WARWICK — Twenty years ago, Tom Hanks’ silver-screen portrayal of the slow-witted Forrest Gump earned the acclaimed actor an Academy Award and a huge payday. The 1994 release is remembered for the lead character’s array of quirky and quick-to-the-point quotes, some of which still hold merit today.
There is, however, one quip from Gump that seems to never go out of style. Remember the scene when he was seated on a bench and began rambling to a female stranger? As he waved a box of candy in her face, Gump declared, “Life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
In Forrest Gump parlance, his ode to a Whitman’s Sampler pertains to sweet, gooey center covered in a chocolate shell. In some respects, Chris Iannetta’s professional baseball career can be interpreted as a “box of chocolates” or in more conventional terms, a mystery wrapped inside an enigma.
This might be hard to fathom, but this June will mark 10 years since the Colorado Rockies drafted Iannetta out of the University of North Carolina. Much has happened in the decade since the St. Raphael Academy alum set sail on an odyssey that like any Greek mythology strikes the right balance between triumphs and tragedies – productive moments on the diamond that have been accompanied with demotions to the minor leagues and getting traded away by the franchise that drafted and developed you.
“I never would have scripted it this way,” he openly admitted.
Iannetta departed for Tempe, Ariz. on Sunday. Spring training across Major League Baseball begins in earnest this week with the local lad set to begin his third season with the Los Angeles Angels and ninth in the bigs. He’s no longer viewed as an up-and-comer. Iannetta turns 31 on April 8, and judging by a recent conversation in-between hitting and catching sessions at the Rhode Island Baseball Institute, he seems to have a good grasp of what’s taken place and what the future possibly has in store for him.
“I definitely don’t feel like I’m a 20-something year-old kid anymore. As for a veteran guy, I’m starting to see that a little bit,” Iannetta said. “I’m not done playing. It’s not out of my system. I love what I’m doing and still strive to be the best that I can.
“I don’t think I’ve played to my potential yet. I’m still trying to get to that point,” he added. “All I wanted was to go out there and care about succeeding, but early in my career, I let too many little things bother me, maybe an 0-for-4 or an error I made.”
The Chris Iannetta of 2014 feels that he’s better equipped to better deal with rough stretches at the plate. He touched upon his 4-for-30 start to the 2010 season and how it resulted in a demotion to the minors as well as a rough two-month interval last season where he hit .189 in June and followed up with a .162 average in July.
“I’ve always said that I’ve had a lot of struggles in the game. I need to minimize the times that I haven’t been very good and turn a 1-for-20 into a 0-for-10,” he said about minimizing long batting droughts. “You start looking around, and I’m playing with some very good players and they go through it too. It’s just that they do it once during the season and it’s a little bit shorter.”
“Early on I put too much emphasis by saying this was a big deal. Now it’s something you go through. It’s more of a learning process,” added Iannetta. “I realize that this year, there’s going to be a stretch when I’m really bad, but it’s going to change and change quickly. When I come out of it, I’m going to be really good.
“Anyone that struggles, if they knew what the fix was, they would do it that day and not look back,” he said. “It’s kind of like you just throw your hands in the air and you know what? I’m going to wear it for a little while, knowing that it’s going to turn around.”
Even when he was battling himself in the batter’s box, Iannetta felt he was able to resist the temptation of letting his slumps affect his ability to call a game or serve as a caretaker for the pitching staff. That wasn’t the case for much of 2013.
“One thing that’s always been a rock for me is my defensive side. That’s always what I’ve valued,” he stated. “Last year, I was even struggling defensively for a stretch. It’s tough when you’re going through it on both sides of the ball.
“They talk about not taking your offense behind the plate. I’m kind of the other way around. I’ll take my defense to the plate,” Iannetta explained.
In August, Iannetta came to the realization that he needed glasses and contacts. The returns were overwhelmingly positive – he batted .286 in September with four home runs while posting a .911 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average). In spite of his fine work in the season’s final month, Iannetta ended up batted just .225 despite logging a career-best 115 games.
“I was getting to the point where the ball was jumping on me when I was catching. I’m like, ‘This is weird.’ I’ve never had an issue like this before,” Iannetta said. “The first day I put the contacts in, I was ‘Oh my God.’ My eyes relaxed and then the rest of my body relaxed. I felt I could react again and be athletic as opposed to being tense and straining. It had a big impact.”
Out of the body of work Iannetta has turned in thus far, he feels fortunate “to have some fun stuff happen.” He’s authored three career walk-off home runs and helped guide Jered Weaver to a no-hitter on May 2, 2012. When the 2009 World Baseball Classic took place, Iannetta was part of Team USA’s entry.
He’s also signed two multi-year deals and according to baseball-reference.com has thus far has pocketed over $14 million in career earnings. In one regard, Iannetta views the contacts he’s been fortunate enough to sign as “safety nets.” In other ways, job security is not always assured or guaranteed just because you’re locked in for a certain amount of years.
“Too many things happened to me in Colorado that I realized that I couldn’t take anything for granted,” said Iannetta, referencing the occasions when the Rockies began the season with him as the clear-cut No. 1 backstop only to eventually split the duties or completely turn them over to his alleged backup. “You’ve got to battle and win, create your own opportunities and play enough to win a job every year.
“There is some security in a sense that you’re taken care of financially and there’s more motivation for them to keep you around or trade you as opposed to sending you to the minor leagues. As for playing time, there’s a starter and a backup or there’s a platoon situation that you’re always fighting for time,” he said. “I understand the nature of the game more. It’s a business that surrounds itself around production. If you produce, you’re going to be there for a long time. If you’re not and they find out they have a better option, or can get a piece for you that makes the team better, then you find your way somewhere else or even out of the game.”
Iannetta, who is signed through 2015, was asked if he’s scratched the surface following a decade’s worth of ups and downs. He’s a career .234 hitter in 652 MLB games with 83 homers and 301 RBIs.
“I hope so, but I don’t know. Anything can happen physically. You don’t know how your body is going to hold up or if your career is going to get cut short,” was his frank response to an open-ended question. “I think I can look back and see the amount of things that have happened over the course of those 10 years and say it’s been quite the journey.
“I would like to say that I could play a little while longer, but all I can say us that I’m going to play as long as the game allows me to,” he said. “If I catch and block balls and help the pitching staff and put up offensive numbers, I’ll play. If not, I’ll be the backup guy or get traded.
“When I’m done playing, it’s going to be because I physically can’t do it anymore, I can’t get a job, or I quit,” he says with a slight chuckle.
Spoken like someone who has seen and experienced plenty in a career that hopefully still has plenty of chapters waiting to be written.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03