MERIDEN — This summer has been a baseball whirlwind for Mike Gulino of Meriden.
The former Maloney three-sport athlete graduated from Pace University in May. The Major League Baseball draft came and went in June without his name being called.
A catcher, Gulino stayed active playing in 10 games in the Hartford Twilight League.
Then came a late-night phone call on July 26.
It was from the Cleburne Railroaders, a Texas-based team in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
A teammate from Pace, pitcher Dylan Mouzakes, had lobbied for Gulino to get a look. After injuries ravaged Cleburne’s catching depth, the Railroaders got on the line.
“I got a call 11 p.m. that night telling me if I could fly myself to Texas, I would get a chance,” Gulino recounted this week.
Gulino was signed the next day and felt he needed to prove himself. Because of injuries, Gulino was thrown right into the fire as the team’s starting catcher.
“Dylan kept pushing for me,” Gulino said. “I expected to start because they had no other catcher, but after a few games they told me I was one of their better catchers they had. They didn’t expect me to be as good as I was. Dylan was telling them, ‘This kid is good,’ but they were skeptical. But after a few games they started to trust me.”
Gulino said he has adjusted to handling a professional pitching staff. He said the starters throw 88-92 miles per hour on average and the relievers typically anywhere from 92-96.
At the plate, Gulino went 0-for-4 in his pro debut on July 28. He was anything but discouraged. The first pitch he made good wood on a heater and smacked a line drive to a shortstop. The second at-bat he stroked a line drive to deep center that was caught.
The outs gave him confidence.
“The next game I had my first pro hit — a home run — and then the hits started coming,” Gulino said.
Through 19 games, Gulino has hit .266. He has three extra-base hits — a double, triple and the homer. He also has eight RBI.
“That’s all that I needed: one chance to prove myself,” Gulino said. “This is completely different from anything I’ve ever done. Being a pro athlete and kids coming up to me asking me for autographs. The atmosphere is great and everyone is rooting for you. It’s a great feeling.”
Behind the dish, Gulino quickly got accustomed to the grind of catching pro ball every day. Before and after games, he rotates between the hot and cold tubs to keep his body ready — or, as he put it, to “shock his body” and “get the blood flowing.”
“After seven days, you start to feel it,” Gulino said. “In college, you would play five days a week and get a few days off. Here, there are no days off.
“I love it. It’s baseball all of the time. If you have a bad day, it’s not long until you play again.”
To add to the experience, Gulino is teammates with Rafael Palmeiro. Now 53, Palmeiro retired in 2005 after 20 seasons playing Major League Baseball and amassing 3,020 hits, 569 home runs and 1,835 RBI. Palmeiro’s son Patrick is an infielder on the Railroaders.
Gulino said playing with Rafael Palmeiro, who’s been on the disabled list since Aug. 8, has been another bonus to playing pro ball.
“It’s awesome. He should be a Hall of Famer with 3,000 hits and 500 homers,” Gulino said. “He helped me with my approach at the plate and having a plan. He said to cut the zone in half. I never thought about it like that. I thought it made a lot of sense. He said to wait for the pitcher to make a mistake because he will make mistakes.
“Watching him in batting practice, he’s still hitting them out of the yard. I hope I’m still doing that at 53.”
Gulino, a 2014 Maloney grad, is coming off a strong college career. The former Record-Journal Scholar-Athlete signed off at Pace as one of their most productive players in recent memory. He was a four-year starter for the Division II Setters and a three-time All-Northeast 10 Conference performer.
In Pace's record book, Gulino ranks fifth in career RBI (127), seventh in triples (7) and 10th in doubles (36). He appeared in 170 games during his time in Pleasantville, N.Y., all but two of them starts.
Gulino’s best season was his junior campaign, when he hit .345 with six home runs and 36 RBI. It was after his junior season that Gulino started getting looks and attention from pro scouts.
“That’s when I started thinking my dream could become a reality,” Gulino said.
Gulino said he started to feel the pressure in his senior year this spring.
“I felt good at the beginning of the season,” Gulino said. “Then I hit a dry spot and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I was thinking if I didn’t hit, then I wasn’t going to get drafted.’ I let my mind get the best of me and I didn’t have my best season. I had my lowest average in years. It wasn’t what I wanted to be. If I repeated my junior year, I probably would have been drafted.”
Gulino wound up batting .281 this spring with four home runs and a team-high 33 RBI. He nabbed All NE-10 Second Team honors.
After earning his degree in Sports Marketing in May, Gulino had workouts with pro independent teams in Florida and Chicago, but nothing resulted in a contract.
Gulino then suited up with the Greater Hartford Twilight League’s Record-Journal Expos before getting the call to the Lone Star State.
“I didn’t get drafted, but this was my next option,” Gulino said. “Pro baseball is a lot of work — hard work all of the time.
“You meet a lot of good people and it’s a great experience, and it’s not over until its over. I’m going to be playing this game as long as I can. Right now, baseball is my whole life and nothing is better than that.”
The American Association season ends on Sept. 3, at least for the Railroaders. They have already been eliminated from playoff contention.
“This is just the start. Hopefully, I can keep moving my way up,” Gulino said. “Hopefully, they re-sign me and I come back in May for preseason.I will have the whole offseason to prepare.”
While Gulino continues to live his dream, he said he wants to pass on what he’s learned to players in Meriden.
“I’m also hoping to give lessons to kids in Meriden in the offseason,” Gulino said. “I have a lot of knowledge of the game and the faster these kids can learn it, the better it is for them.”