AJ Cassavell was at a football camp in West Windsor with the Hopewell Valley Central High team when he drew the attention of a camp coach.
“One of the college coaches asked me, ‘Who’s that young man that plays for Hopewell?’ recalled Hopewell football coach Dave Caldwell. “He said, ‘I love the kid’s enthusiasm and his work ethic and effort.’ That comes right from a college coach. We were a young team, but he stood out for his leadership and his passion.”
Whether it was playing a sport, studying, playing in the orchestra or spending time with his church youth group, Cassavell put everything he had into whatever was at hand while at Hopewell Valley. The one underlying passion that he could trace back the farthest, though, was baseball. He has followed that passion into his dream job, and now is in his second year as the beat writer for the San Diego Padres for MLB.com.
“I think I could have foreseen it, probably even before I went to Hopewell,” said Cassavell, who is in his seventh year overall with MLB.com. “I always wanted to be in baseball, not necessarily writing, but writing or broadcasting or something along those lines. I definitely always wanted to do something like this. Hopewell helped me out. Then I went to college, and everything I did in my life was with this end goal in mind— to be working in baseball.”
Cassavell covers the Padres year-round. Even the off-season can be busy while keeping up with the transactions and developments of the organization, and in season, the focus is on the games and the players.
“I always wanted to travel with a team and cover a team and invest myself in what’s happening during the season, the storylines and different ups and downs of the year. Some people don’t prefer that. Life changes and maybe I won’t always prefer that. For now, I wouldn’t change anything.”
In season, Cassavell is at the Padres games every day, home and away, although he gets one road series off each month.
“The travel—what I heard—was pretty brutal for baseball beat writing, but I actually don’t mind it,” Cassavell said. “The balance of having one series a month off, it works out nicely. You have to love baseball to do it, but I do, so it works out nicely.”
Cassavell sleeps in hotels on the road, but sees family and friends when he can. He enjoyed a couple of nights back in Pennington after the Padres ended the first half of the season in Philadelphia before the All-Star break. He talked to the Hopewell Express during that break.
He tries to make the most of his free time, but it can be difficult because his normal workday of 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. doesn’t match most people’s schedules.
“There are some good people that I hang out with on the road,” Cassavell said. “I just got engaged, so it does take its toll in some way to be away. It’s cool to see new cities, go to new places and check out new things. It’s also great every year I get to come home. When the Padres are in Philadelphia, I stop at home. When the Padres are in New York, I see my sister, and when they’re in Pittsburgh, I see my brother. So it works out.”
Cassavell, who had his start with MLB.com as an intern for the Los Angeles Dodgers after graduating from Penn State University, has an intern with the Padres that helps him compile stories. When he started, he was responsible for a pregame “notebook” story and a postgame story. Since then things have changed up a little to keep up with the web’s frenetic pace.
Now, a day’s writing might include two features of pregame notes, a game story, a preview of the next day’s game and a postgame sidebar about something interesting that happened involving the game or the Padres in general. “They’ve shortened the individual stories themselves, but we’re writing twice as many,” he said.
Cassavell is covering a Padres team that is the youngest in baseball this season. He chronicled their growth and development daily during a 38-50 first half of the season.
“The biggest thing is they’re just people,” Cassavell said. “I know they’re superstars and they have all these fans. A lot of times when they’re going through slumps, they’re also going through something (personal)—a break-up or whatever.”
Part of his job, he says, is to humanize the players, show people that they’re not these robots that they go out and cheer for.
“They’re people who get excited when their parents are at games,” he said. “They’re normal people who happen to be playing baseball for a living.
“When you’re growing up, you see these guys are such big people. You realize they’re just people when you interact with them.”
Cassavell caught the baseball bug early in life. Growing up, he estimates, he went to 15 Yankees games a year. His family had seats in the left-field bleachers at old Yankee Stadium — the House That Ruth Built.
“If you’re a 6-year-old kid walking in that place, you drop your jaw and you’re in awe of that place. That’s where it started, and going to games in Fenway and Philadelphia,” he said. “As much of a Yankees fan as I was growing up, I was a baseball fan in general. My whole family is kind of baseball nuts. I have a lot of family that are Yankees fans, but they know the entirety of the game pretty well.”
When Cassavell was home for a couple days for the all-star break, he watched the Home Run Derby with his mother, Laura.
“She knows her stuff,” Cassavell said. “I think she’d tell you that baseball a family thing, even before she had two sons that are somewhat baseball obsessed.”
Laura has been the rock for the family since the death of the family’s patriarch, Frank Cassavell, in 1996. Cassavell was only 7 years old.
“She’s 100 percent the reason I’m where I am today, my brother’s where he is and my sister’s where she is,” Cassavell said. “She was unbelievable and then some. It’s hard for me to even put that into words. All the credit goes to my mom and extended family for where I am.”
Brother Frankie has just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and is applying to medical school. Whenever he and AJ are together, the conversation turns to baseball. Cassavell calls his brother a savant in baseball.
“My brother and I talk about it probably too much,” he said. “Most people can leave work at work. I like talking about my work, so it’s a little different in that sense. We’ll get in the car and go into some philosophical discussion on what trade should be made and my mother and sister will kind of roll their eyes. It’s not the only thing we talk about.”
Their sister, Katie, is the middle child. She graduated summa cum laude from Villanova University and now works in New York City for Bank of America.
“My sister loves baseball too,” AJ said. “Just probably not at the level of us.”
Cassavell is fiercely proud to be an 11-time champion in the 21-year history of the annual family Wiffle ball tournament.
Each August, the family holds a family reunion held in honor of the late Frank Cassavell. It used to be held in July, but had to be moved back because July is a busy time for Cassavell with the trade deadline coming at the end of the month. At the reunions, the family is divided evenly into four teams for an annual Wiffle ball tournaments that have been played for 20 years. He is fiercely proud to be 11-time champion in the 21-year history of the tournament.
“When I was little I got inundated with baseball,” Cassavell said. “The way our family works is we get together for family reunions, family picnics, Christmas, and we’d chat about what’s going on in baseball and play Wiffle ball. That’s what it was always like as a kid.”
He also had an uncle who did Spanish radio for the Red Sox, and for one series every summer, he’d get to go up and visit him and sit in his booth.
Cassavell applied for one of the 30 MLB.com intern spots as a junior at Penn State. He didn’t get it, but he got encouragement to stay with it. That summer, he covered the Pittsburgh Pirates’ double-A minor league affiliate, the Altoona Curve, for the Altoona Mirror. He landed an MLB internship the next year and was assigned to work covering the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I would have been open to covering other sports. I covered other sports straight out of college, but I always wanted to do baseball and then the MLB opportunity came around,” he said.
The experience gave him a taste of what to expect with MLB.com.
“It was a lot of research,” Cassavell said. “It was a lot of finding little factoids and nuggets that could go in a story. In 2011, the Dodgers were being sold and there was a lot going on outside the ballpark. My boss was covering that while I essentially covered games. I got to do a lot more than maybe other interns did at the time.”
When his internship ended, he did freelance work for MLB.com, consistently enough to think of it as a full-time job. He was hired by MLB.com to work overnight shifts. He helped to produce their website and filled in covering games at times until 2015. He was the primary back-up writer in San Diego and also wrote for Sports on Earth, a site affiliated with MLB.
In 2016, he landed the job as the Padres beat writer.
“How many kids in 10th grade know their passion and follow through with it?” Caldwell said. “He’s done it.”
Cassavell played football, basketball and baseball at Hopewell Valley. Baseball remained his favorite sport to follow, but he liked playing all three equally, and threw himself into whatever he was playing at the time.
“AJ came in as a natural leader,” Caldwell said. “He came in as a high character kid that loved to compete.”
Cassavell played shortstop and second base for the baseball team. He was a free safety for the football team that grew from a fledgling program to Colonial Valley Conference Patriot Division co-champions in his senior year. He was honored that year with a scholarship from the Delaware Valley chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
“I don’t know if he was always the most talented, but always one of the hardest workers,” said Caldwell, who coached him in football and was the freshman basketball coach. “He was always one of the best teammates. He played with a lot of passion. He did all the extras, whether it was in basketball or football. He was always willing to rally the team.”
Cassavell, who explored his future options as an intern at the Spanish Beisbol Radio Network and wrote for the school newspaper in his time at Hopewell, did well academically, too. After graduating in 2007 from Hopewell Valley, he chose to study at Penn State in large part because of its strong journalism program. Just over a decade later, he is enjoying his dream job and could foresee staying in his lifetime passion for a lifetime.
“I honestly haven’t looked that far down the line,” Cassavell said. “I like what I’m doing now. The good thing about doing it at MLB.com is it’s not as much of a grind as it would be at the newspapers. It’s relatively flexible. It’s more flexible in terms of getting time off and being able to be home at certain times when you need to be. Because of where I work, I could see myself doing it for a long time.”