- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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Jeff Weaver knows what you think of him. He hears you snickering even now, about the meltdowns in Detroit and the Bronx, about the screaming into his glove, about the body language so obvious it reads like closed captioning for the hearing-impaired. He knows you have him pegged as a punch line: the soft surfer dude who couldn't cut it in New York, the hothead hot prospect who never really panned out.
You know what else he knows? He's not done yet.
Jered Weaver figures you've been laughing behind his back too, ever since his run-in with cops one night last winter at a Long Beach bar. He knows you know how good his numbers are, but he also knows you're waiting, believing the implosions and the flameout are only a matter of time.
You know what else he knows? He's just getting started.
ON A Thursday in mid-April, Jeff Weaver is in Anaheim, coming off a disappointing outing for the Angels. Jered Weaver is in Las Vegas, about to take the mound in a Triple-A game for the Salt Lake Bees. The two brothers are on the phone, as usual, dissecting the start that was and the one that's soon to be. See, no matter what you think about the older Weaver's history or the younger Weaver's prospects, this is all they really need to know: They've got each other.
Even though they're six years apart-Jeff is 29, Jered 23-they pitch as if they were twins. Jeff, a lanky, 6'5", 200-pound righthander, lifts his front leg high at the knee and spins away from the batter, flashing the 36 on the back of his jersey. Then, like a sheet snapping on a clothesline, he unfurls toward home plate, hitting a capricious release point and sticking an unbalanced landing that often sends him skidding off the side of the mound. "You just kind of make it happen," he says. "It's a feeling."
Jered, who's 6'7", 205, feels it too: same turn at the hips, same 36 on the jersey, same look-at-me-I-can-fly wingspan, same freestyle blond locks flying beneath the cap-and yes, the same storm of a delivery, from goofy start to wicked finish, all arms and awkward angles. "The first time I saw him pitch, I thought I was looking at myself on film," Jeff says. Adds Jered, "It's not something we've worked at. It's our flow. It's the way we move."
So much like one another, and so unlike everyone else. "I know what he's going through when he pitches, and he understands what I'm feeling and what I'm trying to do," Jeff says. "We're together even when we're apart."
Soon they could be together a lot more. Jered, the Angels' top pitching prospect, nearly made the club this spring. If he can join his brother in the rotation this season (and that seems a fair bet), they'd be the sixth such pair of sibs in history: the Weaver boys alongside Paul and Dizzy Dean, Jim and Gaylord Perry, Ramon and Pedro Martinez. "Not to get ahead of ourselves," Jeff says, "but sitting in the dugout, shoulder to shoulder—I can picture it."
Growing up in suburban Simi Valley, north of LA, the brothers weren't so tight. "When you're young, six years is a long time," says their father, Dave, a retired electrical contractor. Jeff and Jered never went to school together, never played on the same teams. Jeff wore Jered out in those days, taking no prisoners in driveway basketball and leaving his brother in the dust when the older kids headed up to Lemon Park. "I remember when he got his driver's license and I wanted to go places with him," Jered says, laughing now. "There was no way he was going to hang out with his punk 10-year-old brother."
It wasn't just an age thing.
The brothers had different sensibilities. Jeff worked for his dad the summer he was 15, riding with him to the job site in the predawn black and digging trenches for eight-hour shifts. Jeff knew Dave got up every morning at 4:30 to go to work, without fail, without complaint. On the site, Jeff saw him work quickly and precisely, keeping everything square and level. "He never cut a corner," Jeff says. "He had an idea of how things should be, and he did them that way, perfect every time." Dad's work ethic struck a chord with Jeff; he wanted to make it his own. "I didn't cut him any slack on those jobs, and he didn't ask for any," Dave says. "He was out there digging every day."
Jeff loved sports-baseball, soccer, basketball but they were often a challenge for him. He didn't try out for the Simi Valley High School varsity baseball team until he was a senior ("I just didn't think I was good enough," he says), and he didn't feel comfortable in his gangly frame until his junior year of college. "It took me a while to get going and believe in myself," he says.
Young Jered was a prodigy. He didn't dig ditches and didn't have to try all that hard to be good at sports. Basketball came easy. Baseball felt natural. Surfing was instinctive. "Jered has always been very good at everything," Dave says. "It's given him an unshakable confidence."
Jered was a two-sport star at Simi Valley High. Two years ago, he finished his junior season at Long Beach State with a 1.62 ERA and 213 strikeouts in 144 innings, earning the Golden Spikes Award as the best player in college baseball. The Angels picked him 12th overall in the 2004 draft, and he's averaged 11.43 K's/9 IPs in the minors. With three pitches (fastball, slider and changeup) he can locate for strikes, he seems certain to make an impact in the majors, not least because he has a seemingly endless reserve of cool. He tossed five shutout innings at the Giants in his last spring training start and simply says, "I just act like I know what I'm doing, and it turns out I do."
Not too long ago, Jeff was the one earning raves. He walked on at Fresno State and worked his way up to All-America. The Tigers made him a first- round pick in 1998, and he debuted in the bigs the next year with five scoreless innings and a victory over the Twins. At 22, he had an electric fastball, a big curve and a hard, tight slider, and he set Detroit's rookie record for strikeouts by a righty (114). He was the budding ace of the staff and the face of the franchise's future.
But all too often that face was twisted into a grimace. When things went wrong on the mound, Jeff would scream at the heavens, at teammates and opponents, at umpires and himself. He gave up a lot of home runs (72 in his first three years) and cheap hits (he's frequently among the unluckiest pitchers in terms of hits per balls-in-play). Every hit surrendered, every location missed, every misplay behind him would leave him rattled.
"My frustration would build," he says. "It was bad sometimes. The game would go on and I'd have a harder and harder time shutting it off and focusing on what I needed to do next." The distractions mounted in Detroit in the middle of the 2001 season, when a flight attendant filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the organization and several other businesses run by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. Jeff was not a target of the suit, but the woman testified that she saw him emerge from the bathroom of the team plane in a haze of pot smoke. (The woman won a $200,000 verdict from the team's charter airline at trial, and the judge criticized the players in general for bad behavior.)
Although Jeff has said he doesn't recall the incident, it dogged him even after he was traded to the Yankees in a three-team deal in June 2002 (the Tigers got Jeremy Bonderman from the A's, so they're pretty happy). The New York tabloids had a field day with the lawsuit, and the Yanks proved a bad fit. After a handful of shaky outings, the club moved him between the rotation and the pen; sometimes he pitched on short rest, and sometimes he gathered dust. The hits multiplied, the face freaked, the fans pounced. "I could feel myself pressing all the time," Jeff says, "trying to prove myself with every pitch." You may remember Alex Gonzalez's walk-off homer for the Marlins in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series. Jeff certainly does.
BIG WEAVER, as Angels pitching coach Bud Black calls Jeff, wears his cap curled, snug over the brow. Little Weaver keeps his bill stiff and straight, up a touch on the forehead. Big Weaver likes his pants loose and long to the shoe. Little Weaver sometimes goes with the high stirrups. It's just a contrast in style, but it's emblematic. The differences between the brothers could have divided them. When Jeff signed a one-year, $8.325 million deal with the Angels in February after two solid, innings-eating seasons with the Dodgers, he effectively blocked Jered from landing a spot in the rotation out of spring training. On top of that, the hype for Jered dwarfs the expectations that once shadowed Jeff, and the baggage of Jeff's struggles could weigh on Jered when he joins the Show. So there's plenty of potential for jealousies and resentments. But that's not how it has played out.
"Baseball brought them together," says Dave, who has made countless road trips with his wife, Gail, to watch their boys play. "It was a language they could speak with each other." For years now, the brothers have talked about their lifting programs, about attacking hitters, about mixing pitches. Jeff tells Jered what batters are looking for and what they're not looking for. "He's helped Jered advance beyond him, Dave says. Jered wanted to give something back, so he started telling Jeff what he saw in his televised starts. Jeff counsels his brother on staying sane amid the pressure. Jered is there to listen when Jeff wants to blow off steam after a tough loss. Big Weaver's experience feeds into Little Weaver's approach, and Little Weaver's success helps keep Big Weaver believing.
When Jeff knew he had a shot to sign with the Angels, Jered was his first call. Without a moment of hesitation, Jered said, "Come on. Don't worry about me. I'll make my chance. And the chance to be together is too good to pass up."
They both have work to do. Jeff has gotten off to a rough start (1—4, 6.43 ERA through six outings). After giving up a second straight home run to Hank Blalock in a mid-April game with the Rangers, he slammed the ball into his glove and shouted some four-letter something to the heavens. He still looks a lot like the old Jeff Weaver. But emotion, drive, the will to get up early and dig, the fire to make himself into a prospect, they've served him well over the years. While Blalock rounded third, Jeff took what a yogi might call cleansing breaths, letting his shoulders rise and fall, shaking his arms out a bit, leeching the bad feelings from his fingertips. Then he stepped back to the hill and took care of business, getting a fly out to end the inning. The next morning, he walked on Manhattan Beach near his home, reliving the start, working through the lineup pitch by pitch. He might have thought of it as brooding once upon a time, but it's a kind of meditation now.
"My challenge is to stay in the moment when things go wrong and to remember what it feels like to be right," Jeff says. He carries New York with him wherever he goes. "I always think about my time there. I try to use it to remind myself of what it was to lose control. I try to incorporate the bad feelings into my future, too, and imagine myself replacing them with better experiences in the years to come." Yankee fans might not believe that. They might even smirk at the thought of it. That's all right. Jered's got Jeff's back. "He's had some tough outings here at the beginning, but he's got 30 more starts," Little Weaver says. "I know what kind of year he can put together. I have no doubts."
Jered is going to face his share of criticism. He knows that. He got a feel for it beginning in 2004, when his drawn-out contract talks brought heat from fans and the media. And he caught it again in February, when a night out with his buddies ended in a shouting match with a Long Beach bar manager that had to be broken up by police. "No matter what you tell him," Dave says, "Jered tends to learn things for himself, even if it's the hard way." Both times, Jeff was on the other end of the line, talking to Jered about living in the spotlight, and about living within yourself. "I'll always love him for it," Jered says. "It's like when I was younger and my dad would be out there after work every day playing ball with us. Jeff's the same way. He's shown me so much love." And there it is: brotherly love. Maybe that's the source of Little Weaver's confidence-and, maybe more important, the source of his humility. He's anxious to get to the bigs, to sit next to his brother in that dugout, but he knows the only way to get there is to pitch well right now, in whatever scene the Angels put him. And he knows that when he gets there, no one will care about his numbers in college or in Triple-A. "I'd tote bags up there, I'd bullpen catch, I'd throw BP," he says, "just to be a part of it, to get my foot in the door." Kind of sounds like a ditch-digger, doesn't he?
In Arizona this spring, the brothers often played long toss on the outfield grass. As the sun shone and the breeze blew, the ball whizzed and popped between them. Their throwing arms, at the three-quarter slot, echoed one another's. Life was good. It's not that, as teammates, Jeff will steer Jered clear of every mistake he's made, and it's not that Jered will suddenly infuse Jeff with cool confidence.
It's just that they'll each be there, catching what the other guy's throwing.
It won't be long before the Weaver brothers become first-time teammates. Can they help each other grow up?