Hit Man

Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens has never been satisfied being merely a leading voice for alternative rock—which only partly explains why, at 50, he’s trying to make it as a professional baseball player.

Thwack. On a cold winter night, Pat DiNizio is holed up in a small bedroom, working on another hit. But it’s a different kind of hit than he’s used to making. Thwack. “Hear that one?” DiNizio says. “That’s a clean shot.” DiNizio, the lead singer of the Smithereens, is swinging at a ball tethered to a small batting cage. The bedroom, on the second floor of his Victorian-style home in Scotch Plains, is filled with memorabilia from a music career that spans almost 30 years. Thwack. “You never take your eye off the ball,” he says. “It’s a very Zen-like thing.”

Why is DiNizio, longtime front man and primary songwriter for one of New Jersey’s favorite alternative-rock bands, working on his swing? Because he wants to take the nation on what he calls “a journey through the heart of America and into the heart of baseball.” DiNizio is developing a reality-based, 60-minute television pilot, which he hopes will beget a series, for ESPN. Tentatively titled Seventh-Inning Stretch, the show will document his self-described “vision quest” to become, at age 50, a minor league baseball player.

To prepare for this most unorthodox career turn, DiNizio has taken lessons from the likes of future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, former Yankee great Don Mattingly, and current Major Leaguers David Wells and Julio Franco, at 48 the oldest player in the big leagues. DiNizio also consulted fellow musicians Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen, and Joan Jett, herself a diehard Baltimore Orioles groupie. (Depending on who makes the final edit, some or all of the above may appear on-screen.) The show culminates when DiNizio attends spring training this month with the Somerset Patriots, whose manager, former Yankee pitcher Sparky Lyle, also makes a cameo. Mark Durand, senior director of development for ESPN Original Entertainment, says that Seventh-Inning Stretch likely will air late next month. “He actually acts out the fantasy that so many of us have…to be a Major League ballplayer,” Durand says. “It doesn’t seem remotely possible, given his age and lack of experience, but he’s going after it in the most serious way.”

You might be wondering why a middle-aged rock ’n’ roller whose baseball career stalled in high school needs to prove himself minor league material. And why does he want to film this quixotic effort for all the world to see? DiNizio insists that he’s doing it not only to get himself back in shape after two years of ill health—steroid treatments for a severe case of hives left him bloated and with diminished mobility in his legs and left arm—but to send viewers a positive message. “There’s no one being insulted or pushed around or degraded,” he says. “It’s more like the Saturday Evening Post and Norman Rockwell, looking for the good in people and good in the culture.”

The TV gig is the latest in a string of creative initiatives that have kept DiNizio busy since his band’s last album, God Save the Smithereens, was released in 1999. Since then he’s run for the U.S. Senate, embarked on an in-home performance tour, and started a songwriting service that put fans’ lyrics to music. And he still plays up to 50 shows a year with the band.

DiNizio acquired his work ethic while growing up in Scotch Plains. After college—he spent three years at Middlesex County College and New York University—he worked for his father, Nicholas, in the family waste-management company, which is to say he rode shotgun on a garbage truck, an experience that might have expedited his decision to pursue music full-time. “He played for many years at the house. The dishes in the dining-room closet shook,” Antoinette DiNizio says with a laugh, recalling her son’s first practices with the Smithereens. “I used to yell down to him, ‘Lower that amp!’ ” But DiNizio’s songwriting talent convinced his parents that he was serious about music. “He always could have written music for somebody,” his mother says. “He’s like me; he’s a go-getter.”

Obviously, Mrs. DiNizio knows her son well—next month he’ll release an eighteen-cut solo compilation of standards and cover songs on the Fuel 2000/Universal label, and a new Smithereens album is due out in September.

Thwack. DiNizio hits another tethered homer. “When your career slows down, you have to find other things to do,” he says, “and for me it was always about existing on the fringe.” If he has his way, though, DiNizio will soon be dipping his toes in America’s cultural mainstream. Thwack.

Joel Keller, a freelance writer, lives in Morristown.

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