Sun, Oct 22, 2006 - Page 23 News List

Player travels path from `hostility' to priest

'TOP PROSPECT TO PRIME SUSPECT' After throwing punches at his minor league manager and bouncing around as an actor, a hitter found a new direction in life

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Ed Cipot on Tuesday at the Holy Child Parish on Staten Island, where he watched the Mets' playoff games. When he was 22 and ''190 pounds of pure hostility,'' he said, he did not live his faith.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Ed Cipot was eating and drinking his way through the New York Mets 1977 Christmas party at a restaurant in Shea Stadium when a priest began walking toward him from across the room.

Cipot immediately wondered what he had done wrong.

Instead, the priest, Joseph DiSpenza, simply asked, "You're a Catholic, aren't you?"

As a matter of fact, that was true. As a matter of consequence, Cipot's Roman Catholicism didn't seem particularly relevant, at least to him.

He had been invited to the Diamond Club on that day solely as a power-hitting outfielder in the minor leagues.

The Mets already had plans to put him on the major league roster for spring training in 1978 and to bring him up that September for his first taste of the big show.

Everything in Cipot's life had pointed this way, from the spring twilight when he tried out for Little League in his hometown, Highland Park, New Jersey, a 9-year-old tornado with the bat.

He went on to set slugging records for his high school team, was drafted by the Mets in 1974 and played his way up from the Appalachian League to the Tidewater Tides in Triple-A.

He was "22 years old and 190 pounds of pure hostility," as Cipot put it in a recent interview, and "certainly not living my faith, more like la vida loca."

By August 1978, the month before he was supposed to be called up to the majors, Cipot was mired in an 0-for-25 slump. Stepping up to bat against the Columbus Clippers one day, he heard the manager call, "Sit down!"

A utility infielder went to pinch hit. When Cipot returned to the dugout, he started screaming and throwing punches at the manager.

He drove back to New Jersey after the season ended that autumn, feeling, he says now, as if "I'd gone from top prospect to prime suspect."

He found himself calling DiSpenza to see about having dinner together.

DiSpenza was a sports psychologist in addition to being a priest, which was why he spent so much time around the Mets.

He worked with players on motivation, visualization and even elements of hypnotism, and he was friendly with Joe Torre, the team manager.

That first dinner, DiSpenza and Cipot spoke little about religion, mostly about how the player, so angry and frustrated, could rediscover what he had always loved about the game.

A few more years passed, and Cipot drifted down the ladder to the Double-A Eastern League before retiring in 1982, his dream terminated at age 26.

He moved to Manhattan, interested in building a second career in acting, which had already yielded a couple of roles, including one as a minor-league ballplayer.

Again, he phoned DiSpenza, and through a friend of the priest he was invited to sit in on a few classes at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, before formally studying with Stella Adler

That same year, Cipot's father, Frank, a devout man, died, and Cipot realized he was turning to DiSpenza as a kind of surrogate.

Cipot began to drive the priest on his rounds: a wedding in the Bronx, a funeral on Staten Island and one time a baptism where Willie Randolph, then a Yankees infielder, was a godparent.

At DiSpenza's behest, Cipot started running a recreation program for neighborhood children at the St. Columba parish near Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan.

It had been impossible for Cipot to be around anything to do with baseball since retiring, until he played Wiffleball with those children, until he took them to Yankees games with free tickets the priest had received.

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