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Country Rock

4/15/2009 - San Diego Padres

An old/young man is pitching tonight. Old because he's humming his grandpa's favorite tune. Young because it's programmed into his MP3 player.

An old/young man is pitching tonight, and they all tell you he's 24 going on Maddux. They tell you to read his lips between pitches. They tell you to go see what's written under the bill of his cap. They tell you he'll throw 93 mph in the fourth inning and 96 in the eighth. They tell you you'll never guess when he was drafted (hint: late).

An old/young man is pitching tonight, and the GM waves you over. He wants to tell you about their first meeting. Five years ago. In Fort Wayne. In low A-ball. In the stands. The old/young man is charting pitches that day, but he's also writing novelettes about every hitter. Vulnerable to backdoor slider. Sits on fastball. "Excuse me, is it okay if I talk to you?" he asks the GM between innings. The GM nods. "Sir, I just don't understand these professional hitters. They don't make adjustments. I adjust to every hitter. I think all the time. I focus." The GM walks away thinking, "Is he 18, or is he 30?"

An old/young man is pitching tonight, and a former Cy Young Award winner returns your phone call. Says even if the Yankees offered A-Rod for this boy he wouldn't trade him. Says even if this boy and A-Rod made the same money he still wouldn't trade him. "Not for any player in baseball," the former Cy winner says. He says the boy is special. Says he knew it when he met the boy on the golf course four springs ago. The former Cy winner challenged this boy and a couple other young players to a one-hole match for $250 and only this boy spoke up. He was making $45 a day at the time, but the boy chirped, "How about $500?" And he birdied it and took home the cash.

An old/young man is pitching tonight, and his wife is telling you about the Hummer he just got offered. Could've had it for free from a local dealership. Could've taken it home to Alabama. Would've been perfect for getting him to the muddy lakes he fishes. But he said no, flat-out no. Didn't want to show up anybody back home. Didn't want to stand out in his town of 15,000. Didn't want to forget where he came from. So he accepted a Chevy pickup truck instead. Slapped a hunting decal on it, and was good to go.

An old/young man is pitching tonight, and one of his neighbors in San Diego can't believe what he's seeing. Just hours before game time, the pitcher is in the backyard, shooting a bow and arrow at a target.

An old/young man is pitching tonight, and down the freeway, a California Highway Patrol officer has just cost the city $200. On the way to the ballpark, this cop pulled the pitcher over for speeding in the pickup. Took his license, got halfway to the squad car, then marched right back. "Slow down, Mr. Peavy," the cop said, handing him back his license. "And pitch a good game."

An old/young man is pitching tonight, and up in the booth, a radio guy is talking about a guitar. Three years ago, the pitcher saw the radio guy playing the guitar in a stairwell, where the acoustics were primo, and asked the guy to teach him one song. Just one song. His grandpa's song. The song that's in his head tonight as he warms up. Pancho was a bandit boy, his horse was fast as polished steel. He wore his gun outside his pants, for all the honest world to feel. Pancho met his match, you know, on the deserts down in Mexico. Nobody heard his dyin' words, ah but that's the way it goes.

An old/young man is pitching tonight, and in the crowd is an old/old man of 73. He's wearing a blue polo shirt with multicolored stripes. The old/young man nods to the old/old man. Now he can pitch. YOU WONDER how Jake Peavy made it to the San Padres with his waiflike arms and his deteriorating eyesight and his brittle ankles. But ol' Jake's got a theory on this. So hear him out.

It starts with a silver-and-maroon El Camino, the car his grandpa Blanche Peavy drove. Every morning, it was just the two of them in that El Camino. As Grandpa drove Jake to school, he'd pop in a Willie Nelson tape and play "Pancho and Lefty" over and over.

"Why d'you like that song so much, Paw Paw?"

"Just do, Jake. Just do."

In the afternoons, Blanche would leave the shop at Peavy's Cabinets early to greet Jake with a ball and a mitt. They all lived on a three-acre plot in Semmes, Ala., with Paw Paw's house in the middle, Jake's folks' house 200 yards to one side, his aunt Wendy's house 200 yards to the other, and space for both a pitcher's mound and a batting cage. Jake's dad, Danny, would be stuck in the cabinet shop, and his mom, Debbie, would be out delivering the mail, so it'd just be Jake and Paw Paw out there. Paw Paw would videotape Jake pitching and hacking, and they'd go inside and dissect it to the bone.

The kid, 9 at the time, showed promise, but his righthanded swing was often a hair late, his pitches an inch off target. On weekends, Danny would join the workouts and lose his patience. "Son, if you hit the ball to rightfield one more time, I'm throwin' at your noggin," he'd say. Then one day in school, a teacher noticed Jake inching up to the chalkboard and suggested an eye test. Jake couldn't even read the E at the top of the chart. When he got his new glasses, Debbie remembers him saying, "I never knew there were leaves on that tree."

Imagine how that helped him in baseball. Grandpa Peavy would teach him, tape him, peptalk him between dips of Copenhagen. Wasn't a day they weren't out there getting filthy. His experience was limited to fast-pitch softball, but Paw Paw knew enough to teach Jake how to outsmart hitters. Before every outing, Paw Paw would dig his forefingers into Jake's temples and say, "Focus." Then he'd dig in further and say, "Nobody gets inside of there but you."

And then Blanche Peavy was gone, at 58. He turned on a high-speed fan at the cabinet shop one day to help blow debris out of a paint room, and a blade broke off and punctured his eye. He was in a coma for three weeks, and Jake, in eighth grade by now, knelt by his hospital bed every afternoon talking baseball. Talked about pitching. Talked about focus. Told him to wake up, to please wake up. Others in the family tugged on Paw Paw's hair, pinched him. Nothing. When they pulled him off life support on Dec. 1, 1994, with the entire family beside him, Jake Peavy fainted.

Nobody heard his dyin' words, ah, but that's the way it goes.

THE SCOUT saw something in the kid, something immeasurable. He'd wildly sail a pitch to the backstop, but would instantly gather himself and dare to pitch inside. It was a fearlessness, the scout thought, a sense that nothing could rattle him. A sense that, at 18, the boy had already lived.

After Paw Paw's death, Jake spent a lot of time questioning his faith. Got bitter, actually. He'd hunt, fish and shoot his arrows alone in the Alabama woods, and then break down and ask God why he'd taken his closest friend. He wondered if he'd even be playing baseball if it hadn't been for Paw Paw, and his answer was no. Never. He began having long talks with his maternal grandmother, Grandma Lolley, the most spiritual woman in the family. And he came to this resolution: "I'm pitching for two."

He wrote the initials BP under the bill of every baseball cap he owned, and back to the mound he went. He was five-foot-nothing and skinny as a rail, but in four years of high school ball, his record was 44—1. Growing up, he broke each of his ankles twice and fractured his left wrist, too, but that was the charm of ol' Jake: he played with his pants on fire.

Sometimes he'd feel like he was about to implode on the mound. That's when he'd quote his favorite line of Scripture out loud: I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. It always soothed his nerves, and so he wrote it under the bill of his cap, too, next to Paw Paw's initials. Life was better now. He had faith again, and a marvelous girlfriend named Katie Alford, and one particular baseball scout who was dying to meet him.

Not many teams were fawning over the kid, because 5'11" righthanders are a dime a dozen. But Mark Wasinger, the Padres' area scout, saw a certain "soul" in the boy. He'd met an older gentleman by the backstop at St. Paul's Episcopal High in Mobile, a man who claimed to be related to Jake, and began picking the old man's brain. It was Jake's other grandfather, Grandpa Lolley, who kept a close watch on Jake after Paw Paw's death. The Lolleys invited the scout to their house, fed him a Southern meal, sold him on their grandson.

During the 1999 draft, Wasinger called in to see where Jake had gone and was told: nowhere. "Go get him!" Wasinger implored. It was the 15th round by then, and the Padres had already taken 11 pitchers. But they picked Jake anyway, mainly on one man's word. Jake was planning to attend Auburn if he didn't go in the first four rounds, so Wasinger asked the Padres to give Jake fourth-round money. Kevin Towers, the big league GM who'd never laid eyes on the kid, signed off on it. Figured, worst-case, he was out 100 grand. But when he met Jake that day writing novelettes in the bleachers at low A-ball in Fort Wayne, he thought: Maybe, just maybe.

He called up Jake in 2002, out of Double-A, and had him debut on national TV against the Yankees, in front of 60,000 at Qualcomm. Jake wrote BP and his Bible verse under the bill of his new Padres cap, listened to "Pancho and Lefty" and walked serenely to the mound. He gave up a leadoff double to Soriano, an RBI double to Giambi, and not a measly run thereafter. When he was lifted in the seventh, still trailing 1-0, he got a standing O, and up in the stands, Danny Peavy and Grandpa Lolley began to cry.

"I wish Paw Paw was here," Danny said. "He is," Grandpa Lolley said. "I'm wearing his shirt."

BARRY BONDS had 699 home runs, and ol' Jake had the baseball, so you knew there'd be no free passes that day. Jake isn't afraid of failure, or of a ball sailing into McCovey Cove, so he threw a curveball in, and became the answer to a trivia question: what redneck gave up Bonds' 700th? It was so Alabama of him to challenge Barry. For much of his career, before he switched to Trace Adkins' "Rough & Ready," he took the mound to "It's All Right to Be a Redneck." And when he bats, the Petco Park DJ plays the theme from The Dukes of Hazzard. His mom's still a mail carrier, his dad still runs Peavy's Cabinets, and Jake has promised them he'll always be a dirtroad guy, that he'll always remember where he came from.

His teammates vouch for that. They say Jake's in a NASCAR pool. They say he drives a motor home every year to Talladega. They say he pitched in Japan last fall, and ordered bread and steak at a sushi bar. They say he tried driving to the beach at La Jolla as a rookie, but thought it was spelled "La Hoya" and couldn't find the exit.

The stories are true. When Jake finally made it to La Jolla later that fall, he dropped his cell phone in the ocean and dove in after the memory card. Last season, when he saw Chargers quarterback Drew Brees taking batting practice with the Padres, Jake shouted, "Hey, tell my boy Philip Rivers good luck this year." Brees, who was expected to lose his job to Rivers, snapped, "Tell him yourself." Jake was taken aback, so Trevor Hoffman explained the whole QB controversy to him. "Oh, I didn't mean nothin' by it," Jake said. "Rivers is just a good ol' boy I know from Alabama."

Jake says his family is "down-home" too, and his folks admit they prefer a Comfort Inn to a Ritz-Carlton. When Jake checked them into a swanky hotel in San Diego for his big league debut, they came across their first minibar. They thought the food was free, courtesy of the Padres, until Grandpa Lolley noticed they'd been charged $5 for a bag of M&M's. He hit the roof.

"We were walking the sidewalks of California with our video cameras, and my sister started singing the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies," Debbie Peavy says. "We got a laugh out of that."

Yes, Jake is country. He married Katie at 19, and they had two boys by the time he was 22. He has hogs and squirrels and rams mounted on his log cabin wall, and deer antlers hanging from his chandelier. But he's not naïve. He has command of a 95 mph fastball to go with a cut fastball, a slider and a lethal changeup. He freely pitches inside, and when he hit Dustan Mohr during spring training last year, he didn't care that the Giants wanted his scalp. Rick Sutcliffe, the former Cy Young winner who works with Padres pitchers every spring, walked into the Giants' clubhouse the next day to prep for a TV broadcast and was intercepted by Bonds. "I know he's your boy," Bonds said, "but we know he drilled Dustan on purpose, and we're gonna get him."

Sutcliffe answered, "You're right, he's my boy. But I don't know if he tried to hit him. And if you guys throw at Jake, he's not gonna come back and throw at Mohr, he's gonna throw at you, Barry." The Giants never retaliated.

The Padres are glad he's theirs. They love that he fired superagent Scott Boras last winter because Boras wanted to hold him out. They love that he didn't mind making just above the minimum last year. They love that he dives for ground balls hit up the middle. They love that he races his catcher, Ramon Hernandez, to popups behind the plate. "Just need them outs, man," he says.

They love that he earned 150 large on that Japan tour and used the cash to pay off his house. They love that during spring training, he fishes after dark. They love that in the offseason, he and Katie fish before dark. They love that when he's not quoting Scripture on the mound, he's shouting, "Make the pitch!" They love that his 3-year-old son, Jake II, shows up to home games in full catcher's gear. They love that the radio guy, ex-infielder Tim Flannery, finally taught Jake to play "Pancho and Lefty" on guitar. They love that Grandpa Lolley is always down in the clubhouse, always wearing something that belonged to Grandpa Peavy. He'll wear the blue polo shirt. Or he'll carry one of Paw Paw's pocket knives. Or he'll wear Paw Paw's watch. Or his sport coat. Or his old loafers. It's his tradition.

When Jake won his ERA title last fall with a 2.27—the youngest to do it since Doc Gooden in '85—Jake says he had a good cry. Because he had focused. Not a day goes by when he doesn't think about Paw Paw's forefingers in his temples. And now that he's signed a new four-year deal worth close to $15 million, he's got an idea, an Alabama idea. He's gonna restore Grandpa Peavy's El Camino. He's gonna put a new engine in it and a new interior and drive it all over his hometown next winter. It'll be a lot better than any damn Hummer.

Gonna slap a hunting decal on it, and be good to go.