When the final pick in Major League Baseball’s 2017 amateur draft scrolled across the ticker, the world finally had an answer to a question nobody ever asked: Is it possible to have Jeff Passan in your name and actually be good at baseball?
Look, I was not a terrible baseball player. I was not a terribly memorable one, either. I’d like to believe I was reserving the letters J-E-F-F P-A-S-S-A-N for someone more worthy of praise and distinction. Someone like Jeff Passantino.
He’s got a new name after Wednesday: Mr. Irrelevant. With the 1,215th and last choice in the draft, the Chicago Cubs selected Passantino, a right-handed pitcher from Lipscomb University. He immediately became my favorite baseball player in the world, and that was before he told me his story, which only reinforced it.
“I woke up at 9 a.m. today,” he said during a Passantino-and-Passan conversation Wednesday night. “I wanted to get a little bit of sleep, because I knew today was going to be the day.”
Today was the day he’d anticipated his whole life, the day when a baseball team was going to affirm all the years of hard work, of defeating doubters, of overcoming physical limitations. See, those of us with Jeff Passan in our names may be blessed with superior intellect and rugged good looks, but one might see us as vertically challenged, me at 5-foot-9½, Passantino listed at 5-foot-10 but achieving that, he said, by “going on your tippy toes when you put your heels against the wall.”
Like I said, we get things done.
“I’ve always been an underdog,” he said. “I’m not the 6-4 pitcher you see. I’m 5-10. You see me come on the mound, guys say, ‘He can’t get me.’ Growing up, I knew I’m not going to throw the ball 97 mph. I would love to. But right now I’m a 5-10 pitcher who throws 89 to 92 mph right where I want to, and I throw four pitches for strikes. My philosophy is to be really good at what I’m given.”
And he was. Passantino pitched his high school team to the state championship in Florida before going to Lipscomb, a small school in Nashville. Overshadowed locally and nationally by Vanderbilt, a perennial powerhouse, Lipscomb nevertheless churned out eight draft choices in the last decade. This year was a bumper crop. Center fielder Michael Gigliotti went to Kansas City in the fourth round. Hulking right-hander Brady Puckett was chosen by Miami in the 15th. Now it was Passantino’s turn.
The three had taken the historic Cape Cod League by storm last summer. None was better than Passantino. He arrived on a temporary contract with the Falmouth Commodores, contingent on his performance. He left with the B.F.C Whitehouse Award for the league’s most outstanding pitcher after posting a 0.64 ERA over seven starts, joining previous winners Chris Sale, Andrew Miller and Sean Manaea.
And now, following a solid junior season at Lipscomb in which he struck out 95 hitters and walked only nine, surely one of the 30 teams wanted him. He wasn’t a toolsy outfielder like Gigliotti nor a physical specimen like Puckett, his roommate who stands a full foot taller than Passantino.
He was the guy who so many times ends the third day of the draft drowned in a bottle of whatever is around. Day 1 is when team presidents and general managers are engaged, knowing they’re about to invest millions of dollars into high school and college kids and that missing doesn’t just mean saying goodbye to those millions but to the opportunity cost young players provide. On Day 2, the stakes remain high, with teams targeting good college players and reaching for high schoolers they hope will fall in love with the idea of professional ball and skip college altogether.
Day 3 is for dreamers. It is for underdogs and overachievers. It is when area scouts — the frontline troops of organizations who put 75,000 miles a year on their cars driving to the backest of backwoods in search of a guy that might not even exist — go to bat for a player. And all day Wednesday, a scout named Alex McClure was doing that for Passantino.
He was back home in Ft. Myers, Florida, with his family. His mom and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and everybody but dad. Jeff Passantino Sr. was the best. He’d moved his family to Florida from small-town Kansas in 2004 and worked in real estate right as the market was cratering. Never did he allow the market’s difficulty to affect his kids. He never missed a game or practice at home. When his son was at Lipscomb, Jeff watched every game on TV. They would talk before and after. Passantino started the All-Star Game on the Cape last summer, and his dad was there.
“It was me and him,” Passantino said. “Always.”
In November, his father had a heart attack and died. He was 48. Passantino still doesn’t know the cause. He still has trouble fathoming it. His dad would’ve been so proud Wednesday. He would’ve told Jeff to stay calm when the 11th round started and his name wasn’t called. And he would’ve laughed when Puckett, after being chosen by the Marlins, asked how Passantino was doing, and he texted back: “Wouldn’t it be funny if I was the last pick, Mr. Irrelevant?” And he would’ve stayed optimistic as the 36th and 37th rounds approached. And he would’ve understood Passantino turning off his phone for the 38th and 39th rounds. And he would’ve pulled his right back out for the 40th, like his brother Joe did Wednesday.
Passantino decided to do the same, and as those 30 picks happened in almost rapid-fire succession, he stared at the Cubs’ pick, last overall, and waited for his name to pop.
Then a yelp. Uncle Joe’s phone was a tick faster. Here’s what he saw.
Passantino, Jeffrey. Lipscomb U. RHP. R/R. JR. 5’9” 225lbs. DOB: 09/25/95.
Three seconds later, it popped on Passantino’s phone. First, he screamed.
“Then I cried. I laughed. I smiled. I jumped up and down. And I cried again,” Passantino said. “It was a whirlwind of emotions.”
— Lipscomb Baseball (@BisonBaseball) June 14, 2017
While Passantino could head back to Lipscomb for another year, he’s not getting any taller, and he can’t be much better at what he does, so sometime soon, he’s going to be a Chicago Cub. There won’t be any protracted negotiations. He just wants to play ball. Pragmatism is the Jeff Passan-and-all-derivations-of-it way.
Just look at how he celebrated. After making sure Passantino was 21 years old, I asked what sort of beer he’d partake of to mark the occasion.
“No beer,” he answered. “I’m in training mode. It’s time to get serious.”
One would understand if he imbibed tonight, but the instinct is good. Being a professional pitcher takes dedication and sacrifice and all the intangibles inherent in those with the taxonomy Jeffus Passanus. That Passantino mixes a circle changeup, curveball and cutter with his four-seam fastball probably helps matters.
It’s true. The pitches got him here, not the name. Maybe that’s what I was missing all those years of toiling at second base and wondering why it was smart to pivot to other competitive sports. If only I had been more like Jeff Passantino, forever Mr. Irrelevant to the world, forever Mr. Relevant to me.
“Yes, I was the last pick of the draft,” he said. “But at the same time, I get to do something most kids dream of. Now, I get to play professional baseball.”