Starting 9: Overcoming long odds
The first week of the 2009 Major League Baseball season brought unspeakable sadness. In a span of five days, Nick Adenhart, Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych all passed, leaving legions of fans to remember and mourn. If there's a silver lining, it's the capacity of the baseball community to pull together in unison and lend its support. As trite as that might sound, it's true.
Beyond the headlines and heartfelt tributes, the game has been replete with personal triumphs and feel-good stories this spring. They range from career fringe player Nick Green's breaking camp with Boston to Rule 5 draft picks David Patton and Donald Veal's cracking rosters to a determined Andruw Jones' starting fresh from square one in Texas.
They're not alone. Peruse the April rosters for the 30 clubs, and you'll find numerous players who took special delight in a phone call home or the sight of a nameplate hanging above a locker stall. Their stories bring a sense of pride and renewal and memories that will last a lifetime.
In this week's installment of Starting 9, we recognize players who overcame the odds or career setbacks to land spots on 25-man rosters on Opening Day.
Some embody the "journeyman" label, while others enjoyed success early in their careers, found it fleeting and had to persevere to return to the majors. Some will stick around awhile as others inevitably fade. Their common bond is a shared appreciation for how special it is to wear the uniform.
Chris Jakubauskas, Mariners relieverOpening Day was Black Monday for Seattle-based headline writers: That's when Jakubauskas and infielder Matt Tuiasosopo both officially appeared on the Mariners' roster.
Jakubauskas, 30, is this year's answer to Phillies catcher Chris Coste. He was a first baseman-outfielder at the University of Oklahoma before converting to pitcher to begin his pro career. He spent almost five years in independent ball -- with Florence and Ohio Valley in the Frontier League, Fullerton in the Golden League and Lincoln in the American Association -- before Seattle plucked him from obscurity in 2007.
According to the Seattle Times, Jakubauskas sold Christmas gifts at Nordstrom and worked for a cement company to pay the bills while playing independent ball. Judging from his performance in the Cactus League, his department store clerking days are history.
"Based on what I saw this spring, he could start for several teams," said a scout. "He has a very efficient delivery and command of three pitches, and he's really poised. His stuff isn't overpowering. But if you give him a plan of attack, he can execute it."
It's only April 15, and Jakubauskas has already experienced two "pinch me" moments. The first came when he walked onto the field in Minnesota for Opening Day, and the second occurred when he pitched two innings against Oakland for his first big league victory. He received a beer shower from his teammates and a shaving cream pie in the face from reliever Mark Lowe for his efforts.
Walter Silva, Padres starterCompared to Silva, Jakubauskas was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
At 32, Silva has no earthly claim to a spot in a major league rotation. Nine years ago, he was taking college courses and washing dishes at an Outback Steakhouse in Palm Desert, Calif. He spent several seasons in the Mexican League and appeared on the Padres' radar thanks to positive reviews from Adrian and Edgar Gonzalez, his teammates with Mazatlan in winter ball.
Silva's fastball tops out in the upper 80s, but he has a plus slider and a knack for pitching down in the zone and inducing ground balls. The Padres gave him an extended look this spring, and when the team broke camp he had laid claim to the No. 3 spot in the rotation behind Jake Peavy and Chris Young.
In his big league debut, Silva contributed five two-run innings against Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers in a 5-2 Padres loss.
"My legs were shaking a little bit," he told Tom Krasovic of The San Diego Union Tribune.
Silva's excellent spring adventure added a new chapter Monday when he started for San Diego in the first game at Citi Field in New York. He held the Mets at bay until David Wright's three-run homer in the fifth inning, and showed his hitting chops with a single and a run scored against Mike Pelfrey.
Darnell McDonald, Reds outfielderTwelve years ago, McDonald was the closest thing to Bo Jackson in a high school yearbook. As a star running back for Cherry Creek High in Colorado, he rushed for 6,121 yards and 83 touchdowns. McDonald was multifaceted enough to win a scholarship to the University of Texas and a promise that he could play both football and baseball for the Longhorns.
When Baltimore offered him a $1.9 million bonus as a late first-round pick, McDonald spurned Austin for pro ball. But he spent more than a decade learning that athleticism alone was not a ticket to the majors.
McDonald passed through the Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Washington and Minnesota organizations in one memorable three-year stretch. He violated minor league baseball's drug policy with Triple-A Buffalo, and achieved a degree of notoriety as a Rochester Red Wing when he lost a 50-yard match race with that lovable thoroughbred loser, Zippy Chippy.
All of McDonald's time, persistence and introspection finally paid off this spring when the Reds decided to carry him and Laynce Nix as reserve outfielders and send Jonny Gomes to Triple-A Louisville.
"He called his dad and his wife, and I had to get away from him because it looked like he was close to tears," manager Dusty Baker told the Dayton Daily News.
McDonald even landed a start on Opening Day when Willy Taveras came down with the flu. He struggled with the elements and had a rough outing defensively in center field. But he went 3-for-9 at the plate in his first five games in Cincinnati, and he's still hanging around.
Koyie Hill, Cubs catcherHill, once a big prospect in the Dodgers' system, failed to stick in early stints with Los Angeles and Arizona. It appeared his playing days were over in October 2007 when he severed the thumb and three fingers on his throwing hand in a table saw accident while making a window frame in his garage.
A hand specialist reattached the four digits, but not without complications: There was a difference of opinion when Hill insisted he would be ready to play by spring training of 2008, and the doctor tempered his euphoria with some distressing news.
"Right before surgery, the doctor told him the tendons near his pinkie finger might be a problem and delay his return," said Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. "So Koyie told him, 'If you get in there and that's an issue, just cut the pinkie off. I can play without it.' True story."
Hill achieved a moral victory when he rejoined the Cubs in September, and he played well enough in camp to beat out Paul Bako for a job. Hill was pressed into service when starter Geovany Soto went down with a shoulder injury, and the Cubs won four of his five starts. That's nothing new; Chicago is 21-9 overall in his 30 starts as a Cub.
Hendry is a sucker for underdog stories. But he said the team's decision to carry Hill as Soto's backup had nothing to do with sentiment and everything to do with performance and approach to the game. Hill is a solid receiver who blocks balls and has a nice rapport with the Chicago staff.
His pain threshold is also off the charts. Hill took a Todd Coffey fastball off the foot last week in Milwaukee, and the Cubs suspect he might have a broken toe. But if it hurts, Hill is keeping the discomfort to himself.
"Not a word," Hendry said. "He just keeps playing and tells the doctors to leave him alone. He's a pretty tough guy."
Ronald Belisario, Dodgers relieverIt's tough to creep up on a potential employer when you stand 6-3 and 240 pounds, throw a sinking fastball in the mid 90s and complement it with a power slider. But that's Belisario's story at age 26.
Belisario, a Venezuela native, showed some big upside with Florida in 2001. But he got tagged with a reputation for immaturity, poor conditioning and a lack of respect for authority. When he wasn't showing up late, he was failing to approach his job with the requisite commitment.
"The guy has vicious stuff," said a National League scout. "He should have been in the big leagues a couple of years ago."
The Dodgers got positive reports on Belisario from scout Ron Rizzi and manager Carlos Subero in the Venezuelan winter league, and brought him to camp as a non-roster player. Belisario made an impression with six shutout innings in the Cactus League, and is off to a great start with the big club. He threw 50 strikes in his first 70 pitches and struck out eight batters in his first 4 2/3 innings.
The Dodgers have made it clear to Belisario that they won't tolerate any more slacking off or lapses in professionalism. He's on a short leash. But if he can keep his head screwed on right, they might have something.
Corky Miller, White Sox catcherSo what was the most freakish occurrence in baseball's opening week? The sad-sack Padres' winning six of eight games, Pittsburgh's pulling off a triple play, or Miller's collecting two singles and a pair of RBIs in his 2009 debut with the White Sox?
In eight big league seasons, Miller has established himself as a walking Jayson Stark blog item for his ineptitude with a bat. The nadir came from 2004 through 2006, when he endured a 1-for-55 funk with Cincinnati, Minnesota and Boston. For those keeping score at home, that's a batting average of .018.
Miller's calling card is defense. Chicago's catchers threw out a mere 30 of 169 base stealers last season, and the Sox have enough power hitters to carry a strong defensive catcher on the bench.
Miller is, by all accounts, a joy to have around. He signed with Cincinnati as an undrafted free agent out of Nevada-Reno in 1998, and he's never stopped realizing how fortunate he is to be in pro ball. In the minor leagues, Miller would sit and watch postgame fireworks in the stands with fans and hang around until every last autograph was signed. He runs out every ball and regards a clean uniform as a mark of dishonor.
Those attributes have won him consistent mentions in "players most likely to manage" surveys. And while the numbers say "automatic out," he's currently in as A.J. Pierzynski's backup in Chicago.
"Miller and Sal Fasano have carved out incredible careers," said a National League scout. "All they care about is that day's pitcher and helping him get prepared. And when they're called upon, even if it's one day a week, you know they're going to be ready. They don't have an ego. That gets in the way for a lot of guys."
Craig Monroe, Pirates outfielderMonroe has by far the strongest résumé of any player on this list. He surpassed 20 home runs three times in Detroit, and hit five homers during the Tigers' big postseason run in 2006.
But Monroe has always been a low OBP guy, and when the job description changed and called for him to platoon in Detroit and come off the bench in Minnesota, he failed to adapt. The Twins released him last August after he hit a feeble .138 (12-for-87) against left-handers.
To his credit, Monroe revamped his swing with the help of Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo -- junking his leg kick and adopting a more low-maintenance approach. He also spent an awful lot of time in the weight room.
"He's always in good shape, but he took it to a new level this offseason," said Ryan Ware, Monroe's agent. "He watched his diet -- you name it. He got himself in the best shape of his life."
Monroe arrived in Pittsburgh's camp on a minor league invite and hit a whopping eight Grapefruit League homers to beat out prospect Steve Pearce for a job as Pittsburgh's designated righty outfield bat off the bench. Monroe went 0-for-3 in his first week as a Pirate. But Nate McLouth, Eric Hinske, Nyjer Morgan and Brandon Moss all hit from the left side, so he'd better stay ready.
The big question is how long Monroe will remain in the mix. The Pirates acquired switch-hitter Delwyn Young in a trade with the Dodgers on Tuesday, and star prospect Andrew McCutchen is biding his time with Triple-A Indianapolis.
Chris Duffy, Brewers outfielder"One of our staff members asked the question, 'Why has this guy not had a lot of major league time?'" said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. "He's 28 years old."
We can think of a few reasons. Duffy, who turns 29 Monday, was an All-Pac-10 player at Arizona State and has always been regarded as a terrific defender in center field. Former Pirates player development director Brian Graham once described him as a "scrappy, hard-nosed guy, along the lines of Brett Butler or Lenny Dykstra."
But plate discipline has never been a Duffy strength, and he endured a number of setbacks in Pittsburgh. Duffy chafed when the Pirates wanted him to junk his line drive swing and start slapping the ball on the ground to take advantage of his speed. He took a 2½-month sabbatical in 2006 after losing his hunger for the game, missed time with an ankle injury two years ago, and underwent shoulder surgery in March 2008.
The Brewers entered spring training with two outfield jobs open, and Duffy and Brad Nelson beat out Tony Gwynn Jr. and Trot Nixon for roster spots. With Ryan Braun, Mike Cameron and Corey Hart in the mix, Duffy is strictly an extra guy. But all the starters are right-handed and he's a lefty, so manager Ken Macha should find a way to work him in here and there.
Andres Torres, Giants outfielderTorres, a track star as a youth in Puerto Rico, was once rated the No. 6 prospect in the Detroit Tigers' chain. He stole 65 bases for Class A Lakeland in 2000 and appeared to be on his way. "The Tigers desperately need a center fielder at the major league level and Torres is the prime candidate coming through the system," Baseball America wrote in 2002.
Things never worked out in Detroit, of course. Torres had surgery to repair a torn labrum, took bad routes to balls in center field, and failed to get on base enough to take advantage of his speed. In his first 11 professional seasons, Torres amassed a grand total of 287 big league plate appearances. His last appearance in the majors came with Texas in 2005.
Then this spring arrived, and Torres showed enough desire and skill to win a job as a non-roster invitee. The Giants are trying to incorporate more of a speed game with Fred Lewis, Eugenio Velez and Emmanuel Burriss, and Torres fit the profile of what manager Bruce Bochy was looking for off the bench.