit." Evans quickly engineered Minicozzi's signing -- or re-signing. Minicozzi played 15 games with Class A Augusta to get in shape before joining Richmond and hitting .284 with eight homers and 45 RBIs in 81 games.

Minicozzi thrived in an encore appearance with Richmond last year, hitting a franchise-record .309 to lead the Eastern League in that category. His is a story of perseverance and more than a little luck.

"I went up there not expecting anything," Minicozzi said. "I always had in the back of my mind, man, it would be awesome to get back with the Giants or get any kind of chance to get back. That's all you want as a player, a second chance to prove to yourself that you can play at the highest level. I will never forget that day. I will never forget making that decision to go up there and see those guys. That's been the best decision of my life so far."

The Giants initially acquired Minicozzi by selecting him in the 17th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft out of East Carolina University. Two years later, he was hit by a pitch on his left wrist on the last day of camp. He tried to play through the discomfort but ultimately needed surgery.

Minicozzi missed the entire 2008 season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery and being released by the Giants. He resumed playing in the independent Northern League in 2009, playing for Kansas City and Winnipeg. The impact of that year lingered with him in the form of an aching back, which was caused by an early-season dive into second base.

Though virtually each waking moment was excruciating, Minicozzi hit a combined .313 for Camden and Worcester in 2010. He finally had emergency back surgery before the 2011 season.

"I had sciatica running down my [left] leg," he recalled. "I couldn't stand for more than five, 10 minutes before I had to kneel or lay down because I had so much pain."

A healthy Minicozzi returned to Worcester in 2011 and delivered the performance that drew the Giants' attention.

"Once that pain went away, it became realistic that maybe I could keep playing and follow my dreams," he said. "At that time I didn't know it could be something like this. In the back of my head I knew I could play and I wanted to find anywhere to go play and keep improving."

Minicozzi's life then became even more intriguing. Needing more at-bats, he spanned the globe to play for the Orientales de Granada in Nicaragua. The following season, Minicozzi jumped to the Indios del Boer.

"Wherever there's a baseball field, I try to play on it," he said.

During Minicozzi's second stint in Nicaragua, his club had some road games switched to home games because volcanic eruptions had spewed lava too close to the ballparks. He also recalled one night when a spectator was stabbed in the grandstand.

"There was some crazy stuff," Minicozzi said. "... Other than that, the fans there were awesome. It was a great experience for me."

For Minicozzi, any moment on any field is a great experience.

"Once you get on the other side of those [foul] lines, you're free," he said. "And you just love being out there."

Chris Haft is a reporter for Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, and follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat.

San Francisco Giants, Mark Minicozzi