by Dan Cleary
Raleigh, NC - Joe Florio has a typical locker in the North Carolina State University baseball teamís clubhouse. It is filled with batting and fielding gloves, clothes, spikes, etc. But there is one item in his stall that the talented junior looks at each day to stoke his competitive fire.
"Last summer I sent e-mails to every Division I baseball coach in the country and either they didnít respond or they would say they werenít interested," said the former Prep School All-State selection from Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J. "There was one coach, who I had dealt with when he was recruiting me when I was at Blair, who actually sent back an e-mail to say stop bothering him. I was pretty persistent, but I thought because I knew him he would at least listen. That is the one that is hanging in my locker right now."
And Florio is enjoying the last laugh. The lefty-swinging, 5-foot-11, 185-pound all-purpose player, is having a stellar first season for the Wolfpack (29-16, 12-12 in the Atlantic Coast Conference as of May 3) in a baseball renaissance that would rival the best of Hollywood scripts. As of May 3, Florio was leading the squad in runs scored with 37 and he was hitting a third-best .307 (43-for-140) with 18 RBI, six doubles, two triples, two homers and an on-base percentage of .443, while drawing the eye of Major League scouts once again.
"Iím having a blast," said Florio, who was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 39th round of the 2004 First Year Player Draft out of Blair, but opted to attend the University of Virginia. "It has been so much fun being back on the field again. It is perfect. This is what I always wanted to do. Iím living the life right now."
But Florioís baseball life has not been a charmed one and the Lumberton, N.J. native has the battle scars on the inside and the outside to prove it. His arduous journey to Raleigh had more twists and turns than a country back road, leading him from Blairstown to Charlottesville, Va., to Wilmington, N.C., to Fort Pierce, Fla. and finally to Tobacco Road.
And during that journey, Florio transferred from two schools, overcame two severe wrist injuries, major knee surgery and an existential crisis of whether he loved baseball enough to keep his dream of playing professionally alive. He has answered that question, however, with a resounding, yes.
"Everyone I talked to said to me that they wouldíve given up by now, especially after the second injury," Florio said. "I almost wanted to give up. I thought that at this level (Division I) of baseball there was too much politics. But tearing up my knee was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It helped me grow up and become a man. It let me know what I really wanted to do with my life. It took a lot of adversity to realize it."
The first bump in Florioís journey came after his senior year at Blair, where he was projected as a top prospect and a possible candidate to be drafted in the first 10 rounds. But he didnít have the season he expected and he fell into the 39th round, so he decided to go to college. He said he wanted to work on his game and eventually get drafted again after his junior year at Virginia.
But Florio, who was also a standout hockey and football player at Blair, got limited playing time with the Cavaliers and he hit just .256 in 19 games during the 2005 season and he saw the writing on the wall. In an attempt to improve his game, Florio played for the Wilmington (N.C.) Sharks of the Coastal Plains League in the summer of 2005 and the injury bug bit. He ripped his ACL in his right knee and broke his right wrist.
"I didnít get as much playing time as I wanted and I thought about transferring even before I got hurt. But after the injuries, I asked the coach if I could red-shirt and he said no because I would be ready by the spring. So I realized it was going to be more of the same and I transferred."
Florio enrolled in Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, Fla. in January of 2006 fully rehabbed. But bad luck struck again, and after just five games, he injured his right wrist again and was out for the season. He didnít pick up a bat until late July before playing two weeks for the Bourne Braves in the famed Cape Cod League.
"I almost had to learn how to play baseball all over again. It was tough. But I had so much support from my parents (Anthony and Karen) and (Blair Academy) Coach (Jim) Stone. My parents have always been there for me and have done everything they can to help me."
Florio was selected to play in the Junior College All-Star game in Lakeland, Fla. in October of 2006. It was during this time he was sending out e-mails to coaches around the country and he caught the eye of N.C. State Assistant Coach Tom Holliday. Florio had planned on going back to Indian River, get 200 at-bats, and hopefully get drafted again. But the lure of getting a chance to prove himself at the top collegiate level was too much to ignore and he came to N.C. State in January of 2007 with no guarantees or even a place to stay.
"I called the coach and asked him if I could come in the spring," Florio recalled. "I didnít know a soul, but I knew I had 30 days to compete for a job. I had a lot to prove to myself. If you want big rewards, you have to take big risks. It is all about self respect.
"It was tough coming in, but I had nothing to lose," he added. "And I hit better than I had since my junior year of high school. People couldnít get me out. I knew I had to play myself into the lineup and I did."
In the Wolfpackís second game of the season in early February, Florio went 3-for-5 with four runs scored and an RBI in the squadís 23-0 win over William & Mary, solidifying his spot in the lineup. Florio usually hits in top half of the batting order and has played both outfield and third base this season.
"He has been a real energizer and he loves and respects the game," said veteran N.C. State coach Elliott Avent of Florio. "It is unheard of someone coming in January and earning the respect and playing time he has gained. That says a lot about him.
"Iím sure the (Major League) scouts are aware of him," added Avent, who has had 30 players drafted during his 10-year tenure. "But we arenít thinking about that yet because we have other things to concentrate on for the rest of the season."
The Wolfpack hope to make some noise in the ACC Tournament at the end of May and Florio said he canít wait to face Virginia later in the season as well. Florio, who is a political science major and would like to attend law school one day, said if he is drafted in June it would have to be the right deal for him to turn pro.
"I wonít be stupid," Florio said, referring to the fact that when drafted as junior, the player has much more leverage. "Iíll graduate in four years and I will get a great job, so it has to be right. Baseball is my No. 1 priority right now and hopefully I can give back to my parents who have done so much for me and gave me everything to succeed."
Whether it is on the baseball diamond or in the courtroom, Florio will be a success, said his high school coach Jim Stone, who jokingly added he was happy for Florio despite his choice to play at N.C. State. Stone played at rival University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "At least it is not Duke, " he added, laughing.
"He is a great kid and as soon as he arrived here (Blair) he dedicated himself to becoming a baseball player. He was always looking to improve his game and that is why he is doing so well right now. He is driven and he wonít let anyone tell him he canít do something. He is a great character guy."
And if adversity reveals character, then Florio has displayed enough character to last a lifetime.
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