Santino Miozzi does his best Dikembe Mutombo impression on a brisk February afternoon in Georgia after throwing out a baserunner in an early season contest against Columbus State. Miozzi wagged his finger while jogging off the field after gunning down the runner and ending the first inning, a big smile plastered across his face.
The finger wag is Mutombo’s trademark. Miozzi’s smile might as well be his. His teammates describe him as funny and jovial; a ray of sunlight in a sport that can easily become a grind.
“Baseball, to me at least, is about having fun out there,” Miozzi said. “Have fun, laugh, hit in the cages, throw the ball around. It’s fun.”
Miozzi, for a short time, lost sight of how baseball should be fun. Baseball can be a challenging game that wears people down, but it’s the challenges that the game presents that shaped Miozzi into the baseball player and person he is today.
The Florida Southern catcher has a unique background compared to most collegiate baseball players. He was born and raised in Venezuela, living there until he was 17-years-old. He did his first two years of high school at a baseball academy in Maracay, the same town that produced stars like Miguel Cabrera and José Altuve. Miozzi finished high school in Orlando, Florida, where his family moved to leave the tumultuous South American country.
Baseball was instrumental in helping Miozzi adjust to America. He moved to the U.S. barely knowing any English, and the natural extrovert spent hours at the ballpark talking to people and learning.
“It bothered me that I would be next to someone, and I couldn’t communicate with them,” Miozzi said. “So I would embarrass myself, I guess, and just say whatever came to my head.”
It was a long way from his native Venezuela. Miozzi, 22, started playing baseball at the age of four. He said he didn’t really like it at first, and neither did his mother, who was raised in Italy and had a liking for soccer instead.
However, in 2003, the Florida Marlins, led by Maracay-born Miguel Cabrera, won the World Series. Miozzi calls Cabrera his first role model, an example for kids in Venezuela.
“The kids [in Venezuela] see baseball as a way out. I didn’t see it that way, because my parents didn’t have that problem, but the kids you play with saw it that way. You just aspire to be a big leaguer,” Miozzi said.
Miozzi reflected fondly on the memories he has of baseball as a child.
“I remember being at home with my dad. He introduced me to the game. We would play in our apartment and the bases would be the walls and he introduced me to hitting and throwing, but I always loved throwing,” he said.
Miozzi found his current day position at the age of 7. He went to play, and his team didn’t have a catcher, so he tried.
“I sucked,” he said with a chuckle, “but the coach said he thought I could be good.”
Miozzi began to practice catching, and it was the beginning of an obsession. By the time he was 15, he was playing in the baseball academies in Venezuela, where he was playing with and against guys that were being signed by MLB franchises for millions of dollars on seemingly a daily basis. Those that weren’t signed for millions still signed for a couple thousand here and there.
Miozzi had a 1.8 pop time, an elite number for a catcher of any age, much less a 15-year-old. Miozzi’s peers needed baseball to escape Venezuela, but he didn’t. He moved to Orlando his junior year of high school.
Miozzi originally scoffed at the idea of college. He had been surrounded by professional quality talent for most of his amateur career, but high school travel ball opened his eyes to the perks of being a collegiate athlete.
He committed to Florida Southwestern, a junior college in Fort Lauderdale. Junior colleges are popular options in college baseball because players are still eligible for the MLB draft each year, whereas players that commit to NCAA DI, D2 or D3 schools must play at least three years before becoming draft eligible, barring a couple of exceptions.
Miozzi started both years at Florida Southwestern, playing through injury and poor offensive performance as a freshman. As a sophomore, his hitting improved immensely, and it caught the eye of the University of Florida, which would become Miozzi’s new home.
Miozzi committed to what was seemingly a dream school. While the treatment was first class, baseball was also hard work. Miozzi lost touch with having fun as the sport felt increasingly like a job. He found his way out of favor with the coaching staff, and eventually, out of the lineup.
It was a gut punch. A lifetime of work had gone into getting him to this point, and he couldn’t do the one thing he loved above all else: play baseball.
He wouldn’t watch just that game against Miami from the bench, but he would watch the rest of the games from there too. He quickly decided that the University of Florida wasn’t for him.
Miozzi describes himself as a technology nerd, and he used his free time on researching technology, engineering and more. He says that he wants to go into either engineering or IT after baseball, and he’s not sure he would’ve known about these interests had he not gone through the struggles he did at UF.
The player left what many would call a dream program and transferred to D2 Florida Southern, his third school in as many years.
College summer ball in the Northwoods League helped Miozzi rediscover the fun of baseball, and the environment at Florida Southern has let the fun flourish.
“Baseball has taught me the importance of self-discipline, hard work and time management,” Miozzi said. “I show up a couple of hours before practice if I can. That’s self-discipline. It’s about focusing on getting better every day. That is something that will help me outside of baseball too.”
Miozzi doesn’t know if pro ball is in his future; he’s focused on the moment and having fun. He knows that whether it’s professional baseball, a career in engineering or IT, he’s prepared because of the time he’s spent in baseball.