It’s the last week of July, and the Los Angeles Angels are in Houston, preparing to play the Astros in the middle of a pennant race.
In the locker room before the game, Albert Pujols vigorously chomps on a mango, skin still intact. A few feet away, a handful of players discuss reigning American League and All-Star Game MVP Mike Trout’s obviously hypothetical trade value, both in fantasy baseball and on the real market.
This is the world former UNO standout and Jesuit High School state champion Johnny Giavotella inhabits these days.
The Metairie native wasn’t even expected to make the Angels’ 25-man roster out of spring training. He’s done much more, starting more than 100 games for a team with great odds of not only reaching the playoffs, but also making the World Series come October.
“It’s been an unbelievable season for me so far,” Giavotella said. “Coming into spring training, just trying to make the team, my odds weren’t great, but I knew had an opportunity.
“It’s been a fun ride.”
He’s done it all while maintaining close ties to his home, spanning his Italian-American family to his distinct accent.
“I feel like my accent is pretty spot on with New Orleans. It’s unmistakable up here,” Giavotella said. “I kind of have that Creole, that Cajun mentality. I am little and I am small, but I’m still capable of doing big things.”
He’s certainly done them this season, hitting .270 and delivering a pair of game-winning hits in the ninth inning for the Angels.
He’s missed all of two games and solidified a championship-caliber infield while sparking the Los Angeles lineup, either as the leadoff hitter or the No. 9 guy setting up the top of the order.
It’s exactly what the Angels and Giavotella hoped for when the team acquired him in the offseason.
“Johnny’s a grinder, and he’s a gamer,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’s done what we hoped he would do. He’s become more acclimated on the defensive side, he’s done the job at second base, and had a lot of key hits for us.”
As recently as this past offseason, he wasn’t an obvious success story.
Giavotella spent four years on a shuttle between the major and minor leagues with the Kansas City organization. He never truly cracked an everyday role despite being a highly regarded second-round pick for the Royals out of UNO in 2008.
He was dressed but not on the active roster for Kansas City’s wild ride to the World Series last fall. There’s even an Instagram post he’s quite proud of, in which he’s cradling the American League championship trophy.
His Instagram handle, by the way? It’s Giavotella504, another nod to home.
But even during and especially after that incredible postseason run, there was increasingly no room for Giavotella to see the field in Kansas City, so the Royals traded him to Los Angeles in December. The move made few ripples in the baseball world.
Were the Angels really replacing the departed Howie Kendrick with a 5-foot-8 defensive question mark who hit .238 in 125 career games?
Combine all of that with steep competition for the second-base job in spring training, and there’s a reason Giavotella doesn’t lack motivation.
“Every season, honestly, I go out and try to prove to people that I can play at the big-league level,” he said. “It didn’t matter that the Royals traded me, it was a business move and probably in the best interest for me.
“I didn’t have any animosity. … Just every day, I’m trying to prove to them I’m good enough.”
That prove-it mentality has only sharpened the edge on Giavotella’s already formidable on-field attitude this season.
“Growing up as an Italian-American from Metairie gave me a little bit of an edge, no matter what kind of odds were stacked against me,” Giavotella said with a pronounced chuckle.
That edge might be Giavotella’s most noticeable trait, according to those in the dugout with him.
“I don’t know if it’s for all those (background) reasons, but there’s no doubt he brings the attitude,” Scioscia said. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder and brings energy, and that’s good to see on this team.”
It’s attitude borne out of his close-knit family, whom Giavotella visited in Metairie during the All-Star break in July.
They hosted a de-facto family reunion for their returning hero and ate at his aunt’s pizza place, Gio’s, which Giavetella said is his favorite place to eat in New Orleans.
“Can’t sell out family like that and pick any other place,” he said.
But the Giavotella whom Jesuit classmates and family remember bears little resemblance to the aforementioned fiery on-field competitor.
“He mostly doesn’t get above a whisper off the field,” said his uncle, Arthur Giavotella, who attended his nephew’s games in Minute Maid Park last month with Giavotella’s aunt, Charlotte, and their grandchild.
This was their first time seeing Giavotella play in person; they missed the caravan of family and friends who came to watch him in Houston in April.
They weren’t the only New Orleans supporters in attendance. Among the sea of red jerseys and autograph collectors behind the Angels dugout hours before the game was a conspicuous blue Jesuit shirt.
New Orleans resident Patricia Daste was donning the Blue Jays baseball gear, proudly chanting out Giavotella’s name. She and her son, Harrison — a 2015 Jesuit grad and recent Blue Jays baseball player — made the five-hour trek just to see the local boy play.
“He really seems like he appreciates everything that’s happened for him,” Patricia Daste said of Giavotella. “That’s the kind of person you want to root for.”
Harrison briefly met Giavotella when he came to speak to the Jesuit baseball team before this past season, another way the 28-year-old big-leaguer stays tethered to home.
He also works with New Orleans native Ron Washington in the offseason. And on game days, a large gold cross still hangs around Giavotella’s neck, conspicuous just about any time the camera pans on him.
“His life is baseball, family and faith,” Charlotte Giavotella said.
With so many ambitions fulfilled — starting for an MLB team, keeping his family close, and making a World Series among them — the goalposts have shifted.
“The next step is making the playoffs and being a big part of those games,” Giavotella said. “It’s the most important thing as a team and something we set out to do. We have about two months left, and we’re making a push.”
Few would have predicted that push would include Giavotella starting next to Trout and Pujols. But there the former Privateer and Blue Jay is, proudly turning double plays to a future Hall of Famer and experiencing another drive him home with regularity.
“It’s almost surreal to think sometimes where I’m at, playing next to those guys,” Giavotella said. “But you know what? I feel like I’ve earned it, and I belong at this level.
“You just have to remind yourself how you got here and where you’re from. That’s enough for me to be confident.”