By: Brian Frank
John Cangelosi begins his new book, The Improbable Baseball Journey of the Undersized Kid from Nowhere to World Series Champion, which he co-authored with K.P. Wee, saying that he hopes his “story can inspire others to not give up and keep fighting.” He certainly accomplishes that in an enjoyable telling of how the 5’8” outfielder beat the odds to play 10 major-league seasons. The book not only chronicles his time in the majors, but also tells about his time playing minor-league baseball, a good portion of which was spent in Western New York. Cangelosi, remembered as a player who always gave it everything he had no matter what level he was playing at, spoke with The Herd Chronicles about his season playing in Niagara Falls and three separate stints with the Bisons.
Cangelosi played his first professional season with the Niagara Falls Sox of the New York Penn League in 1982. In an interview from his home in Illinois, Cangelosi recalled his time spent in the low minors in Niagara Falls, New York. “The people took a liking to all the ballplayers there. And back then we had no money, and the first week or so we were staying at the YMCA in downtown Niagara Falls.” He remembered a local woman who used to have players stay at her house “because we didn’t have an apartment yet. So we stayed with her and she hosted us for like a month and then I finally got a place above Sammy’s Pizzeria right across the street from the ballpark. I think a major-league ballplayer’s mom owned the bar in Sammy’s Pizza and we stayed above there.”
Cangelosi was learning how to switch-hit, hitting left-handed for the first time in his life during his season in the Cataract City. He explained “I never swung a bat left-handed until I got to pro ball. That’s the only way I got drafted. Walt Widmayer (White Sox head scout) was watching me throughout my high school career and I didn’t even know it. And he told me 'I could sign you and you could hit right-handed, but you’ll get to Double-A and that’s about it. But if you could switch-hit you’ll be in the big leagues in about three years.' And sure enough, I was in the big leagues in three years.” Incredibly, the 19-year-old hit .289 with five home runs, 38 RBI, and had a .413 on-base percentage during his first season switch-hitting. He also stole 45 bases. Cangelosi helped lead the Sox to a New York-Penn League Championship, as they defeated the Oneonta Yankees and a young prospect named John Elway two games to one in the championship series.
He looks back fondly at that first season in organized baseball. “I loved playing there… I used to love going to Niagara Falls. We’d just kind of go over there and hang out after games sometimes. Great experience, great people and I’d like to go back.”
Cangelosi hit .331 with the 1988 Bisons. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Three seasons later, Cangelosi was reluctantly playing in Mexico City, when Bisons manager John Boles helped bring him back to Western New York. The Chicago White Sox had an agreement at the time with the Mexico City Reds. In return for supplying the Reds with three players, the White Sox received help in identifying and signing Mexican players. “That was a very weird situation. So what happened was Nelson Barrera, who was supposed to be like the next Mickey Mantle, the White Sox wanted him and he was on the Mexico City team. Roberto Mansur who was the president of the Mexico City Reds had seen me play in winter ball in Puerto Rico. Fast forward to the next year, in ’84 (at Double-A Glens Falls) I stole like 60 or 70 bags, and I hit like .280 and I thought I was going to play in Triple-A for Bolsie (in Buffalo) and maybe even have an opportunity to get called up.” Unfortunately that’s not how it worked out for him. “But lo and behold, right before Spring Training they called me and they optioned me to Mexico, which at first I refused and they were going to suspend me because I was on a minor-league contract… So, I ended up going to Mexico, I was there two months. It was the worst experience of my life. I got chicken pox, I got shot at. It was brutal. I hated every minute of it. Roberto Mansur was a class act, treated me with the upmost respect. But my head wasn’t in it. I just wanted to be home.” Fortunately for Cangelosi, he had a big supporter back in the states in Bisons manager John Boles. Boles had managed Cangelosi the past three seasons, in extended spring training in 1982, in Single-A Appleton in 1983, and in Double-A Glens Falls in 1984. Cangelosi stated that “Nelson Barrera didn’t work out with the White Sox. I guess John Boles had influence, he said I need a center fielder, I want Cangy back. Get him back here.” So Barrera was optioned back to Mexico City, and Cangelosi had his first opportunity to play in Buffalo. “So that was thanks to John Boles.” In Cangelosi’s book, Boles is quoted as saying “John Cangelosi was one of my favorite guys to ever manage. He’s right up there. He’s in the top three because his effort and sincerity about the team was really something that you could count on every day. And I saw it four straight years when I managed him in the minor leagues.”
Cangelosi joined the Bisons at War Memorial Stadium during their first season in Triple-A since 1970. “Joey DeSa and Jose Castro kind of took me under their wing a little bit. Jose Castro is from Miami, Florida, and so am I. So I kind of hung out with them.” Cangelosi loved playing at the Old Rockpile. “It was the nostalgia of it man. It was history. You felt O.J. Simpson running… and then you felt the impact the movie The Natural had. One of the extras in The Natural was our bullpen catcher (current Bisons official scorekeeper Kevin Lester)… and they had The Butcher running down foul balls. And again, great people, great town. I loved the history in the old stadium. You know, when you hit a home run, the seats would rattle. I liked it. Yeah it was older, but you could feel the history. It was almost like going to Yankee Stadium and feeling the history.”
Cangelosi started 1986 with the White Sox. He credits his manager in Buffalo, John Boles, with helping him get that opportunity as well. “Bolsey stood up in a White Sox winter meeting in ’85, and they were going around the room, and they get to Bolsey, and they go ‘Hey, who’s the center fielder of the future for the White Sox, is it Kenny Williams or Darrell Boston?’ And he goes ‘No, it’s John Cangelosi’… you could have heard a pin drop in the room.” Being brought to the attention of the White Sox brass helped Cangelosi earn the starting center field job in the big leagues on Opening Day. He went on to set what was then an American League Rookie record for stolen bases with 50.
Cangelosi with the Herd. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
A few seasons later he was a backup outfielder/pinch-hitter with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he was sent back down to Buffalo. “Obviously no one wants to get sent down, but in my situation, I needed the at-bats. I wasn’t getting the job done in the big leagues. I had like 50 at-bats at the All-Star break. So just getting over the initial shock of getting sent down. But then after that, you know once you’re between the lines you start playing.” Known as a scrappy, hustling player throughout his career, Cangelosi never changed how he played whether he was in the majors or the minors. “I went down there and I played hard. Whenever I got sent down, I know they always thought ‘oh he’s gonna big league it’ (not play hard) or whatever. But it was an opportunity to play the game. I loved playing the game, so once I got to the ballpark I turned the switch on and if I was playing in the big leagues or Triple-A it didn’t really even matter.”
Cangelosi joined a Bisons team playing their first season at their new state of the art downtown ballpark, Pilot Field (now renamed Sahlen Field). “Rocky Bridges (Bisons manager), god bless him, he was a great guy… Orestes Destrada was a guy that I played high school baseball against, he’s another Miami guy. Benny D. (Benny Distefano) great guy, he ended up playing a year or two with me in Pittsburgh. Tommy Prince, class act.” And he loved the new stadium and the Buffalo fans. “Bob Rich, great guy. He actually had us over to his house for a cookout. Great family… I loved playing there. The Earl of Bud would run the stadium, and just the energy there. They would sell out. You know for a couple of years there they had bigger attendance than Pittsburgh.” He recalled Bisons fans from that era, such as the late Frank “Fremo” Vallone “He was a good dude.” He continued “Plus at the new stadium, I loved it because it was the first time at Triple-A that you could hang out at the stadium. They had the club up there, the restaurant (Pettibones, now called Consumer’s Pub at the Park), and a lot of the players used to hang out and the fans used to come in. It was kind of cool, all the interaction. Bob Rich did a great job with the stadium. He made it fan friendly. It was the first stadium back in the day where the players really could interact with the fans. I mean he made it very convenient. We had food after the game. I mean, they took care of their players, bar none.”
Cangelosi hustling out of the batters box. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Cangelosi hit .331 with a .410 on-base percentage and 14 stolen bases in 37 games with the ’88 Bisons. He always prided himself on his ability to get on base, whether it was by hit or walk, as illustrated by a game at Iowa in early July 1988 when he tied an American Association record by walking five times in a game. He was quoted in the Buffalo News after the game as saying “I walked so much I could have gone back to the hotel.” When reminded of this quote, Cangelosi laughed, “I kind of remember (the game). Did I get any stolen bases? I better have.” He did, as usual. He stole three bags and scored three runs in the Bisons 9-4 win.
Cangelosi returned to Buffalo for two brief stints in 1990. He played in 24 games that season with the Herd, including the Bisons 18-inning one game playoff loss to Nashville, in which he hit leadoff, had two hits, a walk, three stolen bases, and scored a run. He was also thrown out at the plate in the 11th inning, attempting to score on a sacrifice fly on what would have been the winning run. Cangelosi hit .348 with 15 stolen bases and had a .431 on-base percentage in his 24 games with Buffalo that season. He also formed a special relationship with Bisons manager Terry Collins. Cangelosi impressed his new manager, not only with his hustle on the field, but also with his professionalism and dedication. “I used to get out there early, work with their base runners, you know kind of like mentor them a little bit. So, at the end of the day, when I got recalled to the big leagues, Terry Collins called me in his office, and he goes ‘Cangy I just want to let you know, if I’m ever in a position to help you out, I will. You came down, you busted your behind, you helped my kids... You’re a class act, I appreciate it.’” In Cangelosi’s new book, Terry Collins discusses how he feels about his former player: “He played the game right. Everyone thinks leaders have to speak up. Sometimes you lead by example. That’s what John did. He led by example. Here’s a guy who was a major-league player at one time, a good big-league player. He got sent down, didn’t pout, didn’t mope or go, ‘Woe is me.’… He said ‘No, I’m going back! I’m gonna work hard to get back there!’ He put forth the effort in the way he played, and he got back to the big leagues. You salute guys like that.”
Cangelosi is greeted on the dugout steps by teammates Rick Reed and Kevin Burdick. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Little did Cangelosi know at the time, that Collins would help him out four years later. In 1994, Mets manager Dallas Green wanted to send Cangelosi to the minors, but he refused the assignment. “So, I became a free agent, and Terry Collins called me like a day later. He goes ‘Cangy what’s going on?... Are you retiring?’” Cangelosi explained that he refused assignment because he was being sent down, and didn’t believe Green would call him back up, but he wanted to keep playing. Cangelosi continued “And he goes ‘Alright. Cangy, are you still in shape?’ and I said ‘sure’. And he said ‘alright, if the strike doesn’t hit, I’m going to sign you.’ And I’m like ‘perfect. Who’s your Triple-A coach?’ And he said ‘No, you’re coming to the big leagues.’” However, the strike did hit, followed by the lockout to begin the season in 1995. After major-league teams resumed playing, Cangelosi played at Tuscon, Houston’s Triple-A affiliate, for a few weeks, before being called up to the Astros to once again play for Terry Collins. He ended up hitting .320 with 21 stolen bases in 90 games that season. He credits Collins with giving him the opportunity to revive his major-league career. “He got my stock back up. If it wasn’t for him, I would have been out of baseball in a year or so. But he played me, and that’s where baseball comes full-circle man. You know, I didn’t burn any bridges, I played hard, I was good in the locker room, and this guy took a chance on me. He took a chance, but I also took advantage of it and played well for him.” Cangelosi played two successful seasons in Houston, which allowed him the opportunity to sign with Florida after the 1996 season, and led to the pinnacle of his baseball career, winning the 1997 World Series. “Jimmy Leyland, god bless him, gave me a two-year deal with the Marlins and I ended up getting a World Series ring.”
From learning to switch-hit in Niagara Falls to becoming a World Series Champion, Cangelosi’s baseball story is, without a doubt, inspirational. The hustle and determination he played with led to a 10-year major-league career with the White Sox, Pirates, Rangers, Mets, Astros, Marlins, and Rockies. He played 1,038 major-league games, collected 501 hits, stole 370 bases, and won a World Series ring. Yet, even with all that success on the big stage, he still looks back at his time in the minor leagues in both Niagara Falls and Buffalo fondly. The fan support, teammates, stadiums, ownership, and managers he had in Western New York all remain positively etched in his mind. As he succinctly says: “I had great memories there.”