From 38th-round draft pick to ace
The powerful first baseman was noted for his eye at the plate. He struck out a lot, but he also walked a lot, seldom putting the first pitches he saw into play. This at-bat was no different. He worked Buehrle to a 3-2 count, then hit a grounder to second baseman Ray Durham, who started an inning-ending double play.Buehrle would be the winning pitcher as the Sox pulled 8½ games ahead of Cleveland, a last gasp for a proud team that had won five straight division titles, twice advancing to the World Series. Afterward, after the group interview, Buehrle was asked one more question: "The 3-2 pitch to Thome, was that a changeup?" asked a lingering reporter. "Yep," said Buehrle. "Do you throw a lot of 3-2 changeups?" Buehrle, who had been stoic, cracked a little smile. "No," he said. "That might have been the first one I've ever thrown." Spoken like a natural. Buehrle was given a linebacker's number from equipment man Vince Fresso when he got to the big leagues. Instead of complaining, he stuck with it, turning No. 56 into a fashionable one around Chicago. He's never been the type to sweat the small stuff. "Buehrle's my man," Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "[One day in spring training] when he pitched, the mounds were wet, and there weren't any groundskeepers around. We called but couldn't get anybody to come work on 'em. Mark just said, 'That's OK,' and went out into the outfield to warm up. The catcher crouched and everything, right there in left field. Then Buehrle pitched six perfect innings. He even asked me if he could work in the stretch one inning because he needed the practice. Some pitchers, most pitchers, they'd be toast if they had trouble with the bullpen mound. This kid is really special." Because of the easy commute, Buehrle's family spends a lot of time around U.S. Cellular Field. His one major purchase has been an 1,100-acre tract of land near St. Charles that he uses for hunting and riding four-wheelers. It was there, while atop a deer stand, that Jamie accepted his proposal of marriage. "A lot of people said, 'Man, you're a redneck for proposing in a tree stand,'" Buehrle said in a 2005 interview with the Chicago Tribune's Melissa Isaacson. "I was like, 'I like to be out in the country, I like to hunt.' If people want to say I'm a redneck, whatever, I don't care. That's my nature." Buehrle has frequently accepted invitations to attend the annual offseason baseball dinner in St. Louis, where he draws cheers when he says he loves the Cardinals and would like to pitch for them before his career is over. He was wearing a backward St. Louis cap when he was photographed attending the 2006 World Series, helping fuel speculation he would sign with the Cardinals if the White Sox let him reach free agency, but Buehrle denies that is his priority. "If anyone has a question thinking I'm going to St. Louis after this season when I'm a free agent, if it gets to that point, they're wrong," Buehrle said last week. "I want to stay here and do everything I can to stay here." If Buehrle said it, you can believe it. His word has been even better than his pitching since he hit town throwing 3-2 changeups for strikes. Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
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