The long, often treacherous, road to the majors

Ryan Anderson and Bobby Madritsch have far different pasts, but have one common goal: reaching the big leagues.

Originally Published: March 14, 2003
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PEORIA, Ariz. -- One pitcher is a former first-round draft pick who signed a $2.1 million signing bonus, a 6-10 tower once considered the best pitching prospect in the game, a 23-year-old lefty whose name appeared so regularly in Baseball America that he should have been listed in the staff box. The other pitcher is a Native American, a 27-year-old veteran of three independent minor leagues and four independent teams, a former Rio Grande Valley White Wing who woke up one morning this winter to find a sheriff on the porch with an eviction notice.

Together, Ryan Anderson and Bobby Madritsch share scars on their left shoulders, big-league dreams in their hearts and a rental house in Arizona.

Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson, Seattle's first-round pick in the 1997 draft, has been plagued by injuries in recent years.

"I got to know him during the instructional league last fall,'' Anderson said. "He's quiet and I'm not and I think we're a good match. It motivates me a lot being around him.''

Not that long ago, Anderson was Seattle's top prospect. He struck out 460 batters and allowed only 300 hits in 349 minor-league innings. He started the 2000 Futures Game, when his biggest dilemma appeared to be whether to pitch for the Mariners in a September callup or for the United States in the Olympics.

He did neither. Anderson pitched only a handful of innings in the second half before a torn rotator cuff ended his season. He missed all of 2001 with that injury and then missed all of last year with a torn labrum.

He hasn't pitched since Sept. 4 of 2000 and isn't expected to do so any time soon.

Anderson is currently throwing from flat ground, rather than a mound. When he builds up his arm strength sufficiently, he will start throwing from the mound again. When he builds up arm strength there, he will begin throwing batting practice, then simulated games.

If all goes well, if there are no setbacks, the Mariners would be delighted if he could pitch in a minor-league game sometime in May, almost three full years since his previous game.

"My goal this year is just to be able to play,'' Anderson said. "To be able to get back to my normal self. It doesn't matter where it is, Double-A or Everett (Seattle's Class A farm team), I just want to play. I'll play in North Korea, as long as I can pitch somewhere.''

Anderson sat down for an hour and a half this week with Randy Johnson, the pitcher with whom he's been linked since high school. This was the first time Anderson said he's spoken to Johnson since an initial meeting in 1997 and it was the first substantial talk the two ever had.

"I had so many questions I wanted to ask him, but when he got done I was so nervous that I forgot what they were,'' Anderson said. "It's such a big deal for anyone when you get to meet your idol. Talking to him gave me the chills. I felt like crying.

"I don't think I looked away from his face the whole time.''

Bobby Madritsch
Bobby Madritsch, a Native American, is vying for a spot in the Mariners' starting rotation.

Johnson talked mostly about work ethic, thereby extending a baseball motivational arc that began with Nolan Ryan. It was a decade ago that Ryan took Johnson aside for a heart-to-heart that made the difference in the Big Unit's career, helping transform a pitcher who was very good and a little inconsistent into a pitcher with five Cy Young Awards.

Anderson acknowledges that in the past, his work ethic left something to be desired but insists that is no longer a problem.

"You take things for granted,'' Anderson said. "I thought I was invincible. That was wrong, but I was young and dumb.''

"I think I've helped his work ethic,'' Madritsch said. "I never saw what it was like before, but it's great now. He doesn't drink anymore. He doesn't go out anymore. I make sure of that.''

Little has come easy for Madritsch. He is one-half Lakota Sioux on his mother's side, though he has never spoken to her because she left the family when he was two months old. He grew up with his father in the Chicago area. "I don't know if she's even alive.''

He hasn't forgotten his roots. He talks proudly of his heritage and his body is covered in Native American tattoos -- including a symbol that resembles a Nazi swastika, but is actually a tribal good luck sign. "I've gotten some strange looks from teammates, but it's good because then I can educate them.''

A Native American newspaper recently reported there have been 20-30 full to partial Native Americans in major-league history, with Jim Thorpe and Chief Bender the most famous.

"They don't know how many were at least 50 percent (Native American blood),'' Madritsch said. "All I know is I would be the first in a while. That keeps me going. I want to be a role model for other Native Americans. That works in my favor. Whenever I get a little down, that keeps me going.''

He's needed the inspiration.

A left-hander, Madritsch began his pro career in 1998 when the Reds drafted him in the sixth round. He was 7-3 with a 2.80 ERA that year, but missed the entire 1999 season after completely tearing his rotator cuff. Cincinnati released him after the 2000 season. He spent the next year in the independent Texas-Louisiana League and the independent Western League. He pitched for the Winnipeg Goldeyes last year, striking out 153 batters in 125 innings while going 11-4 with a 2.30 ERA.

If I don't make it, by golly, I'll keep trying. I won't get down. I've been through worse.
Bobby Madritsch, Mariners pitcher

At least three big-league organizations offered him contracts and Madritsch signed with Seattle. He's on the 40-man roster and making more this money in meal money than he did all last season with Winnipeg. The money is needed -- he says the county tried to evict his father for failure to pay back real estate taxes on his home.

Madritsch has never officially pitched above Class A (the talent level in the Northern League ranges from A to Double-A) and he has a lot to learn. He throws hard (mid-90s) and has an effective changeup, but he needs a breaking ball to be successful in the majors. While he recently began working on a slider that shows some promise, he hasn't pitched that impressively this spring. He allowed two runs in an inning on Thursday, an outing that likely sent him even farther down the dark horse list.

"If I don't make it, by golly, I'll keep trying,'' Madritsch said. "I won't get down. I've been through worse.''

The poor outing dampened Madritsch's spirits but as Anderson finished an interview, he looked toward his housemate and promised to cheer him up. Perhaps a wild night of PlayStation.

Motivation can come as effectively from a minor leaguer as a Hall of Famer. And it flows both ways.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com