When Jeremy Bonderman went to the mound in Oakland last Wednesday night the Tigers had won one of 18 games and were on their way to being anchor and talk-show host punch lines, not to mention lending themselves to a stockpile of negative footnotes to history.
He went out vividly recalling that it was the A's with whom he signed in August 2001 as the 26th pick in the June draft . Bonderman also remembered reading, before agreeing with Oakland, that the reason the deal was stalled was that owner Steve Schott was quoted as saying he "didn't want to give $1.5 million to someone who can't read or write."
Jeremy Bonderman reached the big leagues with just 157 innings of minor-league ball.
Two years before Bonderman went to the mound he was a junior at Pasco (Wash.) High School. And here he was, pitching in front of Schott against the Athletics. "He is entitled to his opinion," the 20-year old said. "But I didn't think that was fair, or right. Did it hurt? A little. Sure. He doesn't understand what it's like to work through being dyslexic."
Oakland general manager Billy Beane and scouting director Grady Fuson eventually convinced Schott that Bonderman was worth signing, and the insensitive, boorish comment from the A's owner was put aside. Yes, Jeremy Bonderman, who grew up in a solid, working-class environment in the tri-state farm country, was not going to go to Stanford, or Washington State for that matter. He was an average student who prided himself "on working as hard as I could, trying to overcome a learning disability."
As he emerged as one of the nation's best high school pitchers his junior year, he said "I knew if I went to college that it would be to junior college." Scouts suggested to his parents, Gene and Dory, that if he passed the GED as an 18-year-old junior he could possibly be eligible for the draft. The Bondermans worked with the school board, the principal and college advisor. They notified Major League Baseball of their intentions, looking not to pull a surprise and try to become a free agent, but simply make their son eligible for the draft.
When Bonderman indeed passed the GED, the commissioner's office made him eligible for the draft. "I believed this was the best way for me to go," Bonderman said. "Believe me, I thought it out. We talked my future out with a lot of people, especially everyone at school."
I wasn't down. I felt I belonged here. I trust in what got me here. ”
— Jeremy Bonderman on starting his career 0-3.
Then on July 6, when the A's, Tigers and Yankees swung a three-way deal that sent Jeff Weaver to the Yankees and Ted Lilly to Oakland, Bonderman was a key -- but unnamed because he couldn't be traded until a year after his August signing date -- figure in the Detroit end of the deal (with Franklyn German and Carlos Pena). To Beane, Bonderman was a great prospect who was a chip. Since the A's are not prone to high school pitchers, Beane felt Bonderman could be used to keep Oakland a contender. Beane took two of the players in the deal (OF John Ford-Griffin and RHP Jason Arnold) and traded them for Erubiel Durazo. So in effect he traded Bonderman for Durazo and Lilly. "I understand that," Bonderman said. "The trade was a big break for me because it gave me an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues."
When he went to the mound Wednesday night, Bonderman was already 0-3. "I wasn't down," he said. "I felt I belonged here. I trust in what got me here."
And after a spring training in which a down franchise billed him as the future, he was unfazed. "I don't look at my situation as pressure," Bonderman said. "I look at it as opportunity. I feel badly for my teammates, because we're all better than what's happened and I know we're going to play much better."
Wednesday night, Bonderman shut down the A's with eight brilliant innings and this line: 8 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K. He threw in the 90's with a dominating curveball and when Matt Anderson escaped the ninth, the Tigers had their second win of the season, 4-1. "It was a tremendous feeling," Bonderman said. "It was especially meaningful because the first call I got in the clubhouse was from Billy Beane, who congratulated me and told me how proud he is to have had me in the organization."
There is no question that this kid who could well have been a college freshman this season is a prodigy after reaching the major leagues with 157 innings pitched after his junior year. But it isn't as simple as walking out and becoming the next Jack Morris.
History shows that the growing pains of high school pitching phenoms are far greater than any 20-year old realizes, especially when he's in the big leagues and feeling invincible. But look at the accompanying boxes of starting pitchers who were drafted out of high school and made the majors before their 22nd birthdays:
Player (current age)
Jeremy Bonderman (20)
Brett Myers (22)
C.C. Sabathia (22)
Josh Beckett (23)
Jake Peavy (22)
Rick Ankiel (23)
OTHER HIGH SCHOOL PITCHERS WHO DEBUTED BEFORE 22:
Kerry Wood (25)
Roy Halladay (26)
Ryan Dempster (26)
Jon Garland (23)
Jaret Wright (27)
Chris George (23)
Gil Meche (24)
Brad Penny (25)
Matt Riley (23)
Bud Smith (23)
Jeff Suppan (28)
Nate Cornejo (22)
Steve Karsay (31)
Todd Van Poppell (31)
Others:Pat Mahomes, Brian Rose, Brian Buchanan, Reggie Harris, Brent Knackert, Kent Mercker, Jim Pittsley, Bill Pulsipher, Arthur Rhodes, John Roper, Jeff Juden, Jamey Wright, Rob Wolcott, Pete Schourek.
Of the 33 high school pitchers who debuted before their 22nd birthday dating back to 1990, one has won 19 games (Roy Halladay in his eighth pro season), one has won 17 (C.C. Sabathia in his rookie season), one has won 15 games (Ryan Dempster, in his seventh pro season). Kerry Wood and Sterling Hitchcock each have career highs of 13 wins.
A lot can happen. Ask Rick Ankiel. Or Wood, who now that he is approaching his 26th birthday is healthy, mature and ready to win 14 games for the first time in his career. Gil Meche looked as if he had No. 1 starter stuff. Two shoulder operations later, he is on the road back to that level. Halladay reached the majors with one-hit stuff, but it wasn't until last season that he blossomed. Jaret Wright burst onto the scene at 21 in 1997, started the seventh game of the World Series and won 12 games the next season. Now he is trying to come back with the Padres as a reliever.
Sabathia reached the majors at the age of 20 with 227 innings of pro experience and won 17 games. Two years later, he is learning. Oh, he has hired a personal chef and lost 3 percent of his body fat since the beginning of spring training, and where two years ago he was getting 7-something runs a start, now the Indians are a struggling offensive team. But there are numbers that are distressing. His strikeouts per nine innings have declined each season from 8.53 to 6.39 to 4.94. What the Indians yet don't know is what he is: a No. 1, 2 or 3 starter.
San Diego's Jake Peavy and Philadelphia's Brett Myers seem to be on the path of Dempster, who became a 14- and 15-game winner quickly (although he hit a wall last season). Peavy has the advantage of 432 minor-league innings.
Two of the best pitchers of their era, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, went through growing pains. Maddux was 8-18 in his first two seasons, Glavine 7-17 in his first full year. They endured, but Steve Avery did not, averaging 222 innings and 16 wins from age 21-23 and never throwing as well again.
One of the best examples is Josh Beckett, who has 10 major-league wins at 23, yet remains healthy and a near sure-fire bet for stardom. Beckett was rushed up to the majors with less than 200 professional innings. Then last year, he was bothered all season by blister problems. "We tried everything," Marlins pitching coach Brad Arnsberg said. Indeed, Beckett tried superglue that tore off the skin. He tried rice, cow urine and, finally, late in the season he got hold of a vial of dermabond called "Stan's Rodeo Cream."
And Stan's Rodeo Cream worked. Beckett applies a vial of the cream the three days he throws between starts. It is expensive since each vial costs $40 and he uses the entire vial every time he throws. But the investment is worth it to the Marlins, who appreciate that Beckett has the stuff and the makeup to be a star.
This week, the Royals, having tried everything for Jeremy Affeldt's blisters, called the Marlins to get what Beckett has. "We took Jeremy to a cosmetic surgeon, everything," GM Allard Baird said. "He's going to change the way he holds his changeup and curveball, but that's very slight. We believe this will work." In case you haven't seen Affeldt, he's on a terrific young staff and is regarded as the man.
Wood and Meche had surgery get in the way. Ankiel had his temporary detour. Sabathia has had to grow up. Even Maddux and Glavine learned instant humility.
It won't be easy for Bonderman, any more than it will be for Peavy and Myers and Beckett. But, less than two years since sitting in a classroom in Pasco, Wash., as a high school junior, he walked out onto the mound for a 1-18 team in front of an owner whose ignorant comment tore at his heart and defeated a team that had won 205 games the last two seasons.
From Oakland, Bonderman and his Tigers teammates went to Seattle, where he spent the weekend with his fiancée. "That one game is history," he said. "The next start is the present. But to my parents and all the people who reassured me that leaving school and going into the draft was the right thing to do, I am forever thankful."