By IAN WILSON
He was seeking the fantasia of playing in Major League Baseball.
Along the way, Torey Lovullo – the long-time skipper of the Arizona Diamondbacks – endured the nothing and the swamps of sadness of minor-league baseball.
Despite sage counsel from the ancient ones and southern oracles, escape from the minors proved challenging.
But Lovullo persevered, beyond the Cannons and Trappers of Alberta, and his ongoing journey eventually lead to a sea of possibilities. Those possibilities continue with the 2023 World Series.
Before we get to the Fall Classic, however, let’s go back a few chapters to page one of the trek of Salvatore Anthony Lovullo.
The UCLA alumnus was a 5th-round pick of the Detroit Tigers in 1987 who climbed the ranks of the organization’s minor-league system rapidly, ascending to the majors just one year after he was taken with the 131st overall selection.
A tenacious and versatile infielder, Lovullo caught the eye of Hall-of-Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who considered him a can’t-miss prospect.
Anderson was so enamored with the switch-hitter from California that he once proclaimed he would die before Lovullo would lose his spot in the lineup.
But when he batted just .115 through 29 Major League Baseball (MLB) games in 1989, Lovullo was sent to the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens – where he played most of the 1989 season and all of the 1990 campaign – and then traded to the New York Yankees for pitcher Mark Leiter in 1991.
He didn’t stick with the Yankees, or the California Angels, who signed him as a free agent, but the Seattle Mariners plucked him off waivers in 1994.
EASTBOUND & DOWN
Lovullo played just 27 games with the M’s and the rest of that season in Calgary with the Cannons. He had experienced his fair share of disappointments by this point but Lovullo remained committed to making it as a big leaguer.
“I’m anxious to get playing again every day,” Lovullo told the Calgary Herald upon his arrival in Cowtown in May of 1994.
“My motto is, take it like a man and come out fighting. You learn to eat humble pie. I’m determined to make it with Seattle. They’ll have to tear the uniform off me.”
Lovullo discussed the challenges he faced during his career and the weight of expectations.
“Although I’m not happy about being sent down, I understand the situation,” he told reporter Gyle Konotopetz.
“I don’t blame Sparky for saying that; it was up to me to prove him right … I had never faced any adversity in my life until then. I gave up on myself, broke down mentally. By August I was ready for the loony bin. Even my dad’s supportive phone calls didn’t help. My wife helped me get it back together.”
Despite the hardships and lows, Lovullo saw a light at the end of the tunnel, thanks in large part to the assistance of Rod Carew, who was the hitting coach for the Angels from 1992 through 1999.
“Going down that road of destruction will pay dividends in the end,” he said.
“Rod got me over the mental hump, he taught me to believe in myself.”
Lovullo was one of many players caught up in the roster churn of the Mariners, who had made 60 roster transactions impacting the Cannons by mid-June, including 10 player demotions from Seattle to Calgary in that time. Half of those players, including Lovullo, had been sent down more than once.
But when hot-shot prospect Alex Rodriguez was sent to the Cannons in August, Lovullo was a beneficiary of all the roster moves and earned a promotion to the big club.
In his time in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in 1994, Lovullo batted .294, posted a .391 on-base percentage, swatted 11 homers and recorded 47 runs batted in (RBI). He also kicked off a rare triple play with the Cannons during an 8-1 victory over the Tacoma Tigers.
The 1995 season brought with it another team – the Buffalo Bisons, Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate – as did 1996, when the Oakland Athletics inked Lovullo to a minor-league free agent deal.
His time with Oakland meant a return trip to Alberta, where the team’s highest-level farm team, the Edmonton Trappers, played out of Telus Field.
BACK IN ALBERTA
Still seeking a big-league breakthrough with staying power, the utility man got an unwanted 31st birthday present in the form of a late-July demotion to Alberta’s capital city.
“I can’t say I’m entirely surprised,” he said at the time.
“I was frustrated they never saw the real Torey Lovullo. You kind of have a feel for these things and the red flag is somebody not playing.”
He had no illusions of his place in baseball’s pecking order, but continued to persevere.
“I think you’re given one really good look in this game,” Lovullo told Edmonton Journal reporter Robin Brownlee.
“If you take advantage of it like the great players do, you’re on your way. If you fail, you can be classified as a guy who’s marginal. That’s been the case with me.”
Added Lovullo: “I didn’t take advantage of the situation that was put before me … I thought I was going to spend the next ten years in the big leagues, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”
The Santa Monica native reflected yet again on the strain he had felt during his baseball journey, while reiterating his commitment to be a regular in The Show.
“I put a little too much pressure on myself – I wanted to prove to everybody I belonged. Maybe I was a little to you at the time,” he said.
“I’ve died trying … I tried as hard as I possibly could and have given myself every opportunity to stay in the big leagues, but it just hasn’t worked out for me. Now that I’ve been around the block, I know what my role is going to be if I want to wear a big-league uniform again. My versatility is what keeps me in the game.”
Despite the burning desire to get back to the bigs, Lovullo didn’t express any bitterness about being in Edmonton.
“I can’t complain,” he said.
“I’ve been to the big leagues. I’ve had a solid career. You start to see things differently as you mature and spend some time in the game. You see your place, where your value is. I’m a utility guy now, even if it didn’t start out that way.”
The interest in giving back to the sport was also evident.
“I love baseball,” Lovullo told Brownlee.
“It’s in my blood – I’ve got something to offer this game. I think I can still play, but if somebody says I can’t, that’ll be it for me.”
Edmonton manager Gary Jones was pleased to have a Swiss army knife type of fielder on the club.
“It gives us a guy who lets us move guys around, give some guys a day off once in a while,” noted Jones.
“He’s a switch-hitter. He handles the bat well and he can move around, so it’s a good situation.”
Jones was true to his word regarding his deployment of the veteran. During one home series, Lovullo played every position except catcher, third base and centre field. And he ended up logging four innings of relief work on the mound for Edmonton at other points of the season.
With the Trappers, Lovullo also had something else to play for, beyond just a return trip to Oakland.
Edmonton was chasing down its first PCL championship since 1984. Scott Spiezio, Kerwin Moore and Matt Stairs paced the offence, while starting pitchers Bobby Chouinard and Willie Adams collected 10 wins each.
During the best-of-five Northern Division series against the Salt Lake Buzz, Lovullo doubled and homered in the third game to help the Trappers claim a 6-0 win. Spiezio delivered a tie-breaking, two-run blast in Game 4 to give Edmonton a 4-2 victory, a series triumph and a trip to the PCL finals against the Phoenix Firebirds.
In the title-clinching fourth contest of the championship series, Lovullo produced heroics in the form of a three-run homer in the fourth inning that broke the game open and gave the Trappers an 8-4 lead they would not relinquish. Phoenix clawed back two more runs in the second half of the game, but fell by a final score of 8-6, prompting a dogpile celebration for fans at Telus Field.
“I’m just excited I was in the middle of the mix, that I had a chance to help us win this thing,” said Lovullo in the Journal.
“Just take a look at what’s going on right here. Maybe we don’t have the most talent in the world, but look at these guys. We’ve got a bunch of guys who hang together – that’s a tough team to beat.”
Orv Franchuk, hitting coach of the Trappers, was overwhelmed by the closeness of the group.
“I just haven’t seen anything like this before. These guys just care about each other, like brothers, and that’s real special,” said Franchuk.
“Talent-wise, I don’t know if we could match some teams, but when you talk about heart and soul, these guys are it. That’s the difference between this club and any other.”
In summarizing the championship for the Trappers, Brownlee made note of Lovullo’s contributions in the Journal.
The columnist called Lovullo “one of the key veterans in the drive to the title,” adding “he led quietly, by example.”
In looking ahead, Brownlee was doubtful Lovullo would return to Edmonton. It was an accurate prediction. Lovullo did not suit up for the Trappers again, but with a championship ring to add to his collection, he went right back to work in 1997.
He spent all of that year toiling in Triple-A once more and got a sniff of the majors in 1998 – a half-dozen games with Cleveland.
His final season of play in 1999 looked similar – 139 games in Triple-A and 17 contests with the Philadelphia Phillies.
After 303 MLB games and another 1,266 in the minors (1,115 of them at the highest level of the minor leagues), Lovullo’s days between the lines appeared to be over.
But the game wasn’t done with him. In many ways, he was just getting started.
Cleveland saw the managerial stuff he was made of and gave him the reins of the Single-A Columbus Red Stixx of the South Atlantic League in 2002. Lovullo began climbing the minor-league ranks … again.
He was named the Manager of the Year in the Carolina League in 2004 and bestowed the same honour in the Eastern League the year after that.
Lovullo was a Triple-A skipper from 2006-2010 and the Toronto Blue Jays made him their first base coach for two seasons in 2011-2012. Then the Red Sox brought Lovullo to Boston to work as bench coach for another four campaigns.
His big breakthrough occurred in 2017. The Arizona Diamondbacks installed Lovullo as their manager and he did what he was unable to do as a player – he seized the opportunity. The D-backs went 93-69 that season and lost in the first round of the postseason to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Lovullo was named the National League Manager of the Year following the season and he’s stuck with Arizona ever since.
For the Diamondbacks, and Lovullo, the possibilities seem never ending.