By KEVIN ROBERTS
Southington native Jeff Rustico has been catching since he was seven or eight years old. Rustico’s father and former coach, Dave, was also a catcher. “That’s all I know how to do,” he said.
Jim Gugliotti, an assistant coach under Dave Rustico when he was the head coach of Southington Post 72 American Legion baseball, had this to say about Jeff back in 2004 after the younger Rustico earned all-star accolades: “He’s the best catcher in the state. Hands down,” Gugliotti said to the Observer. “I’ve seen him kill so many rallies by throwing kids out on the bases that it’s unbelievable. He’s got an unbelievable arm. He’s a great hitter. He’s got it all. He’s smart, knows the game really well and he’s a good kid.”
Fast forward 15 years to 2019, and much of the same is still said about former Blue Knight.
“When you talk about someone and say he’s a good player but an even better person, that’s Rustico,” said Ray Gulick, assistant coach of the Naugatuck Dogs in the Connecticut Tri-State Baseball League.
According to his current coach, Rustico is willing to do what it takes to get on the field and help his team win. Now, at 33, he was slowed by an uncooperative back when the Tri-State season began. Catching wasn’t much of an option, but Rustico found another way to help out the Dogs. He became a pitcher, and a solid one at that.
Rustico won the clinching game of the best-of-three Tri-State semifinal series against the Tri-Town Trojans. He pitched a nine-inning complete game in the 7-2 victory and gave up two runs on eight hits. He struck out 10 Trojan batters as the Dogs swept the semifinal series and reached the World Series. Postseason games in Tri-State are nine innings, seven in the regular season.
“I think he pitched against Tri-Town early in the season, threw a complete game. I think we beat them 4-1,” Naugatuck manager Jay Harlamon said. “He’s just a veteran, knows how to mix up his pitches. He doesn’t throw real, real hard, keeps you off-balance, he just knows the game.”
Rustico deferred to his teammates and their offensive output.
“We were short on arms,” Rustico said when asked why he decided to pitch. “I feel like if you can just throw strikes in this league, we’ve got a really good defense. As you can see, they put a ton of balls in play. I think they had [eight hits], but our defense is phenomenal, so I just let them put the ball in play.”
The Dogs saw their run end against the Terryville Black Sox in the World Series, where they were swept, 2-0. Rustico pitched in relief in the second game of the series, a 5-1 loss, and gave up a run on two hits. He walked two and struck out one in 2.1 innings. Rustico walked twice and scored a run in the first game, a 4-2 loss.
“I always said until I can’t walk anymore,” Rustico said about still playing the game at 33. “It’s getting there.”
At Southington High School, Rustico’s Blue Knights shared the CCC South Division title with Bristol Central in his senior year in 2004. He was selected to the 31st Connecticut Coaches Baseball All-Star Game and represented the state in the annual all-star game between Connecticut and Massachusetts. Rustico’s rise began the year before as a SHS junior, when he earned the Abate Family Most Improved Player Award. He was also a three-time Zone 1 all-star (2002, 2003, 2004) for the Post 72 Legion squad.
Rustico went on to play at American International College in Springfield, Mass., for four seasons from 2005-2008. Rustico’s ability as a catcher stood out, to say the least. As a freshman, he threw out 26 of 42 runners (61.9 percent) who tried to steal on him. Even Rustico’s “lowest” percentage of runners thrown out—38.7 (12-31) in his senior season in 2008 – is still much higher than the major league average. For his career, Rustico threw out 54.3 percent of those who tried to swipe a base (69-127).
Rustico served as an assistant coach at AIC for a season in 2009, then had a one-game stint with the Worcester Tornadoes of the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball in 2010. Rustico played for the Dohren Wild Farmers, a German professional baseball team, in 2011 and 2012. Rustico was a major offensive leader for Dohren in both seasons, and he compiled a .982 fielding percentage behind the plate in 2012.
Rustico caught on with the Naugatuck Dogs in 2013 and has been playing for them since.
“I knew Murph [teammate Devin Murphy], I used to work with him, and he asked if I wanted to come play,” Rustico said. “We used to play together in the [Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League] on People’s. He left there, skip [Harlamon] had this team, and that’s all she wrote. A great group of guys, that’s kind of why I come out and still play.”
Even if it means slipping on shoes that don’t have laces. Before his back began to bother him, Rustico was a force behind the plate in Tri-State.
“He really knows the game. He was by far the best catcher in the league,” Harlamon said.
On a team with some muscular players, Rustico doesn’t stand out initially.
“If you were picking a catcher out of our team, you wouldn’t pick Rustico, just by looking at him,” Gulick said.
That perception changed when Rustico assumed his position behind home plate.
“He’s the general behind the plate, he sees everything,” Harlamon said. “He sees things before they happen, he’s that kind of kid.”
As long as he’s able, Rustico will be there to help the Dogs be the best they can be. That’s all he’s known in his baseball life.
To contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com