Down, but definitely not out

Arm injuries have slowed Garrett Berger, a pitcher in the Brewers' system, but his dream of reaching the majors remains alive.

Originally Published: April 30, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

When Kim Berger talks about her son, she looks like the happiest woman in the world. "The day Garrett was born," she says with a big smile, "the pediatrician saw his shoulders and said, 'This kid is going to be a pitcher.' "

That doctor knew his stuff. Those shoulders just got bigger and bigger and bigger -- 17 years later, that baby stood six feet, three inches tall and weighed 260 pounds -- and Garrett Berger was one hell of a pitcher.

But wait, we're getting ahead of the story ... Growing up on the outskirts of Indianapolis, Garrett fell in love with the Chicago Cubs. At 11, he started taking pitching lessons. For a while, though, it wasn't apparent that Berger's future was on the mound. For one thing, he didn't look like a pitcher. His big sisters, both of them great athletes, called Garrett "Chunk" because he looked like the fat kid in "The Goonies." And for another, he really didn't throw all that hard. As a high-school freshman, Berger's fastball got into the 80s, but his coach saw that body and thought it was more suited to catching pitches than throwing them. So he caught, mostly.

Still, Berger kept pitching when he could. Kept taking lessons. Kept growing, too. And so the summer before his senior year, he got invited to Long Beach for the Area Code Games, the top showcase in the country for amateur talent. There were at least 50 scouts in the stands, maybe even 75, and what they saw when Garrett Berger pitched was a huge kid, barely 17 years old, who could throw a baseball 94 miles an hour. The sort of kid that every scout dreams about after his head hits the pillow at the Motel 6.

Garrett Berger is just one kid who dreamed of pitching at Wrigley Field, and Kim Berger is just one mom who wants to see her son's dream come true. But how many other moms have had to watch their sons' dreams destroyed by the willful ignorance of baseball coaches? A pretty safe guess is "too many," and we can only assume that too many dreams are still being destroyed this very spring, in high-school games all over the country.

That same summer, Garrett was at Bank One Ballpark for a Diamondbacks game. Kim Berger's face lights up again as she tells the story ... "He's so great. He's just this big kid. We're in the upper deck, and Garrett decides he has to get the wave going. So he's running back and forth yelling at everybody, and Jay Lehr (his private pitching coach) says to me, 'Look at him. Next year that idiot could be a millionaire.' "

A million or two dollars, of course, being roughly the going rate for teenagers who throw 95 and aren't done growing yet. But first Berger had to get through his last season of high-school baseball. And when Garrett's mom talks about that senior season, she's far from the happiest woman in the world.

"In Indiana," she remembers, "Opening Day's in April, and it's about 40 degrees. That first game, his head coach had him throwing 40 percent sliders. He should have been throwing more fastballs. That was his pitch. And as the season progressed, his arm started hurting."

On one occasion, when Garrett's father asked the manager why he was letting Garrett throw so many pitches, the response was terse: "I'm trying to win a ball game here."

The worst was yet to come. After throwing 155 pitches in one game, Berger wanted out. Nobody was warming up in the bullpen. So finally he removed himself from the game, claiming his "leg hurt." When Berger reached the bench, his pitching coach threw a plastic pitch counter at him and scoffed, "There's your pitch count." His head coach benched him for the next two games.

Kim Berger, who worked at Garrett's high school, had seen enough, and got a meeting with the baseball coaches and the school's administration. This was her son's dream they were fooling around with. "How can a coach, with a dream in his hand, take that away just because he's uneducated?" she still wonders. "Inside my heart, I was so angry. I felt like I'd thrown my kid to the wolves."

Kim had educated herself. She showed up armed with articles, studies, statistics, and recommendations, one of which was that no high-school pitcher should ever throw more than 120 pitches in a game. She also made it clear -- with as much grace as she could muster -- that her son had big plans for the future, and she wasn't going to let the ambitions of a high-school baseball coach get in the way of those plans. That dream.

It's true that Garrett was never again asked to throw 150-plus pitches in a game, but it's also true that his coaches didn't make any special efforts to protect that talented right arm, and what efforts they did make were grudging. Indeed, Kim later was told that the head coach had been telling scouts that Garrett's arm was hurting him. Why would he do that? Kim thinks it was simple pique; nobody would tell him how to run his ball club.

On June 5, 2001, Graduation Day at Carmel High School, Garrett Berger was drafted by the Florida Marlins with their first pick, the 60th overall. On August 12, he signed with the Marlins for $795,000 (not quite a million dollars, but then throwing 155 pitches can cost a young man a lot of money). Shortly thereafter, he blew out his elbow while pitching in the instructional league. Berger had a torn ligament and a fractured bone: the same injury, basically, that cost John Smoltz the entire 2000 season. Kim Berger is convinced that her son's injury is directly related to all those sliders, all those pitches he threw for the greater glory of Carmel High.

Berger missed the entire 2002 season, returned in the spring of 2003 and was throwing 96, but suffered a setback and missed most of last season, too. In January, the Marlins released him. Berger quickly signed with the Brewers, and right now he's in extended spring training down in Arizona, once again throwing in the mid 90s.

Garrett Berger is just one kid who dreamed of pitching at Wrigley Field, and Kim Berger is just one mom who wants to see her son's dream come true. But how many other moms have had to watch their sons' dreams destroyed by the willful ignorance of baseball coaches? A pretty safe guess is "too many," and we can only assume that too many dreams are still being destroyed this very spring, in high-school games all over the country.

Every time Garrett throws, he calls his mom with a full report. Monday, things went well in an intra-squad game. Today, he's supposed to pitch in a real game. Tomorrow ... well, who knows? Maybe tomorrow he'll be trying to blow his fastball past Sammy Sosa. Sometimes dreams come true, eventually.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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