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Joe Starkey

Starkey: Cervelli's inspiration

| Monday, June 29, 2015, 10:18 p.m.
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli tips his helmet to the Pirates dugout before a game against the Brewers at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli tips his helmet to the Pirates dugout before a game against the Brewers at PNC Park.

It shouldn't be surprising that the Chinese characters on Francisco Cervelli's tattoos — the ones on his left shoulder — are translated as such: “Mother. Father. Sister. Energy.”

The energy you know about. It pours from Cervelli like champagne in a locker-room blowout. The Pirates could hold a Zambelli Fireworks Night — or maybe a Cervelli Fireworks Night — and not need explosives. They'd just need No. 29 to bounce into the ballpark and be himself.

Cervelli's former teammate and the man he replaced as the Pirates' No. 1 catcher, Russell Martin, once referred to Cervelli as “human Red Bull.” And that's coming from a guy, in Martin, who could power three cities at once with his positive vibes.

“I think Cervy may even have more energy than Russ had,” says teammate Chris Stewart, who has played with both. “Doesn't matter the situation, he's looking for the positive. He's always got a smile.”

There's a reason for that. Two of them, actually. The first two words of those tattoos: mother, father.

I'd recently read a piece on the New York Yankees' website about the influence Cervelli's parents had on him, including a 2012 trip to the states that turned their son's career around. I caught up to Cervelli before Sunday's game to ask him about it.

Covered in sweat from a stint in the batting cage, he did not hesitate in answering my first question: “What do your parents mean to you?”

“Everything,” Cervelli said. “The only way I'm here right now is because of them.”

Cervelli's father, Emanuele, emigrated from Italy to Venezuela as a young boy. He later formed a family of his own — one boy and one girl (Francisco's sister Maricarmen) with his Venezuelan wife, Damelis.

The elder Cervelli made ends meet by driving buses. He went on to found a transportation company. The Italian influence on his son is plain to see — and hear. Cervelli played for Italy in the 2009 Baseball World Cup. His walkup music at PNC Park is Dean Martin's “That's Amore.”

“I consider myself Venezuelan with Italian blood — half and half,” Cervelli says, proudly.

In fact, he is learning Italian from Pirates coach Heberto Andrade, a Venezuelan native who learned the language when he played professionally in Italy.

“How about that?” Cervelli said. “A Venezuelan guy teaching me Italian.”

Cervelli left home at 15 to pursue a life in baseball. He signed with the Yankees as an international free agent in 2003. Twelve years and countless setbacks later, he has finally found a major league home.

He might never have arrived, however, if his parents hadn't come to visit him in the spring of 2012, ignoring his pleas to stay put in Venezuela.

Three concussions, a broken hand, a broken foot and multiple other mishaps kept Cervelli from sticking with the Yankees. He hit bottom in 2012. Believing he was to be Martin's backup, he was crushed when the Yankees acquired Stewart on April 4. He moped when he was sent to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which was playing all road games because its stadium was under renovation.

Cervelli's average slid below .200. His defense was awful. When his mother arrived — in Rochester, N.Y. — she was disgusted to see her normally dapper son sporting sweat pants and messy hair (God forbid) after a game.

“My mom talked to me straight,” Cervelli recalled. “She said, ‘You got two choices: Come back to Venezuela with me or start playing like you play, because what I see right now is embarrassing.' ”

The two had a good cry together.

“And we never cry,” Cervelli said. “I never saw my mom cry.”

The Cervellis followed the Wilkes-Barre team bus for three weeks. At games, in mostly empty stadiums and lousy weather, Damelis would find a seat near the team's on-deck circle and cheer her son.

The trip ended abruptly in Buffalo when Cervelli learned that one of his favorite uncles had died of a heart attack.

That completed his epiphany.

“I thought, I cannot be selfish when all this is happening,” he said. “I was just being stupid. I realized you gotta play baseball the way you play, no matter where you are. And the only way I can play this game is with energy.”

A few more major roadblocks lay ahead, including Cervelli's 50-game suspension in 2013 for his involvement in the Biogenesis mess. Back in 2011, he later admitted, he'd gone to the clinic for what he hoped would be a “quick fix” from a broken foot.

He owned it. Did his time. It's all in the rearview mirror.

Now, Cervelli revels in well-wishes from fans calling his name “from cars and everywhere,” he says, on his walks from downtown to the North Shore. He is an All-Star candidate. He leads the team in batting with a .303 average.

He feels like he was meant to be here.

“You know, people think I had no luck in the past,” Cervelli said. “But I'm a lucky guy, because I got hurt so many times and was able to stand up again and have a chance to play in the major leagues. So if I say the past was bad, I'm lying. The only thing I never liked was the bench. I hate the bench. It was always in my brain that I would be starting.

“I prepared myself for this. Now I'm just trying to stay humble and thank God. Now, I just want to be healthy.”

Cervelli, 29, is playing on a one-year contract. The Pirates have his arbitration rights for next year. He'd like to sign here.

“Oh, I would love to,” he said. “But it's a business, so we'll see. I worry about today.”

His parents, as it turns out, are making one of their rare trips to the states next week to visit him. But that won't stop Cervelli from calling his mom every day before then.

“I'm a mommy's boy,” he said, without a hint of abashment. “Yes I am.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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