Among all collegiate baseball players in the United States, only 10.5% go on to play at the professional level. Of those who are lucky enough to make the sport their job, less than 10% make it all the way to the major leagues. However, for those that don’t make it to the highest level, their impact on the game can be just as meaningful.
For former Kettleer Joe Rietano, despite playing just one month in the minor leagues, his baseball legacy lasts his lifetime. At every stop throughout his journey, he embodied the qualities that make America’s pastime great and helped those around him become better players and people, leaving a positive impact on many lives along the way.
In 1976, legendary general manager Arnold Mycock took a chance on the sophomore Rietano, a catcher with a big bat from then Division II program Sacred Heart University. He was one of just three players on the roster who did not play at a Division I school.
“I had just come home to Connecticut after the Division II College World Series at the end of my sophomore year when I got the call to play in Cotuit,” Rietano said of his Cape League arrival. “All their catchers either signed to play in the minors or got hurt, and they needed to replace them. I was in New England and had a good season at the plate, so when they asked me to sign, I showed up the next day. I never knew the league existed until I got that phone call, but when I arrived, I was excited to take on the best players from all over the country.”
In the early stages of the season, Rietano struggled to find his form. As he dealt with the expectations of being the small-school product going up against top-level Division I players, he adopted a more tentative approach at the plate. It wasn’t until he took a step back and simplified his thought process that he turned things around.
“Like any kid at that point, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not I could do well here [on the Cape]” Rietano said. “I was always a confident hitter, but when I got to Cotuit, I got questioned about whether or not I could swing the bat well, and I struggled. I was taking a lot of strikes and falling behind in counts. But, at a certain point, I realized I was playing the same game I had been playing my whole life. The bases were still 90 feet apart, the pitcher’s mound was still 60 feet and six inches away from home plate, and both teams still switched spots on the field every three outs. Pitchers there still needed to throw the ball in the strike zone no matter how good they were. It was like when Gene Hackman measured the rim in the movie Hoosiers. Once that simple concept took hold, things started to flow a lot better and I hit as well as I knew I could.”
Rietano found his footing soon afterward and adjusted to his new surroundings on the Cape, rediscovering the hitting stroke that got him there. He rebounded nicely and finished strong, becoming a key contributor to a team that made the league semifinals. At season’s end, he received an invitation to return the next summer.
Little did anyone know, the second half of that season was a sign of things to come.
Fueled by the confidence that comes with succeeding in the Cape Cod Baseball League, Rietano went back to Sacred Heart for his junior year looking to keep the positive momentum going. After a strong fall, he went to New Orleans during his winter vacation to train with Kettleer teammate John Foto at Tulane. However, following the Pioneers’ season-opening tournament in Florida, he contracted a mouth infection which caused him to lose 27 pounds in five days, losing the strength that made him an effective hitter and forcing him to miss the first half of the college season.
“I was in the best shape of my life,” Rietano said of the time between his two seasons as in Cotuit. “I was motivated to train hard after I saw that I could play with the best of the best. I was ready to go out and compete my junior year, but the time after that spring tournament really challenged me. I went from being in prime physical condition to not recognizing myself when I looked in the mirror.”
Despite the obstacle, Rietano’s strong work ethic and determination to recover never wavered. In fact, in retrospect, he saw it as a blessing in disguise. Upon making a full recovery and re-entering the Sacred Heart lineup midway through the spring, he felt fresh. By only playing half a season, he avoided the wear and tear that normally comes with catching a full collegiate schedule. As a result, he had a productive spell leading up to the start of the 1977 Cape League campaign. By the time he came back to Cotuit, he was ready to hit the ground running.
Once Opening Day came, Rietano picked up right where he left off the year before. He dominated opposing pitchers and made his presence felt around the league, putting him on pace for a historic summer.
“I was in the zone,” he recounted. “The ball looked huge coming out of the pitcher’s hand; it was the complete opposite of my first 20 or so at-bats the year before.”
Soon after, Rietano began to rewrite the historic league’s record books. During a stretch from June 25 to June 30, he hit a home run in five consecutive games, setting a record that still stands today. Of those five games, three featured multiple round-trippers, giving him eight in less than one week. No player has had that much slugging success in such a short period of time since.
“It all started at Falmouth,” Rietano said. “We were down big. I hit a home run to make the score 9-3, and we just kept coming back. Then I hit one to tie the game, and we ended up winning. Those two at-bats really got me going, it just reassured the confidence I had that I could hang with the big boys and make a name for myself at the highest level.”
Rietano continued his excellent power production for the remainder of the regular season, setting up a historic home run race alongside Y-D Red Sox slugger and future major leaguer Steve Balboni. The two went back-and-forth for long ball supremacy, and Rietano came out on top by one. His 14 home runs beat Balboni’s 13 and also tied a then-franchise and league home run record, previously set by former Kettleer Joe Zylka, earning him a place at the All-Star Game at Fenway Park. More importantly, it powered the Kettleers to a top seed in the playoffs.
Once the postseason began, Cotuit cruised past the Wareham Gatemen to set up a matchup with Balboni’s Red Sox in the championship series. Their team competition garnered the same result as their individual one as the Kettleers took down Y-D three games to two, capturing their ninth Cape League Championship and their fifth in six years.
“That ‘77 team was the best team I ever played on,” he said. “Looking back on that season, we felt like we were the best team in the regular season. We never thought we were guaranteed to win every game, but we would have been very disappointed if we didn’t finish the summer as champions. I’ll always remember the day we won the title, it’s one of my favorite baseball memories to this day.”
Following the conclusion of his Cape League tenure, Rietano parlayed a strong senior year at Sacred Heart into a professional baseball opportunity. Though he went undrafted in the 1978 MLB Draft, he didn’t have to wait long to enter the minor league system. He signed with the Auburn Sunsets of the New York-Penn League, then a short-season team co-operated by the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros. He played well in his short cameo, slashing .277/.397/.431 with two home runs in 20 games, but unfortunately, he was not re-signed.
A year later, after spending time in the Italian Baseball League, his professional playing career came to a close. While he continued to collect at-bats in the semi-professional circuit until 1996, he never reached the same heights. Nevertheless, his influence on the sport was far from over.
Inspired by his experiences working the Kettleers’ Kids Camps, Rietano knew he wanted to be a coach. In 1980, he realized those aspirations when future National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Hall of Famer Ed Sylvia hired him as an assistant coach at Housatonic Community College. One year later, Reitano returned to Sacred Heart, this time as their head coach. He spent three years in charge at his alma mater, going 51-39-1 and posting a winning record every season. Rietano then transitioned back to the junior college ranks, reassuming his assistant coaching role at Housatonic in 1985. In his four years of his second stint there, he helped them become a Connecticut junior college power, leading them to a JUCO World Series.
In 1990, Rietano decided to shift his focus towards the high school ranks. He became the head
coach at Stratford High School in Stratford, CT, a position he held for 24 years. He had success in terms of wins and losses, highlighted by a trip to the Class M Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) State Final in 2002, but he lists his biggest accomplishment as teaching the sport he loves to the next generation of players.
“I always felt like I connected well with young players,” Rietano said. “That helped make the experience that much more enjoyable for me. It was extremely rewarding to pass down what I learned to all my players and watch them put it into practice. What inspired me most every day was their willingness to learn more than my passion for teaching. I knew I had something to offer, and I’m happy I could use that as a way to give back to the game of baseball.”
With the Red Devils, Rietano employed a similar coaching style to his previous stops in college baseball which endeared him to his players. He treated the program as if it were at the Division-I and held its participants to the same high standards both on and off the field.
“My whole coaching career, I wanted to coach my team the way I would have wanted to be coached and challenged as well as build up their mental game,” he said. “Treating my high school guys like they were older helped me fulfill both those goals. A lot of these players wanted to compete at the next level, so I wanted to prepare them for that and show them how those programs work. I keep in touch with a lot of the guys I coached in the past, and the ones who made it to college tell me that environment prepared them well for the heightened level of play.”
Even after nearly a quarter of a century at Stratford, Rietano still desired to remain active in baseball, specifically with high-school aged kids. Having been a head coach with the Connecticut Bombers (Hamden, CT) throughout his high school coaching tenure, he decided to take on an assistant coaching role for the South Troy Dodgers (South Troy, NY). He has been heavily involved with the latter organization since 2019, once driving two-and-a-half hours each way from his Connecticut home to participate in a Sunday tryout in the Albany suburb.
Rietano’s enthusiasm and commitment to baseball became his way of leaving a lasting impression on the game for which he dedicated his life. But, despite an ongoing coaching career pushing four decades and a lengthy period of time as a player which preceded it, he still approaches each day with the same enthusiasm and vigor of a first-time participant.
“On the baseball field is where I feel most at peace,” Rietano said. “I’m not a head coach anymore, but I feel so blessed to find ways to be around the game every day. I still get the same excitement every time I put on my cleats that I did when I was a kid.”