It was still June — an eventful month for Mason Katz — when he stepped to the plate for his first professional at-bat for the State College Spikes.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ fourth-round pick last month had just one thing in mind when he stepped in against Batavia pitcher Helpi Reyes: “First pitch I went up hacking,” Katz said with a smile. “You only get one first pitch in pro ball so I had to make the most of it.”
He ripped the inside fastball to center field.
The 22-year-old second baseman from Harahan, La., is used to making good first impressions. It’s a skill he developed after Hurricane Katrina displaced his family in 2005.
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Now, Katz says that experience has shaped him. So when he met his new teammates on the road in Batavia after signing two days after his Louisiana State Tigers were eliminated from the College World Series, the transition was familiar.
“Now that everything is OK and all my friends are fine, it was an experience that actually helped me,” Katz said. “Similar to this, I had to go to a new place where I knew nobody and make friends quickly. So I think now looking back, it was a terrible situation and I wish it would have never happened, but I think it worked for the better because now I learned to go make friends.”
Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast just days after Katz turned 15. Fortunately, the Katz family was in Boston attending Mason’s baseball tournament with his youth travel team.
After Katz and his teammates won the tournament championship, they learned the sobering news they couldn’t return home. They watched helplessly as television cameras captured their homes, memories and belongings wash away.
“It was actually a really, really tough experience because one of my teammates they had cameras all over the place filming footage of the hurricane and one of the houses on the footage was one of my teammates’ houses that we were with,” Katz said. “It was terrible to see.”
Harahan is a suburb of New Orleans and a little more than 10 miles from the Superdome, which was used as a shelter for the storm. The Katz family home escaped without catastrophic damage, but the surrounding areas forced them to live with family in Baton Rouge, about 75 miles north of Harahan. For the first semester of his high school freshman year, Katz attended Parkview Baptist, while Jesuit High School rebuilt in his hometown.
“It was an adjustment period,” Billy Katz said just before watching his son play for the first time as a professional. “It’s just like playing on these new teams you kind of learn how to mix with the guys just like coming up here last week.”
Katz is fitting in well with his new teammates, even learning some “Venezuelan swagger” from Cesar Valera.. He’s hitting .241 and in Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Batavia Muckdogs, he made three nice defensive plays and also manufactured the game-tying run in the eighth inning after stealing second and third bases.
He posseses quick hands at the plate and quick feet in the field. He played hockey, football and baseball in high school and also excelled at golf. But ultimately Katz chose to pursue baseball — a sport his father played at Tulane.
Growing up, Katz’s favorite player was Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler, who has a reputation as one of the league’s toughest players. In June, Kinsler stayed in the game after needing three stitches to the face after a collision at home plate against the Oakland Athletics.
“I like the way he plays the game,” Katz said. “He plays really hard, swings the bat hard all the time, takes nothing for granted. And I look up to guys like that.”