Matt Anderson's life after octopus story
Reliever ready to move from legend of how his career was halted and make comeback
PHILADELPHIA -- Before you learn anything about Matt Anderson's hopes, dreams or chances of authoring the comeback of the baseball summer with the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, it's a good idea to dispense with the octopus story.
In May 2002, when radar guns lit up in his presence and a promising landscape stretched out before him, Anderson took part in a novel pregame promotion in Detroit. The Tigers, putting an interesting slant on a Stanley Cup tradition, held an octopus-throwing contest for fans at Comerica Park, with the winner earning a limo ride to Joe Louis Arena and tickets to a playoff game between the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche.
Anderson and pitcher Jeff Weaver agreed to take part in the competition and toss boiled octopuses -- or octopi, if you prefer -- underhanded into a bucket from a distance of 20 feet.
"They were tiny little things," Anderson said by phone. "Not like the giant squids you see on the Discovery Channel."
All was well and good until later that night when Anderson tore a muscle in his armpit while warming up in the bullpen. The injury led to a steep decline, and Anderson was out of the major leagues by 2005 and apparently finished with affiliated ball in 2008, when the Chicago White Sox cut him loose.
To this day, Anderson insists that his injury was the result of too many lat pull-downs on the weight machine rather than that goofy Comerica Park promotion. But there's something magical about the combination of Major League Baseball and cephalopod mollusks that makes everyone want to believe the story.
John Smoltz will never live down the perception that he suffered burns while ironing a shirt that he was wearing at the time. And Anderson's career-ending octopus encounter has entered the ranks of urban legend.
"It's almost too awesome not to believe," Anderson said. "How many people throw octopuses and hurt their arm on the same night?"
The bizarre ending seemed vaguely appropriate for Anderson, who was once described by a Detroit writer as "amusing, mysterious, cerebral, free-spirited, or, frequently, all of the above." At his hard-throwing peak, Anderson packed a little Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn and a lot of Sidd Finch into one dominating and entertaining package. The only difference is, Rick and Sidd never wore a tongue ring.
Now the pitcher who occasionally hit 103 mph on the radar gun is furiously trying to make up for lost time.
Late last week, the Phillies went into "blast from the past" mode and announced that they had signed Anderson to a one-year minor league contract. At age 34, Anderson is hoping to pitch in the majors for the first time in six years and rediscover the promise he displayed in 1997 when the Tigers selected him No. 1 overall in the draft -- ahead of future big leaguers J.D. Drew, Vernon Wells, Jon Garland, Jayson Werth and his Rice University teammate, Lance Berkman.
Scout Del Unser recently watched Anderson throw three times in Arizona and kept lobbying the Phillies to sign him before word spread among other clubs. After general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. stretched the team's budget to the max with the Cliff Lee deal in December, he was happy to take a flyer on a low-risk, high-upside power arm. If Anderson makes it to the majors this year, he will earn a modest salary of $500,000.
"Quite honestly, I don't think there are any expectations on our part," said Mike Ondo, the Phillies' director of professional scouting. "This is a guy who's put his time in and dedicated himself to getting back, and we're going to give him a shot and see where it goes."
It's almost too awesome not to believe. How many people throw octopuses and hurt their arm on the same night?'" -- Matt Anderson
If the rust and attrition are too much to overcome, the Phillies have nothing to lose. And if Anderson rediscovers a semblance of his former self, manager Charlie Manuel might have a seventh-inning acetylene torch on his hands.
During his brief peak with Detroit in 2001, Anderson converted 22 of 24 save opportunities, struck out 52 batters in 56 innings and routinely flashed upper 90s and triple digits on the gun. He showed enough promise to warrant a three-year, $9.7 million contract extension following that season.
And just like that, it went poof. Anderson's problems eventually spread to his shoulder. He lost his velocity and self-confidence, and his post-injury odyssey tested his spirit and his ability to handle rejection. He tried and failed to stick with the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants, made a cameo with the Bridgeport Bluefish in the independent Atlantic League, and last pitched for the White Sox's Triple-A farm club in Charlotte in 2008.
In hindsight, Anderson admits that he lacked the maturity and insight to adapt to pitching with inferior stuff. Ultimately, it took some personal turmoil to make him re-examine his direction in life: While his baseball career was flat-lining, Anderson was also going through a lengthy and difficult divorce that was compounded by the presence of three sons and a daughter.
"Things were kind of shaky, and it made me realize you can't go halfway into a relationship or into baseball," Anderson said. "I was putting 50 percent into each thing and getting zero back from either one. That's not the place to be."
About 18 months ago, Anderson formulated a plan. He would immerse himself in the lives of his kids -- sons Jacob, Nathan and Joe and daughter Sunshine, who are now ages 10 through 5. And then he would give baseball one more try to ease his own misgivings and give the kids something to remember.
But how could he make it back? Joe Longo, Anderson's representative at Paragon Sports International, told him that if he were truly serious about a comeback, he needed to make a full-time commitment. Longo suggested that Anderson pack up and move to Phoenix to work out at Fischer Sports, the renowned complex run by Brett Fischer, former strength and conditioning coordinator for the Chicago Cubs.
True to his character, Anderson didn't take long to spring into action. He geared up for his new adventure by chopping wood at his home in Kentucky before climbing in his parents' Cadillac and hitting the road.
First Anderson drove from Louisville to Atlanta to say goodbye to the kids. Then he headed west to California to see his friend and former Tigers teammate, Robert Fick, who had possession of the two game gloves -- a Mizuno and a Rawlings -- that Anderson used during his last stint in pro ball.
After continually badgering Fick to send him the gloves, to no avail, Anderson figured it would be easier to just pass through California on his way to Phoenix and pick them up in person.
"For Robert to muster up what it took to go to the packing store, find my address and all that stuff, I didn't think that was going to happen," Anderson said.
When Anderson finally walked through the door of the Fischer Sports complex in September, he had a beard and long, flowing hair and was clad in shorts, a T-shirt and a pair of flip-flops.
"They said he looked like Jesus," Longo said.
But Anderson came prepared to work. He would arrive at 6:45 a.m. each day and stay until 1:30 p.m. and do stretching, conditioning and weight training under the supervision of trainer Chip Gosewisch, the brother of Phillies catching prospect Tuffy Gosewisch. Lots of unemployed NFL players passed through the Fischer Sports facility, and Anderson joined in as they spent time wielding sledgehammers, flipping tires and doing lots of other fun activities that got him "jacked and ready to go."
Anderson also struck up a friendship with a professional cyclist named Alexandra Graebe. She convinced him to cut his hair, and they found that they shared a passion for fitness and their respective sports. They recently began dating, and she invited him to spend Christmas dinner with her family.
Anderson didn't take the mound until early December, but his velocity quickly crept into the 90-94 mph range, and he even popped a few fastballs at 96 and 97. Each time Del Unser saw him, he kept coming back to his Phillies superiors with encouraging reports.
"I was going to parade Matt in front of all 30 teams," Longo said. "But right away he said 'Try to focus on the Phillies. This team has a real chance to win a World Series, and I know I can help and I want to be part of that.' I started listing the other people in the Phillies' bullpen and he said 'I don't care.' That's what I love about Matt. He's not afraid of going in to compete."
After signing with Philadelphia on Friday, Anderson attended a minicamp with some other pitchers in Clearwater, Fla. Manuel, pitching coach Rich Dubee and several members of the team's brass were in attendance.
One morning Anderson rolled in at 6:30 and saw a BMW pull up, and out stepped Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, who maintains a grueling work regimen even in the offseason. The two pitchers spoke, and Halladay shared the story of his early days in Toronto, when he was such a mess that the Blue Jays sent him all the way to Class A Dunedin for a refresher course. A decade later, Halladay is on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Anderson is long past that point, but he still has time for a comeback that would be the baseball equivalent of Mickey Rourke being nominated for an Oscar in "The Wrestler." It's no wonder Anderson's cell phone began blowing up with messages from well-wishers over the weekend.
"Whatever happens, I'm cool with it," Anderson said. "But there's no doubt in my mind that I'll pitch in the big leagues again."
Everybody else might view him as a long shot or a novelty act, but Anderson doesn't see it that way. He's ready to return to the minors, log the time and do whatever is necessary to work his way to Citizens Bank Park.
The day after the Phillies' minicamp, Anderson caught a flight back to Phoenix. The morning after that he was back at Fischer Sports, grunting, sweating and throwing. This time, he plans to stick exclusively to throwing baseballs.