At Canisius, we are lucky to have a great athletic program. This excellence is attained through the guidance of our many great coaching staffs. Manager Justin Santonocito of the baseball program is one of the many role models at Canisius. Santonocito was a player himself, getting drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998. His story is a great example to players in Western New York who aspire to be professional baseball players.
Santonocito grew up in the Buffalo area and attended West Seneca East High School. He played baseball and basketball, but eventually decided to focus on the former. Santonocito didn’t have many collegiate offers and chose to attend Monroe Community College in Rochester. It may not have great name recognition, but the talent was there.
“When I was at Monroe, I played with a guy: Tim Redding,” says Santonocito. “As a freshman, he was throwing like 95-97 miles per hour, and he ended up playing in the big leagues for 10 years.”
After two successful years at the community college level, the prospect moved on to Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania to showcase his talent at a higher level. Scouts were impressed, and he was drafted by the Diamondbacks as a shortstop after his junior year.
Santonocito played for Arizona’s and Cincinnati’s Class A teams for a total of two years. In Arizona, he met some more future stars. According to Santonocito, his roommate Adam Dunn was the best player he ever played with. He is a two-time MLB All-Star who had multiple seasons with 40 or more home runs. Teammate Robby Hammock was another standout, catching Randy Johnson’s perfect game with Arizona.
Santonocito’s opponents were just as good as his teammates. With the Reds, he almost competed against his idol and Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken Jr.
“It was extended spring training, and he had just broken the consecutive games played streak. He was down in rehab, and that was supposed to be his last game, but he cut it short. I got to see him but didn’t get to play against him.”
After his season in the Reds’ system, Santonocito was released. Some players have difficulty with their lives after baseball, but he was determined to stay in the game.
“I’ve always felt like I was a student of the game, so I knew coaching was where I was going to end up.”
So, the aspiring coach saved up his money from working at Chef’s Restaurant in Buffalo and maxed out every credit card he had until he was able to open his own facility. Academy Stars Baseball in Blasdell is still alive and well today. The program has succeeded, developing prospects like Jim Negrych and Jonah Heim. Negrych was a great hitter who made it to the AAA
Buffalo Bisons, and Heim is a catcher who is currently on the Oakland Athletics’ forty-man roster. These are just two of the many prospects from the Academy.
Almost two decades after starting his coaching career, Santonocito joined the world of high school baseball, following the legendary Bryan Tenney ‘76 as manager at Canisius.
“I’ve wanted to get into coaching high school baseball for a while, and coming up through the Academy, I had a lot of Canisius players [who were] always very respectful. I could also tell that the school was very supportive of the baseball program. For some other schools, it’s kind of at the bottom of the totem pole, [but] the administration at Canisius really supports the baseball team.”
Unfortunately, Santonocito’s second season with the team was canceled due to the pandemic. He does miss the opportunity to win a Georgetown Cup, but he mostly misses the players.
“Winning is obviously great, but I love watching a player work hard at something and then be able to execute it in the game. I miss the fellas, for sure.”
Despite the season’s cancellation, players are still hard at work. Santonocito encourages players to work out and find ways to improve their game while at home. If they have questions about proper technique in hitting or fielding, they send videos for him to critique. The team also participates in zoom calls to stay in touch. Players from both Canisius and the Academy can still be instructed while the suspension of play continues.
Santonocito also mentioned that the hectic state of the country has put a halt on plans for a new field for Canisius. Despite this obstacle, he is certain that it will be built and “be the nicest high school field in the area.”
In Western New York, it is tough to succeed as a baseball player when matched up against prospects from Florida, California, and all over the world who can practice year-round. Santonocito is an example of a local player who became a professional, and he has advice for players who want to do the same.
“You have to outwork everybody. I would always wake up in the morning and say to myself, ‘What’s the guy in Florida doing? I have to do more than that.’ It’s just work ethic and being willing to learn. Be coachable: you have to be able to try different things and make adjustments.”
After a hiatus this year, Santonocito is already focused on winning the Georgetown Cup next year.
“We gotta bring it home for the seniors this year. It’s gonna be fun.”