Hurricane Katrina: Detour from New Orleans shaped Johnny Giavotella's road to the majors

In a lot of ways, the energy and character Johnny Giavotella used to get through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are the same traits he has used to forge an unlikely path to the major leagues.

The diminutive Los Angeles Angels second baseman had to put his head down and grind every step of the way to get to where he is today. And that trait isn't something he recently developed while working his way through five different minor league stops, including four years at Triple-A Omaha, after he was selected in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Kansas City Royals.

The New Orleans native did heed warnings to evacuate with his family when Katrina approached 10 years ago. In his mind, Giavotella hoped that this would be like the other evacuation warnings he experienced that turned out to be nothing more than a precaution.

"With some evacuations, a lot of them are false alarms and nothing really happens with the city," Giavotella said. "Unfortunately, this one was different. I was in my first week of college. I evacuated an hour north of New Orleans to some property my family had and we stayed there for two weeks without electricity and just grinding it out until it was OK to come back."

Except with Giavotella, now 28, his wait to return was longer than most. His circuitous route back home and to the University of New Orleans took a semester detour to New Mexico State, where his ability to overcome obstacles was put to the test.

As it turned out, the New Orleans and New Mexico State baseball coaches at the time were acquaintances, and a unique arrangement was worked out where the New Orleans baseball team would go to school and work out at New Mexico State for a semester.

While the New Orleans baseball team lived in the New Mexico State dorms, the players had few amenities and even fewer personal effects. But it was a chance to continue their education and play baseball, something that wasn't going to happen back home.

"Yeah, it wasn't a fun situation," said Giavotella. And that's coming from a man who said he was eating mostly peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and playing card games for two weeks at his family's log cabin following the storm, with only sporadic use of a generator for power.

"We didn't have a lot at our fingertips. Nothing was really that comfortable for us. It definitely wasn't the best situation, but we were fortunate that New Mexico State took us in, let us use their facilities, but we would have rather been home, for sure."

Traded to the Angels from the Royals this past winter, the 5-foot-8 Giavotella has had to fill some big shoes. Longtime Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers, creating the opportunity for Giavotella to grab the starting job.

Never the biggest or strongest guy on the baseball field, what Giavotella lacks in stature he makes up for in desire, which has helped him replace a fan favorite.

As of Monday, Giavotella had already played in a career-best 119 games, nearly double his combined games in the previous four seasons, with a .265 batting average and a .312 on-base percentage. They aren't necessarily numbers to make fans forget about Kendrick, but Giavotella's 423 at-bats, fifth on the team, show that he has the Angels' trust.

His tenacity to overcome all obstacles was just as valuable when dealing with the challenges brought by Katrina.

"I don't think going through that changed him," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of Giavotella's Katrina experience. "I'm sure he's always been like that, always been a grinder, always played with a chip on your shoulder because everybody says, 'Oh, you're too small,' and this and that. There is no doubt he has that perseverance trait in him that he is going to keep going."

Asked if the experience altered him in any way, Giavotella instantly turned the conversation toward his hometown and its resiliency.

"It was just nice to see the city of New Orleans come back and get back on its feet after that hurricane," he said. "It really depleted the city. It hit the French Quarter and a lot of tourist attractions pretty hard, so it was nice to see a few years later them come back and be thriving like they were before."

Also thriving is Gio's Pizza and Spaghetti House, a restaurant owned by Giavotella's aunt. Located just outside of New Orleans proper in Metairie, the restaurant was one of the first to open after the storm. While the city cleanup continued for the ensuing years, Giavotella waited tables there, even as he became a standout on the field at UNO.

Despite all he has been through, and the chance that another big storm could hit New Orleans again one day, Giavotella said he will never leave. The city is a part of him.

"Yeah, I'm definitely proud to be from New Orleans," he said. "I live there in the offseason and that's where I was born and raised, so I definitely call it home. I don't think I could ever live anywhere but New Orleans. When you're from there you have a sense of pride for the city, and not too many people move out of there."

It is a sense of perspective that might not have been borne by the events that followed him after Katrina, but one that might have been refined in those days.

"Any life experiences you have are going to have an effect on you," Scioscia said. "I think in Johnny's case, going through a tragedy like that makes you appreciate the opportunity you have. He's always loved to play baseball. He never takes anything for granted and he has a keen understanding on the opportunity he has."