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Saturday, May 3, 2014
Does pitching velocity matter?
By Hunter Atkins
ESPN The Magazine
AROLDIS CHAPMAN, HE of the 105 mph heater, might reign as baseball's velocity king, but several other young guns, including Trevor Rosenthal of the Cardinals and Kelvin Herrera of the Royals, are aiming to at least share the crown. Simply put, the 100 mph club isn't nearly as exclusive as it once was because pitchers are now larger, their arms are stronger and their fastballs are faster. "Guys are just throwing the dog crap out of the ball," says Cubs special assistant Tim Wilken. Bruce Rondon had a chance to top them all. In 2013, the Tigers reliever threw half as many pitches as Chapman did, but he fired an MLB-leading 33 percent of them above 100 mph, topping out at 102.8. Then he blew out his elbow this spring, revealing the often high price of throwing high heat. Here's a hard and fast look at hitting triple digits.
1. More pitchers are cranking it up ...
In 2003, then-Astros closer Billy Wagner was the only pitcher to hit 100 mph on at least 20 pitches that season. Last year that was a seven-man club. No reliable pitch-speed-tracking data go back more than a decade, but the eye test of scouts and execs will attest to the growth of the fireballer. "This is my 29th year in baseball," says Deric Ladnier, special assistant to the Nationals GM, "and I see more guys throwing 100 than I ever have." Many more pitchers are regularly reaching the mid-90s. A decade ago, just 37 pitchers threw 25 percent of their fastballs 95 mph or faster; last season, 149 guys lived in the 95-99 zone. Says Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, "It's unusual now to face guys who don't throw in the mid-90s on a consistent basis."
2 ... Especially relievers, who can go all out
In the past decade, average fastball velocity for starters and relievers has crept up, but the triple-digit trend is almost exclusively a bullpen thing. That's because unlike starters, relievers tend to rely on one or two pitches -- and their out pitch is usually a plus-plus heater. As pens become more specialized, relievers are throwing more innings overall but averaging fewer per appearance. That means they can go full throttle for a few outs, unloading peak velocity.
3. Science is better, and pitchers are bigger ...
Why do pitchers throw harder? Many reasons: Better training has made them more fit and athletic. Sophisticated throwing programs have yielded stronger arms. Radar guns at every level, down to Little League, have created an obsession with velocity. Advancements in Tommy John surgery have given pitchers new ligaments and new life. (From 2000 to 2011, 304 major league pitchers had TJ; only 10 didn't make it back to the mound.) Finally, pitchers are just plain bigger, from an average of 6-foot-1 and 189 pounds in 1955 to nearly 6-3, 206 today. A taller pitcher has a longer stride, and a heavier pitcher can generate more force, so more size makes for more speed.
4 ... But the heater can burn ...
According to Glenn Fleisig, a biomedical engineer at the American Sports Medicine Institute, when a pitcher cocks back to fire 100 mph, he subjects his elbow to 100 newton meters of torque. That's the equivalent of holding "five 12-pound bowling balls." A 2010 study by orthopedic surgeon Brandon D. Bushnell followed 23 pitchers over three seasons. Nine of them hurt their elbows. Bushnell concluded that "pitchers capable of throwing at a higher maximum velocity had higher risk of elbow injury" and "players throwing at the highest velocity had injuries requiring surgical reconstruction." Quite literally, the elbow can't handle the heat. As Fleisig says, "The highest-velocity guys have the highest chances of getting hurt."
5 ... As Rondon's story shows
In spring training, Dombrowski said of his right-hander, "This is hard for people to fathom: Rondon can throw 100 easily." When it was mentioned that studies show the hardest-throwing pitchers are at the most risk, Dombrowski responded, "There are a lot of exceptions in our game." A month later, Rondon walked into the trainer's office complaining of elbow pain. Two days later, he met with Dr. James Andrews. Two days after that, Dombrowski announced that Rondon needed Tommy John surgery to repair the torn UCL in his pitching elbow. It will cost Rondon the entire season. He'll have to wait until next year -- at least -- to catch up to Chapman.
10 things SAT scores won’t tell you
By Catey Hill, MarketWatch
1. We’re no longer the gold standard in testing.
The SAT (the college admissions test formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) — and the anxiety that comes with it — have plagued students for roughly a century now.
The first standardized admissions test, administered in 1901, was an essay-only exam developed by a group of U.S. colleges, including Harvard, that wanted a uniform way to determine if prospective students could handle college coursework. In 1926, the first multiple-choice SAT was administered, according to the College Board.
Today, the SAT holds a critical spot in the college admissions process. While only 8,000 students took the test in 1926, more than 1.6 million did last year. That’s partially because now the majority of four-year colleges require prospective students to take the SAT, or its cousin, the ACT, before they will admit them. The cost of college is soaring — in the past decade, the average annual cost of a public four-year college increased by an inflation-adjusted 37% to $18,391 — and many scholarships are tied to test performance. Plus, college is a must for many students who want careers: theunemployment rate for college graduates is just 3.4%, compared to 6.3% for those with just a high-school diploma.
So it’s no wonder that parents and students looked on with interest (and alarm) when in March, the College Board, which operates the SAT, announced that it would revamp the test, getting rid of the mandatory essay and obscure vocabulary words, adding more reading materials from across disciplines like science and social studies and shifting a perfect score from 2400 back to 1600, with a separate score for the optional essay. The College Board says that the moves — which will take effect in spring 2016 — are designed to make the test “more focused and useful than ever before.” “The College Board is making a commitment to increase the college and career readiness of all students by offering a solution that goes well beyond simply administering another test — and well beyond what is offered by the ACT,” says Katherine Levin, a spokeswoman for the College Board.
But critics say that some of these moves make the SAT more like its arch-nemesis, the ACT, and that these moves may have been, at least in part, borne out of the fact that the SAT has lost its once-dominant spot to the ACT. “The College Board was feeling pressure from this,” says Joseph Soares, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University and the author of “SAT Wars.” In 2012, for the first time ever, more students took the ACT (1,666,017) than the SAT (1,664,479), a trend that continued into 2013 when roughly 140,000 more students took the ACT than the SAT, according to FairTest, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a non-profit testing watchdog organization. And that will likely happen again this year, says Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest.
There are many reasons for this shift, including the fact that you don’t “need” the SAT to go to college anymore. Almost all schools will now accept the ACT, and the ACT is perceived as more consumer friendly than the SAT, as its writing section is optional, there’s no deduction for wrong answers and its subject areas tend to more closely reflect what’s learned in high school, says Schaeffer. Plus, for years, the ACT aggressively marketed itself as a supplement for high school exit exams, which are supposed to reflect students’ readiness to graduate, says Schaeffer; thus the ACT now has contracts to test the eleventh graders in 13 states, which means that nearly all students in these states automatically take the ACT anyway.
2. The richer you are, the better you do.
Money talks — at least when it comes to college admissions tests like the SATs. In 2013, students whose families had annual income of less than $20,000 scored an average of 1326; between $40,000 and $60,000, an average of 1461; between $100,000 and $120,000 an average of 1569; and more than $200,000, an average of 1714. This relationship between income and performance has been around for years, the data show. “Kids from wealthy families do better on the test,” says Soares.
Part of this discrepancy is that family income is “connected to a least half a dozen other factors” that give richer kids better opportunities to score well on the SAT, including the fact that wealthier families tend to send their children to better schools and parents in these families tend to be better educated themselves, says Jay Rosner, the executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to test fairness.
Plus, wealthier families can afford pricey test prep, Rosner adds. “Some people pay $5,000 to $10,000 or more for private tutors,” he says — which helps ensure the students do the prep work and learn test-taking strategies to help on the test. The College Board points out that it is partnering with Khan Academy to create free test-prep materials. But Soares says that this won’t do anything to change the rich/poor score discrepancy, as “there are already a lot of free materials online and the digital divide is not going away — kids in the bottom 50% still will not have access to materials.”
3. We favor white and Asian men.
Income isn’t the only factor that’s highly correlated with SAT scores — ethnicity is, as well. In general, Asians get the highest scores (1645 on average) on the SAT, followed by whites (1576). Compare that to African-Americans (who tend to score lowest at 1278), Puerto Ricans (1354) and Mexican or Mexican-American test-takers (1355), and you’ll see a 200+ point score differential. That trend holds up in other years — a study by Rosner found that Latinos and African-Americans tend to score about 67 and 100 points lower, respectively, on both the math and verbal sections than whites.
Gender matters, too. In 2013, women scored an average of 1,486, while men scored 1,512. That’s also a long-standing trend Rosner says, with women scoring about 33 points lower than men on the math section on average. Women and men get roughly equal verbal scores.
Some say that these gaps reflect differences in things like wealth, income or quality of schools, to name a few. But Rosner says that this is the result, in large part, of how the College Board selects test questions. The test makers select new questions for the test that fall along a certain point on the age-old bell curve (so that a certain percentage of people get it right and a certain percentage get it wrong) — and “they kick out questions that mess up the bell curve,” says Soares. That means that the test may inadvertently discriminate, Rosner says: “If high-scoring test-takers — who are more likely to be white (and male, and wealthy) — tend to answer the question correctly in pre-testing, it’s a worthy SAT question; if not, it’s thrown out,” writes Rosner in a 2003 study . He notes that while race and ethnicity are not considered explicitly, “racially disparate scores drive question selection, which in turn reproduces racially disparate test results in an internally reinforcing cycle.”
“Years of research have consistently demonstrated that the SAT is a valid predictor of first-year college success for all students, regardless of gender, race or socio-economic status,” says the College Board’s Levin. “We pre-test each question and gather statistics by race and ethnicity to make sure questions are fair to all students.”
4. We get the answers wrong on our own test.
By its own admission, the College Board has gotten the answers wrong on its own test and been forced to correct test-takers scores because of it. And in one case, it was a then 17-year old student who alerted them to the error.
But that may not be the most egregious of SAT errors, as some critics say that the test is flawed in other ways — in particular with respect to the essay portion of the SAT, as it doesn’t have a “right” answer. Indeed, Les Perelman, the former director of undergraduate writing at MIT, has blasted the essay because he says it rewards students who write longer essays (and as any writer knows, length doesn’t always mean quality) and it doesn’t focus on factual accuracy; others have complained that essay graders have too many essays to grade and may get grading fatigue.
The College Board points out that each essay is read by two people who give it a score between 1 and 6, and if the scores differ by more than one point, a third reader reads the essay. What’s more, this will become a moot point for some students come 2016, as the College Board will make the essay optional (though some schools may still require students to take it and turn in their scores).
5. We can be as bad as the airlines when it comes to fees.
Students and their parents can easily spend hundreds of dollars in a single year by taking the SAT, even though taking the actual test only costs $51. That’s thanks to all the ancillary fees that the College Board tacks on. Some of these fees include: $15 to register by phone or get scores by phone; $27.50 to change the date you want to take the test or where you’ll take it; $45 to join the waitlist for a test (this is only charged if you get admitted to take the test); $31 to rush test scores to a school; and a hefty $55 to get your test scored by a person rather than machine. And if you change your mind about one of these services, too bad: the fees are not refundable. “They are pushing the costs off on students,” says Soares.
The ACT also has a similar set of fees (it costs $52.50 to take the test with the optional writing portion), and The College Board does offer fee waivers for some students who can’t afford to pay these fees. Still, many students who don’t qualify for this waiver still find it a stretch to pay.
All those fees are padding the College Board’s bottom line. Though the organization is a non-profit, The College Board rakes in more than $750 million in annual revenue, according to its latest Form 990, and pays out $191 million in salaries and employee benefits and compensation (the compensation for the College Board’s former president Gaston Caperton was more than $1.4 million in 2011, and nearly two dozen employees made $200,000 or more). “The College Board gives the impression that it’s a low-budget educational institution, but it has its own building across from Lincoln Center and the previous president made $1.5 million,” says Schaffer, who says that the organization made $45 million in SAT revenue alone. The College Board also makes money from other exams like Advanced Placement tests, professional development and college-readiness programs and services and investment income, among other sources.
6. Schools say we’re less relevant.
More schools are making standardized tests like the SAT optional for admission. Schaffer says that more than 800 of the roughly 3,000 bachelor-degree granting colleges and universities in the U.S. are now test-optional — and it’s not just schools with less-than-stellar reputations. Top-tier schools like Wake Forest University , Bard College and Bowdoin College don’t require students to take the SAT (or ACT) to apply for admission; FairTest data show that the list of top-tier schools that don’t require the ACT or SAT has hit 150.
When Wake Forest made the decision to go test-optional starting in 2009, it said the move was designed to “broaden the applicant pool and increase access at Wake Forest for groups of students who are currently underrepresented at selective universities.” It seems to have had its desired effect : Wake Forest dean of admissions Martha Allman says that the school now has more students who are eligible for Pell Grants, which are given to low-income students who demonstrate financial need, more first-generation college students and more minorities.
Schaffer says that he thinks more colleges will follow suit, as schools realize that using SAT scores might not yield the best admissions results. He cites a 2014 study that examined 33 schools with test-optional policies and revealed that use of the SAT may “artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply.” Furthermore, the study found that “there are no significant differences either in cumulative GPA or graduation rates between submitters [those who opted to send in their test results] and non-submitters.” “It’s only going to take one of the more prestigious schools to go test-optional and then the dam will break,” says Soares.
Of course, most schools still require the SAT or ACT and many believe in its predictive ability. Elizabeth Heaton, a college admissions consultant for College Coach and former University of Pennsylvania senior admissions officer, says that strong SAT scores on math, for example, can often predict success in the school’s engineering program; and some studies show that the SAT performance does track first-year GPA. And, she adds that almost all students applying to college still have to take the SAT or ACT, even if their top pick is a test-optional school, as students usually apply to multiple schools to ensure they get into at least one.
7. We’re not the best predictor of your college success.
Whether or not your child will do well academically in college may have a lot less to do with her SAT scores than it does with her high school grade-point average, many studies show. A 2012 study of more than 3,000 college sophomores and seniors published by the Council for Aid to Education found that high school GPA was “the single best predictor of college GPA” and a study of nearly 80,000 students published in 2007 by the Center for Studies in Higher Education found that high school GPA is “ consistently the strongest predictor of four-year college outcomes.”
But that’s not to say that the SAT is worthless. Several studies — including one done by The College Board — show that SAT scores do help predict first-year college grades (though most also show that high school GPA is still a better predictor of college GPA in most years than standardized test scores).
The College Board’s Levin says that the SAT is rigorously researched and designed tests and studies show it is a “valid predictor of college success for all students.”
“Combine high school grades and test scores and you get more of a statistical punch, but it’s on a magnitude of just one to two percentage points more when you add in the test scores,” says Soares. “It’s not a lot of additional statistical power.”
8. We’ll haunt you forever.
There are plenty of things students hate about the SATs, but most think that once they’ve gotten into college all will be forgotten. Alas, you may be reliving those testing nightmares for decades to come, as some companies ask some applicants to submit their SAT scores. At Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Co. some new recruits — who don’t have years of work experience to fill out their resumes — are asked for their SAT scores. At other firms even senior executives have been asked for their scores. Alan Weatherbee, the senior vice president for talent search at public relations firm Allison + Partners, says that some hiring managers look at SAT scores because they are often “starved” for as many data points as they can get about a potential hire so they can make the smartest choice. “The companies see the SAT as something that measures general intelligence and ability,” says executive coach Marc Dorio, the author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Job Interview.” “They see it as another marker for the probability of success.” Goldman Sachs did not respond to request for comment and McKinsey & Co. declined to comment.
Critics say this kind of requirement can be unfairly biased against some candidates. “SAT scores tell you nothing about performance in careers -- that’s laughable,” says Rosner. “It doesn’t tell you anything specific about the real world.” But others say that there is some value in this. “What is being tested [on the SAT] is important for your career,” says Shiv Gaglani, the author of “Standing Out on the SAT and ACT: Perfect Scorers’ Uniquely Effective Strategies for Testing and Admissions Success.” He says that the vocabulary and grammar that the test examines can help you write better, and that basic math skills help you problem solve — both of which are essential career skills. And a low score doesn’t always mean no job: Boston Consulting Group told The Wall Street Journal that while the firm doesn’t set minimum SAT score requirements, it does ask candidates with low math scores to show other skills like leadership or subject-matter expertise.
9. Cheating plagues us.
The College Board investigates a couple thousand cases of SAT cheating each year, says Schaeffer — and in some cases, the incidences make splashy headlines. Last year, officials cancelled the May 4 SAT exam in South Korea when they learned that questions from the SAT were being passed around test-prep centers (apparently, official test booklets could be bought for about $4,575 apiece); it was the first time the tests had been called off in an entire country for suspected cheating. And in 2011, a handful of Nassau County, New York teens were accused of paying other people thousands of dollars to take the SAT for them.
Thanks to stricter identification requirements at testing centers, officials for the most part have cracked down on this type of cheating where one student impersonates another, says Schaeffer. And though this kind of cheating still sometimes occurs, Schaeffer says that something called time-zone cheating is now more prevalent. That’s if a student in New York, for example, has a co-conspirator in London, which is six hours ahead, who takes the test and shares what the questions were like. Another more common type of cheating is when two or more students share answers with one another in the testing center, he adds. The College Board notes that it can take legal action against cheaters and has a list of rules that students must follow.
10. Your test anxiety may hurt your score.
A number of studies show that students who have high levels of test anxiety tend to score significantly worse on tests in general than those with low levels of test anxiety. A study published in the 2013 in the Universal Journal of Educational Research found that the level of test anxiety before an exam predicted a student’s score, and a study from 2003 found that students with higher text anxiety tended to score about one-third of a letter grade lower than those with low test anxiety.
Reactions to the SAT are no different, experts say, and can influence test scores. “It [the SAT] can be incredibly stressful,” says Heaton. Gaglani, who tutors kids for the SAT, says that the test can be “very stressful” because there is a lot of parental pressure, the kids know that their scores matter to get into college and get money for college, and they worry about how others will perceive their score.
There is also some evidence that students’ SAT scores in particular are lowered because of this type of worry. A study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics looked at students who had taken the SAT before the study and had severe test anxiety; the researchers then had them take a different version of the test again, but this time gave them a beta-blocker, and saw their scores jump 130 points, on average. The College Board’s Levin says that the new exam will be “more clear and open than ever before” and that there will be high-quality free practice materials that students can use to prep for the test.
March 27, 2014
HIS OWN PATH
By Pat Jordan
CLAYTON, N.C. -- "He was always a good boy," says his mother. "He stayed home a lot. He'd always come to me. When he got his own place, his dad used to cook for him. He'd come by to get his food. But now he comes less than before."
"I used to cut his hair," says his father. "But not now."
"I knew he'd play baseball some day," his mother says.
"I played catch with him," his father says. "When he was 12, I told him to pitch from a stretch, 'cause there were less mechanics involved. Keep it simple, I said. You can go to a full motion when you've mastered the stretch."
"One local man wanted to buy stock in him when he was in high school," says his mother. "We had a ballpark in the front yard. All the kids came to play. They'd come in the house, watch TV, play video games and drink sodas. Fifteen kids, all the time. Black and white, it didn't matter."
I'm sitting with Ron and Donna Archer at their kitchen table, drinking coffee at 7 a.m. in their tidy, modest home, in a rural area south of Raleigh, N.C. Donna is 63, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She looks like a much younger Cloris Leachman, who played a stoic farmer's wife in The Last Picture Show. Donna is like Leachman's character in that movie, only more voluble.
Ron is 55, with blue eyes, too, and sandy-colored hair flecked with gray. He looks like a much younger Tom Skerritt, the ruggedly handsome character actor. Ron is not so voluble as Donna. He sits at the table, his eyes downcast, nodding as his wife speaks. He's a working man of few words, and even those are said softly, hesitantly. He says he's "semi-retired" from his job as boss of a hardwood flooring crew. His broken arm is in a cast, and he has bad knees from years of kneeling on hardwood floors.
"I couldn't ask anyone to do something I wouldn't do," he says. "Even if I was the boss."
"Our son never caused us a moment's trouble," says Donna.
"When he started to hang out with friends, I told him, 'Be smart,'" says Ron.
Donna laughs. "I told him a whole lot more than that."
"'You are who you hang out with,' I say. "There are consequences,'" Ron says.
Donna looks at Ron with a small smile. "His dad told him that all the time," she says. "I told him, 'Remember where you came from. Remember who you are. Remember what is right.'"
"You play the game within white lines," says Ron, "and it determines how you play outside those lines in life. Be careful."
"Ron was a Navy brat," says Donna. "It was always, Yes, sir. No, sir. He taught Chris manners. He taught Chris how to present himself in the way he wants to be seen." Ron looks down at the table as if embarrassed.
"But we taught him to speak his mind, too," says Ron.
"Ron would whistle for him to come home. If he had to whistle twice, Chris' friends would give him a look, and he'd get home."
"I only popped him a few times in his life. Just with two fingers. The last time I ever did, he looked at me square in the face and said, 'Dad, that didn't hurt.' I said, 'I didn't intend it to hurt, son. But I got your attention.'"
There was a meowing sound coming from the garage. Donna smiles and says, "Feral cats. Animal control was rounding them up, so we adopted as many as we could. We adopted our dog, too. We called him Leftover, 'cause no one wanted him."
"That's how I broke my arm," says Ron. "I tripped over him. He couldn't get up no more, so I had to put him down."
"We adopted Chris when he was two," says Donna. "He lived with us and my daughter, Sonya, from a previous marriage, who was 22. She had blonde hair and blue eyes like me. Chris called her his sister. Chris was never traumatized by the adoption thing. It makes him normal, not different. It defines us and him. When Chris was 11, he put it together that Sonya was not his sister. She had given birth to Chris when she was 20. The father was not in the picture. But Sonya was only interested in what she wanted. When Chris was 2, Sonya wanted to follow some man to Fayetteville. We told her she couldn't take Chris. So she didn't. He was our son now."
"Nobody questioned it," says Ron.
"Oh, we had looks when we went out with Chris. But nobody ever said anything to us. It was never an issue in our house. We did not raise Chris as a little white boy. We did not raise him as a little black boy. We did not raise him as a little biracial boy. We just raised him as a little boy, like we wanted him to be raised. And that's what we did."
* * *
Christopher Alan Archer is the biological son of Sonya Archer, a blue-eyed blonde, and Darryl Magnum, a "tall, athletic, black" firefighter from Raleigh. He's also the maternal grandson of Donna Archer and step-grandson of Ron Archer, who are now, legally and in every other way, Chris Archer's mother and father. Archer is a 6-foot-3, lean-muscled, handsome young man of 25. He has soft brown eyes, close-cropped brown hair, cut in a fade. He is one of the best young pitchers in baseball.
Last season, Archer finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, after fashioning a 9-7 record with a 3.22 ERA over half a season with the Tampa Bay Rays. This year, he is expected to take his place in the Rays' awesome rotation. It took Archer seven years in the minor leagues, mostly the low minors, before he reached the major leagues for more than a brief stay. He was 17 when he began his odyssey and 24 when he was called up last season. It was a long, hard, frustrating slog. After three years in the minors, he had won five games and lost 18. The Cleveland Indians, the team that had drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, decided he was expendable and shipped him to the Cubs, who dealt him to the Rays two years later. Some front offices likely were put off by Archer's control problems, but the Rays' interest in him should have tipped off every other major league team. Rays GM Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon are visionaries when it comes to looking at young pitchers, the way Michelangelo looked at that flawed block of marble 600 years ago and saw in it the David. All he had to do was chip away the excess, and David would emerge.
* * *
I met Chris Archer for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on my first night in North Carolina. He showed up with a handsome black man in his 40s, whom he introduced as "Ron Walker, my mentor." The hostess led us to a booth in the far corner of the room. As we sat down, Archer said, "Wow! This is the same table where I met my father last February." He meant his biological father, Magnum. Walker had helped facilitate that first-ever meeting between father and son. It did not go well. Archer peppered his father with questions. Why had he never tried to contact his son? That sort of thing. Archer did not like the answers.
By the time his father had left, Archer said, he had already decided, "I had no intention of ever seeing him again. The type of person he was. He had three children with three different women. Zero of which he is in their lives. He couldn't tell what school his kids went to. I had no intention of trying to change a grown man who didn't want to be in my life."
I told Archer that I hadn't planned to ask him about his biological parents until tomorrow, after we'd gotten to know each other a bit. He smiled and said, "Yeah, I came out throwin' heat right off the bat."
When the waiter came to take our order, Archer discussed with Walker what he should eat. Walker suggested fish and steamed broccoli, nothing fried or with butter. One night, before Archer was to pitch a minor league game, he had called Walker and told him he was eating a pizza. Walker said, "You're eating what? Don't put that in your body. Spend $30 on something healthy."
Now, at Outback, Archer said, "He didn't want me to put regular gas in my high-performance engine. We talk all the time."
"We always dialogue back and forth," said Walker. "It's a wonderful thing."
"He's like my brother," said Archer.
Walker looked at him sternly and said, "Uncle."
Like Archer, Walker was adopted, at the age of 3. His adoptive parents were the only mother and father he ever knew. His parents are older now, his father retired after 28 years as a petty officer in the Navy, his mother suffering from dementia. (She had already called him three times since we sat down to dinner.) Walker has a 5-year-old daughter whom he named Kristen, after Archer.
"Chris started with no family, and now he has two," said Walker.
After the waiter left, Archer told me essentially the same story his parents had about Sonya. How he'd thought she was his sister. How his parents gave her an ultimatum when she wanted to take Archer to Fayetteville. He said they told Sonya that she wasn't responsible enough to raise a child on her own, that Chris was staying with them. "And that's how I got adopted by Ron and Donna Archer," he said.
Archer didn't realize that Sonya was not his sister until he was 10 or 11 -- "when I started to see color," he said. Archer speaks very slowly, deliberately, when he says something heartfelt -- or something he considers a deep intellectual insight -- as if chipping out his words on the Rosetta Stone. He takes great pains to get right what comes out of his mouth. "I realized I was different from these three people with blonde hair and blue eyes when I got to middle school." His parents never told him he was biracial, he said, "because in their minds no explanation was necessary." In their minds, they were simply his loving parents. What explanation was necessary?
By middle school, he realized that Ron Archer was his step-grandfather, and that there was nothing "Archer" in his blood. But he also realized, he said, "that love is stronger than blood. My dad was the type of guy who woke up at 4 a.m. to go to work. He was the last one to leave, so he could make overtime, to benefit me. I never wanted for anything -- jeans, sweaters, gloves. My mother worked in a car rental agency. My parents worked their ass off for me. That's how Dad got his bad knees, from kneeling on those hardwood floors for years."
Our food came. Walker and I started to eat. Archer didn't. He kept talking about his father. "I wear 'Archer,' on my back every game in baseball," he said. "This white person, who took in an interracial child in the South. I am going to rep that name, Archer, until I die."
Ron Archer hadn't given his son long, verbose monologues on the meaning of life. His style was minimalist. A look. A smile. A frown. A few words. Keep it simple. Be careful. Be smart. ("He knew what I meant," Ron Archer would later tell me.)
Chris Archer's mother, however, was more verbal. "She told me that being different was OK," he said. "It helped me evolve into being different in my thoughts. I learned things common in this world are uncommon. Things uncommon, like me, are normal." It didn't hurt that Archer grew up in an "uncommon" neighborhood, which was, first, predominately white, and second, "a neighborhood of outcasts," he said. "A lesbian couple lived across the street. A gay couple lived near them. There was a Mormon couple with six kids. They all loved me. I was like the perfect fit there."
It wasn't until the sixth grade, he said, that he had a "black-white identity crisis. Who am I? What am I? I hung out with black kids. I hung out with white kids. I was the messenger between them. I had to make a choice. So I did. I became the class clown, so I'd make them all laugh, and then they'd like me."
His relationship with black kids in middle school was somewhat jarring for him, for two reasons. He had thought only whites were prejudiced against blacks, but he learned "there were black prejudices against light-skinned black people." Furthermore, he said, he didn't really know how to "be black," because of the way he was raised. "I was never introduced to anyone who was black in my family, until I met my biological father last February."
When Archer was in the eighth grade, Walker discovered him. He was a youth baseball coach, always looking for talent. Although Archer was not a pitcher at the time, Walker immediately saw "that Archer had a great arm," Walker said over dinner. "I asked him, 'Can you pitch?' He said, 'OK.' So I said, 'Then you're gonna be the guy.'"
"I was never 'the guy,'" Archer said. "I thought maybe I'd play football."
"He was a blank slate," said Walker. "But he was curious. I told him he'd have to trust me, and we formed a quick relationship. When I challenged him with his first book to read, he read it and said it was good. So I thought he was teachable."
"I saw Ron as an avenue to learn more about myself," said Archer. "He educated me. He gave me books to read."
* * *
The following morning, I met Archer at his gym, one of those expensive facilities with physical therapy and orthopedics, for famous athletes in training or rehab and for old people dealing with knee replacements. Archer changed into his workout clothes and then lay down on a cot while a trainer stretched his muscles. Once he was loose, Archer went into the gym to long toss with another pitcher, a minor leaguer. I watched them throw.
Archer has a big, slow, deliberate throwing motion. It's technically correct but obviously learned. He had come to pitching late, and it showed in his motion. He seemed to be looking at his body as he threw, as if going through a checklist: pump, raise left leg, extend arm, drive forward. ... Archer throws the same way he talks, each part of his motion separated from the next, making sure he's doing it right -- conscious and labored over, rather than effortless and natural. Still, Archer shows considerable physical talent. He has a perfect pitcher's body, long arms and long legs, and a classic (if studied) overhand fastball motion. His fastball regularly hits 95 mph and occasionally 98, and he has one of the best sliders in the game. He throws it hard, 90 mph, and it breaks sharp and late. In fact, he sometimes has better control of his slider than his fastball. What he doesn't have yet is an established off-speed pitch, a changeup or curveball. He is a Johnny One Note on the mound: hard and harder.
After signing for a $145,000 bonus with the Indians in 2006, Archer struggled with control problems, walking 7.7 batters per nine innings in his debut season. For the first time in his life, he said, he began to doubt himself. "I had great parents who always encouraged me to see myself as something special," he told me. "I felt I was world-class, a special breed in myself. I had supreme confidence until the minors. I began to have doubts. I called Ron Walker and told him maybe I should go into football. He told me he never wanted to hear that from me. He said if I was trying to accomplish something, anything you think outside that will hold you back. He said I was in uncharted waters and had to figure out how long this would take."
It took Archer almost five years before he started to figure out his pitching. He had to lighten up, be less dogmatic, stop trying to throw every fastball by a hitter. "It was a struggle," he said. "I had to learn to understand my body movement. That's why I'm slower in my motion. Being slower helps me command my fastball. I have to be always conscious of my motion. It's one of my stepping stones to success."
Archer posted a 15-3 minor league record the year before he was traded to the Rays, along with a 2.34 ERA, both by far the best numbers of his career. The secret to his turnaround, he told me, was this: "My background prepared me to overcome struggles in baseball and life. Somebody didn't want me, and that prepared me to deal with failure. I came from a different situation than most." He mentioned his Rays teammate Wil Myers, the AL Rookie of the Year at age 21 last season. "I was always the second choice," Archer told me. "Myers came from a wealthy, loving family. He was an All-American. He got a $2 million bonus. After four years, he was a Rookie of the Year. He never failed like me."
Back in high school, when it was touch-and-go whether Archer would be drafted to play baseball, one of his high school coaches told him it would be best for him to go to a Division III college and play football. "It was a lesson for me," Archer said. "I learned not to accept people's reality as my own. They didn't think I'd be drafted. They didn't have my talent and couldn't fathom it." Like most self-educated young men, Archer was locked into his own certitudes. They had gotten him this far, so why look under that rock of the unknown? His quest for knowledge and self-awareness was selective; he wanted to know only what he wanted to know. Is he religious? "My parents never put religion on me. It was a blessing." Is he a Christian? "I can't say." Then, annoyed, he added, "Religion isn't something I want to discuss."
Archer finished his throwing and came over to me. We talked a little about my experiences as a minor league pitcher. I told him he threw nicely, but his motion was too deliberate. If he sped it up just a bit, he would probably add two or three mph to his fastball and slider. He gave me a look and said, "That's your opinion," and walked away.
We left the gym to drive to his house. Archer drives a beautiful Mercedes Benz CLS 63 AMG. Very powerful, very classy, around a six-figure sticker price. His was only slightly used, and he said he paid around $80,000 for it. "It's the only money I spent from my bonus," he said. I asked him if he had bought anything for his parents. He said no. ("We don't expect anything," his mother Donna later told me. "We got our stuff on our own. If we needed it, I'm sure it would be there for us.")
Archer lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Garner, a few miles from Clayton, where he was born and raised. It's a secluded neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, dead ends and then an exit onto a main road. The houses all look the same, small split-levels and ranches, like they were built all at once by a developer. We went in through the garage into a kitchen that looked new. Archer said, "Ron Walker helped me buy this house. It was in foreclosure. Then he helped me restore it. The kitchen is new."
When I asked Walker what he did for a living, back at the Outback, he was vague: "I'm into real estate. Investments."
"Ron and I are looking at some investments we might go into," Archer said. "What investments?" I asked. "I can't say right now," Archer said.
Walker told me that these investments would be in "the futuristic part of Chris' career," when he had "significantly more money to invest. It's Chris' way of giving back to me" -- for Walker's years of mentoring Archer -- "by investing with me."
Archer went into his bedroom to change. His living room was dominated by a huge TV screen on one wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on another. There was a big color photo of Archer in his Rays uniform, throwing up his arms in jubilation after his first major league victory. There were a few handmade Christmas cards around the room from his half-sister, Robyn. Sonya is married again, with two children, Robyn and Dallas, who also are biracial. Robyn's card was inscribed to "The Best Brother Anyone Could Ever Have. I love you with all my heart, Robyn."
The bookshelves were filled with an eclectic mix of books. Thrillers: James Patterson. Sports: Jose Canseco's Vindicated and Dwight Gooden's Heat. Autobiographies, literary fiction and memoirs: Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, The Jackie Robinson Story, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Most of the books, however, were pop sociology/psychology, self-help tomes by the usual suspects: Malcolm Gladwell, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle. The Tipping Point, Blink, David and Goliath, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, The Power of Now.
Archer said most of the books were ones that Walker had suggested he read. "I made a vow to Ron," Archer said, "that if I went into baseball and didn't go to college, I'd self-educate myself. Ron introduced me to my first own thoughts. He had me learn the Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. It opened my mind to Karma." What is Karma? "What goes around comes around," he said. What were the other Laws? "I don't remember them all," he said. He added that one of his favorite books was Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends And Influence People. "The title is deceiving," said Archer. "It tells you the importance of being genuine and sincere. People appreciate it, and you appreciate it in yourself when you display these characteristics." I asked him if he ever planned to get a college education. He said, "Only if I need a college degree in my next venture, in life. I think my life experiences are more important than college. At 17, I lived on my own." Then he told me about the time he talked to the Rays' psychologist when he joined the team. "The psychologist told me I sounded like an Ivy Leaguer. He asked what Ivy League school I went to. I said, 'The University of Life.'"
We left the house and got into his car for the drive over to an outdoor car wash. Archer was having his spotless car detailed there. Walker was to meet us there and then drive us around Clayton, eventually taking us to the barbershop in Clayton where Archer was going to get a haircut. Archer smiled at me and said, "Have you ever been to a black barbershop?" I said that actually I had, when I first moved to South Carolina. Archer said, "It's fun. Just like the movie, Barbershop."
I asked him when his father stopped cutting his hair. He said, "In high school. When Ron Walker introduced color into my life. Black heritage, black traditions, stuff like that. I went to black Christmases and Thanksgivings and black family events with him. He introduced me to my black nature. I recognized a part of me that was that. It was when I first discovered being black. I started watching black movies, black TV, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters. But I didn't do it at home, though. I felt at home with black people now, not to say I didn't feel at home with the white side of my family."
Archer pulled into a paved lot where four black men were detailing cars. He got out, and the owner, a stocky man who looked like he might have been an athlete once, came over to Archer with a big smile. They gave each other an elaborate handshake. Archer introduced me to the owner, and we stood off to the side of the car, talking in the cold, windy, morning sunlight while waiting for Walker. Archer watched the men begin working on his car and said, "This is my thing. I try to give them work." Archer and Walker run local charities, too, nothing really big or too organized. They call it "The Archway Foundation." They hand out 50 turkeys for Thanksgiving to the poor. They have a database of poor families, white and black, who need things -- a bed, chairs, food, whatever. "That's why I want to tell my story," said Archer. "To help people."
Walker pulled up in his SUV. I got in front with him, and Archer got in back with Walker's daughter, Kristen. She has curly blonde hair and blue eyes, and her skin is the color of Archer's. Kristen started talking to Archer, and then the two of them began giggling and laughing. Ron drove through Clayton past Archer's old grammar school, and then toward some railroad tracks. I asked Walker if Archer had any flaws. Walker thought a moment and then said, "He struggled to realize [that] not everyone is trying to maximize themselves like he is."
"Everybody I met in Clayton, except Ron, was limited in their perspective of what they could do for me," Archer said. "But I learned from those negative experiences more than I would from positive ones. But even now, I'm not close to maximizing my potential."
Walker crossed over the railroad tracks, slowing the SUV as we passed a cluster of dilapidated wood shacks. "We're driving through the bad part of town," he said. These homes used to be owned by middle-class black families, but most of them lost their homes to the banks in the recession. "Blacks owned these homes since the beginning of Clayton," said Walker. "Now mostly blacks and Hispanics rent them." He glanced at me. "They were purchased by investors, people in the know on the inside. They bought them to develop them into big projects when the time is right. Only a few people are in the know about this. People you'd be surprised at. Old Clayton money. They're just kinda waiting before they evict the tenants and tear down the shacks."
I asked Walker if he was one of those investors. He said, "No, at the time I was just getting my feet wet in real estate." He smiled. "A rookie."
"Ron," Archer said, "find an ATM. I need to get some money for my haircut." Walker drove toward a shopping center and pulled into a bank parking lot next to an ATM. Archer got his money and then got back into the SUV with a big grin on his face. "I got some interest on my money," he said, as if surprised.
"A penny saved is a penny earned," said Walker.
"I didn't earn it," said Archer. "It was interest on money I had earned."
Walker and Archer got into a good-natured argument about whether interest on money, or money saved on a discounted item, could be called "earned money."
"If you go to pay $250 for a TV," said Walker, "and it's on sale for $200, then you earned $50."
"You saved $50 on the money you earned to buy the TV," said Archer. "But you didn't earn that $50. Money saved is money saved." Walker still disagreed, so Archer said, "Ask Pat, see what he says."
"Money earned is only money you put an effort in to acquire," I said. "Savings interest is not earned through effort."
Archer said, "You're not gonna get it past him."
Walker grinned at me and said, "We do get into these stimulating conversations."
Walker parked the SUV in front of a juice bar, and we all went inside to order smoothies. The white girls behind the counter all fluttered over Archer, their local star. Archer pointed to the smoothie menu on the wall and said, "I'll have that one." It was a "King Archer Smoothie." The girls made his drink while he charmed them, effortlessly. His present girlfriend, he told me, was a few years older than he, and white. One of the smoothie girls said to me, "Oh, isn't Chris wonderful!"
Walker and I sat at a round table while Archer chased Kristen around the store. She hid under a table, giggling, while Archer tried to grab her. He wasn't amusing her so much as he was amusing himself; even as a grown man, there is a kind of innocence in Archer, as there is in his parents, Donna and Ron. Walker looked over and said, "We have so many good times together. I've never known him to do a wrong thing. Maybe doubt himself, when he was first in the minors. He was in uncharted waters, trying to figure things out. When was it gonna be his turn. Other guys were called up. But he was like a baby then, 17."
Kristen came over and said she had to go to the bathroom. Walker took her by the hand toward the bathroom door. Archer sat down at the table, and I asked him about the upcoming season. He said that last year, for the longest time, he felt he was just lucky to be there, and he wondered when they would send him back down to the minors. Then, one game, the veteran first baseman Carlos Peña came over to him in the dugout. "He told me, 'You deserve to be here,'" said Archer. "'Just don't try to do more than you usually do.' That's when I realized I was a world-class athlete, like other big leaguers."
Archer said playing for the Rays worked to his advantage, because most of the players are young, their GM is young, and manager Joe Maddon, even at 60, is young at heart. The team fosters a youthful attitude that the game is meant to be "fun," Archer said. "It trickles down to all the players. All the rookies go through a hazing period. They put us in female costumes and make us walk around cities like Toronto and Chicago." Did he have his dress fitted? "No, they just threw one at me. I had to wear it for five hours on a charter flight." I'd expected Archer to laugh at the question, but he didn't. He didn't seem interested in humor, other than that practiced charm he exhibited with the smoothie girls. He has a kind of tunnel vision, his life focused only on "finding out who I am," he told me.
A pretty girl came into the juice bar. She wore running shorts, and her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She gave Archer an embarrassed smile. "Hi, Chris," she said, and went to the counter to order her smoothie. Archer leaned closer to me and said, sotto voce, "I dated her until her father found out. It's still a big deal in this town if I date white girls. It's so ingrained in the older ones. I'm more evolved in life than they are. So now I always ask a white girl, 'What will your parents think if you date me?' Most say they don't care. But it takes a toll on them."
I asked him if his mother and father cared if he dated white girls. He laughed at me. "My parents? How could they care?"
We entered downtown Clayton, a tiny town that has seen better days. The brick storefronts were worn, many of them empty. A sign on a plate glass window announced the "Grand Opening" date of a new restaurant, but the date was eight months ago, and the restaurant had never opened. Walker pulled up in front of the barbershop, Kirby's Precision Cuts, and we went inside. Three of the barbers were just lounging around, while a fourth was cutting the gray hair of a heavy man, whose wife was waiting for him. Everyone greeted Archer with a smile, "Hey, brother," and handshakes. Archer's face lit up in a smile, for the first time in two days. He gestured toward me and said, "I brought you a new client." The barbers looked at me but didn't say anything.
Archer and Walker sat in unoccupied barber chairs and bantered with the barbers. There was a small TV playing reruns of House and a sign that read, "Happy is what you make it." There was a painting on the wall of three men shooting pool: Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. There was another print of three bums playing poker. One of the bums was barefoot, with the ace of spades between his toes, and he was reaching his foot under the table to his partner, who was trying to lean down unobtrusively to snatch the ace.
Down the hallway, there was a manicurist sitting at a table, waiting for customers. She looked up at me, without interest. Back in the main room, Archer was now getting his hair cut. The heavy man was leaving, leaning on his cane while his wife helped him walk out the door. Once the wife was gone, the barbershop came alive. Gospel music on the radio was turned louder. The barbers and Archer became more boisterous, in that way of men at a private club. A pretty woman walked past the window.
Archer said, "Now a real woman here, we gotta tighten up."
One of the barbers said, "There go my new wife." Everyone laughed.
"Your old wife moved to Puerto Rico," Archer said, with a wink toward me. "She put you outta your misery." Everyone laughed.
The banter went on for a while. I'd heard it all before, in locker rooms, bars, other barbershops, too. But for Archer, it seemed the most exotic thing. He was animated, bantering back and forth, the barbers deferring to him, his barber making a great production of cutting Archer's hair with an electric razor. Every few seconds, the barber would step back to study his work, then trim a bit more, step back, trim, fussing with it for more than an hour until he got the fade just right.
Archer was smiling, energized, as we walked back to Walker's SUV. "That was the longest f---ing haircut I ever witnessed," I said. "Was he charging you by the cut or by the minute?"
Archer just said, "I got the best of both worlds."
Walker drove us back to the car wash and left. Archer paid for the detailing, then he drove me back to my car at his house.
I asked Archer if I could talk to his parents, whom I had not met yet. "Sure," he said, and gave me their telephone number.
We drove in silence for a few minutes. Then Archer said, "I have no interaction with my 'biological parents,' as you call them. I don't call them Mom and Dad. I don't know a whole lot about Sonya. Was she involved with drugs when she had me? I don't know. I see her when I go to Ron and Donna Archer's house sometimes. There's never been an actual effort made. Does she kiss me? No. It's not like that." What was she like? "I don't even want to go there," he said, "out of respect for Sonya's feelings. I told a Tampa reporter once that my [biological] parents' selfishness was the greatest gift they could have given me. I wouldn't be here now without it. I could be in jail. When Sonya read that, she said, 'I wasn't selfish.' I didn't even respond, because she was so not self-aware. She kept saying she wasn't selfish. So finally I told her, 'You did the right thing for me.'"
He turned the corner into his neighborhood and parked in his driveway. We didn't get out of the car right away. Would he ever be open to having a relationship with his biological mother? "You mean, if she accepted me into her life and played more of a role with me? Umm... It might happen. If she made a drastic change, no reason we couldn't have a better relationship. I don't have any grudge against her. There's nothing to forgive. I don't look at it as being rejected, because I was accepted by Ron and Donna Archer. That was the best decision for me my 'biological parents' could have made … What if they did raise me?"
I thanked Archer for his time and got in my car to leave. He called out, "Be careful."
* * *
I ask Ron and Donna Archer if their son has any relationship with his biological mother. Donna says, "Sonya tried to connect with Chris, but he didn't want to connect with her. He won't put himself out there." It's 8 o'clock on the morning I am to drive home from North Carolina. We have been talking for an hour now, and I am ready to leave.
Donna says, "When Southern people leave their child with grandparents, then the grandparents become the child's parents. They make all the decisions. If Sonya's in the same room with us, I'm in charge. He's our son now, and I won't let him be confused."
Ron speaks up: "If you don't like what I'm doing, you'd better keep it to yourself. He's my son now."
I ask Ron how old Chris was when Ron stopped cutting his hair. "Seventeen," he says. I ask if it bothered him. He shakes his head, no. I ask, "Did you cut it in a fade?" Ron says, "No. It was always a military cut."
I click off my tape recorder and put my pen and notebook in my shirt pocket. Donna notices what I'm doing and says, "Can I get you some more coffee?" I tell her, no, thanks, I've had enough. "Oh, have another cup," she says. She doesn't want me to leave. Something's bothering her.
"OK," I say. Ron gets the coffee and pours me another cup.
Donna is silent, looking down at the table. Then she looks up and says, "You didn't ask us enough about Chris' baseball. I was disappointed you asked all these race questions. I don't think Chris is defined by his background. Chris being biracial was never a big thing with us. Now, it's become a big thing."
I tell her I tried to ask Chris baseball questions, but he played me off. All he wanted to talk about was his biracial background.
"Oh, he did?" says Donna. "We know very little about what goes on with him now." I tell her about the car wash and the barbershop, how Chris slipped into different slang, and how Walker was almost always there when I was with Chris. "Being black was never an issue in our house," Donna says. "To be honest, I never knew of him being with very many black people, or that he changed into being black when he wasn't around us. I wouldn't allow him to speak a different dialect in our house. He had to speak like a normal person. That's probably Ron Walker's influence, but it's not something we'd have a problem with. When he chose to explore other things, we explored them right with him."
I told them it was Walker who helped arrange the meeting between Chris and his biological father.
"I didn't know he was interested in finding his father," says Donna.
"I didn't know either," says Ron.
"Chris and Ron Walker did it together?" says Donna. "I guess he feels he can tell Ron Walker more than us. He didn't approach his dad about meeting his father, because he was afraid it would hurt his feelings."
"I woulda helped him any way I can," says Ron.
There is an awkward pause. I break the silence with a question. "Why didn't you ever explain to Chris about his biracial background when he was younger?"
Donna says, "When Chris was a little boy, we consulted a child psychologist. He said not to burden Chris with explanations about his background. It might confuse him. He said, wait until Chris begins to ask questions, and then explain … but Chris never did ask us."
I get up to leave. Ron and Donna are quiet now. They walk me to the front door. I thank them for their time and go outside to my car. I get in, lower the window to wave good-bye. Ron and Donna are side-by-side in the doorway. Ron's arm is thrown around Donna's shoulders. I wave. They wave back.
I hear Ron's voice call out to me, "Be careful!"
Chris Martin's Incredible Journey from Hardware Store Employee to MLB PitcherBy Scott Miller, National MLB Columnist
Apr 30, 2014
LOS ANGELES — The story of how Chris Martin traveled from Lowe’s Home Improvement to the Rockies bullpen last Saturday is one of pain, agony…and varnish.
It is one of persistence, AirHogs…and appliances.
It is one of the coolest, best, most inspirational stories you will hear all year.
And as the kid made his major league debut in Dodger Stadium on Saturday night, you couldn’t help but think of how Rockies manager Walt Weiss had hit the jackpot. With one right-hander, he gets bullpen depth and a deal on washing machines. Right?
“That helps,” Weiss says, chuckling. “That helps.
“It is a great story. And I’ll tell you what. It’s not just a great story. This kid can pitch.”
Martin is a 6’7”, 27-year-old rookie from Arlington, Texas, who long ago suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder as a sophomore pitching for McLennan (Texas) Community College. You’ve heard that one before: Talented kid with big talent and bigger dreams and then, overnight, those dreams flame out.
But never quite like this.
The Tigers had drafted him out of high school in the 18th round in 2004, but it was too low, and he didn’t sign. The Rockies drafted him in the 21st round after his freshman season at McLennan in ’05 but, he figured, I can do better. Plus, at 6’5” (then) and 175 pounds, he knew he needed to add muscle to his flagpole physique.
Then came his sophomore year at McLennan. Both the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma were hot on his trail, when suddenly, his shoulder betrayed him during fall ball.
He continued trying to throw. The ache kept biting back. He tried some more. And he lost any chance at a redshirt season because of it. Too many innings.
At year’s end, choking on the trail dust of what once was interest from Division I programs, sinking in the abyss of all those McLennan classes he had stopped attending out of pure frustration, Chris Martin suddenly was a has-been facing a dead end.
“Just a bad situation,” he says. “Young and dumb.
“I had to take 20 hours of class time to catch up, and it was too much.”
So he took the only alternative he could: He had surgery on the shoulder in 2007, performed by Dr. Keith Meister, the Texas Rangers’ team physician. Then he tried out for the independent league Fort Worth Cats.
And then he hung up his cleats.
What does a guy do when the trail closes, the dream dies, the roads are blocked?
Martin got a job at Lowe’s. And at UPS. For a time, he worked hardware during the day and delivered packages at night. Talk about two-a-days.
“A grind,” Martin says. “That’s what I get for not going to class.”
One night he was out, dog-tired, when he bumped into an old high school buddy named Jordan Bostick. They chatted. Bostick told his old pal they had an opening where he worked, and that Martin should come in and see the general manager.
Next thing Martin knew, he was down to one job, at Texas Appliance.
As things turned out, it was the next best thing to attending a tryout camp.
His first assignment was working in the back, manual labor, dealing with inventory. He would stock the dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, everything.
“A bunch of high-end stuff,” Martin says.
His next gig was working in the scratch-and-dent department. As the appliances arrived, Martin checked to make sure they weren’t defective. Or, he would pick up the appliances from the manufacturers.
“A utility guy,” he says.
To amuse himself, Martin was playing slow-pitch softball in his spare time.
One day, bored, Bostick, the warehouse manager, brought a couple of gloves to work and engaged Martin in the simplest of all baseball activities: Playing catch.
“Next day, my arm didn’t hurt,” Martin says. “I knew I was throwing hard. But the next day, my arm felt fine.”
Bostick had played ball with Martin before, and he knew the difference between simply throwing hard and having pop. Martin again had pop.
“You,” Bostick told him, “need to go try out somewhere.”
This was in 2010, a full four years after his community college career had shredded his hopes. But now, he phoned a friend who played for the Grand Prairie AirHogs of the independent American Association. He tried out.
And during his bullpen session, the AirHogs manager pulled him aside and said, “Hey kid, do you know you’re throwing in the mid-90s?”
That manager’s name? Pete Incaviglia, the former major league slugger.
That night, mid-July, 2010, he worked his first game for the AirHogs and collected a save. He finished the year in relief.
“It was crazy,” he says.
When the season ended, he went back to Texas Appliance. Who knew? Maybe moving refrigerators was the best kind of rehab possible.
“The joke is, that’s why the shoulder got better,” he says, smiling.
Meantime, Incaviglia had phoned one of his contacts with the Boston Red Sox, a veteran scout named Jaymie Bane.
“Jaymie,” Incaviglia said. “You have to sign this guy.”
“I said, give me some background on him so I can do some homework,” Bane says. “There were no real red flags except the fact that he had just kind of disappeared, which was odd.
“I talked to his high school coach and stayed in touch with Chris about what the process is. I told him, ‘If you don’t hear from us tomorrow, it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t mean we’re not interested.’”
Bane’s message to Incaviglia was much less casual.
“I told Pete, if any one person shows interest, you tell me,” Bane says. “Then I have to slip in and sign him.”
Martin remained an undiscovered gem, Boston pro scout John Lombardo also keeping close tabs. So, two weeks before spring training in 2011, the Red Sox finally phoned and invited him to a tryout at their camp in Fort Myers, Florida.
With one caveat.
“I had to pay my own way,” Martin says.
Actually, his father Matt paid his way. Bought a plane ticket for himself too.
“It was pretty exciting,” says Matt Martin, who has worked for the same roofing company in Arlington, Texas, since 1992. “It was something he always wanted to do. And if it was something he wanted to do, I would do anything to try and make it happen.
“We would have got there somehow, even if we had to hitchhike.”
The day of the tryout, with Martin on the mound at one of the back fields at Boston’s old City of Palms Park, Matt stood right there behind the batting cage with Bane, Allard Baird, a special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington, and Jared Porter, Boston’s director of professional scouting.
“You could look over and see their radar guns,” Matt Martin says. “You could see 93, 94. And the scouts kept looking at each other, like, ‘Wow!’”
Says Bane: “When he threw, it wasn’t even the velocity. It was how easy he was doing it, and the angle was he creating. But he didn’t even know where to stand on the rubber. There was a suggestion to go to the third-base side of the rubber, and his angle got a little better.
“It was exciting to watch. It was what you dream of.”
Session finished, signing imminent, they all went out to lunch.
“Allard was explaining to him about this is your last chance, this is reality, when we sign you you’ve got to hit the ground running,” Bane says. “And I tell him, ‘You’ve got to hit the ground sprinting, you don’t have time to run.’ And he did.”
Martin advanced to Double-A Portland by the end of his first professional season in 2011. In 2012, he began the year as a starter at Portland, was converted into a reliever and then pitched that autumn in the Arizona Fall League, where many serious prospects are invited and is heavily scouted. By the end of last season, he was pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket.
But knowing it was likely going to lose shortstop Stephen Drew after its World Series title last season, Boston spent part of the winter stockpiling infielders. As part of that strategy, the Sox shipped Martin and starter Franklin Morales to Colorado for minor-league shortstop Jonathan Herrera last Dec. 18.
“He’s one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet,” Bane says. “He doesn’t come across like he knows what he’s talking about, but he knows what he’s talking about.”
Martin just missed making the Colorado team out of spring training, but the Rockies recalled him from Triple-A Colorado Springs last Friday. Then they put him on the mound in Los Angeles in Saturday’s 6-3 loss (one inning pitched, one hit, one walk) and again in Sunday’s 6-1 win (one inning, three hits, two strikeouts).
Already, LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado’s 20-year veteran, has taken Martin under his wing. As soon as the Rockies heard his story this spring, Hawkins started encouraging him further: Tell that story over and over, kid. You have a message to deliver. You never know who might hear it, whose life it might change.
And it’s not just his story.
“Velocity,” Weiss says. “The ability to throw that fastball down in the zone.”
Sunday, the Dodgers loaded the bases against him with two out in the ninth when Yasiel Puig stepped to the plate. Martin promptly threw a 93 mph fastball low and induced a game-ending ground ball.
“He kept his composure,” Weiss says. “It’s not like he was getting knocked around. There were some soft hits, and it was a dangerous situation, but he kept pitching to the bottom of the strike zone.”
Further challenges, no doubt, await just up ahead. The major leagues are filled with quicksand and booby traps, and sometimes, like that ninth inning Sunday, you find yourself in sudden trouble without warning.
But compared with the searing pain and ditching classes of his past, this is a breeze.
The Red Sox, as you would expect, did wind up reimbursing Chris and his father for that airfare to Fort Myers. Though even if they hadn’t, it would have been the best money Matt Martin ever spent.
“I don’t know what to say,” says dad, who will see Chris pitch in the majors for the first time when the Rockies visit Arlington next week. “My mind is 1,500 miles away from here.”
As for Bane, who received an appreciative text from Martin the day he was called to the majors, the Red Sox scout says, “I kidded with him that I need a fridge for my garage. He started laughing. I’m sure he’s gotten a lot of that from the guys.”
Astros’ Elias details search for elite draft talent
APRIL 30, 2014
First overall picks are nothing new for Mike Elias. The Houston Astros amateur scouting director helped select Carlos Correa in 2012 then made the call to draft Mark Appel first overall in 2013.
But it wasn’t always this way. Before he enjoyed an annual shot at the best amateur player available, Elias got his start searching for impact players in the late rounds with the St. Louis Cardinals under Jeff Luhnow, now Houston’s general manager. After years in one of baseball’s premier organizations, Elias joined one of its most talent-deprived franchises in 2012, soon after Luhnow was named Houston’s GM.
In the past two years, the Astros have improved their farm system considerably, and it’s one of the primary reasons for optimism in Houston. While the first overall selections have accelerated the Astros’ rebuild, they’re focused on finding impact big leaguers as deep into the draft as possible.
“You may feel at the time that you were targeting a role player just based on his profile or your perceived lack of upside and the guy might surprise you and end up becoming an everyday player, an All-Star or even better,” Elias says, pointing to 13th round selection Matt Carpenter.
Five short weeks from now Elias gets yet another first overall pick thanks to Houston’s continued struggles at the big league level. This time NC State lefty Carlos Rodon, high school lefty Brady Aiken and East Carolina righty Jeff Hoffman rank among the top prospects in a class featuring lots of arms.
As the person responsible for keeping Houston’s farm system stocked with impact players, Elias takes long looks at 80-100 players and views hundreds more in high school showcase events, tournaments and collegiate summer leagues. It’s a never-ending process, especially in a year that Houston hasthree of the top 42 picks.
Sportsnet caught up with Elias recently, getting his thoughts on some of Houston’s top prospects, his draft philosophy, ways to find talent late and why scouting is a humbling profession. The transcript below has been edited for clarity:
What should we expect from recently-promoted outfield prospect George Springer?
“He was one of the top talents in our farm system, so I think it’s indicative of the fact that a lot of these players are going to start arriving soon in the next couple of years.
“That said he’s still a young player, and any minor league player going through the minor leagues is going to face a transition and adjustment period. I don’t know that we have any particular expectations of him this year other than to keep working hard, continue getting better and refine his craft. Either way it’s going to be fun to watch him play because he’s got an electric set of tools. He’s got a plus arm, he’s a plus runner and he’s got above average power on top of the fact that he’s a pretty good hitter. He’s a real exciting guy to watch play the game because of all the physical ability that he has, so even if it takes some time to adjust to the pitching at the MLB level, he’s going to bring a lot of excitement and energy to the ballpark and to the lineup.”
“What’s impressive about him is it’s not a one-dimensional raw power where he can only pull the ball or he only hits mistake pitches or can only hit a certain type of pitching. He’s able to put the ball out to all fields and he has a very complete game. He’s an impact defender in centre field and he can throw and run, so power’s just a part of his game.”
What convinced you to select Mark Appel first overall in 2013?
“To see him come back his senior season at Stanford and get even better and basically elevate his game on all fronts, have his best season yet and show up night after night and have a great start, really solidified him in our eyes and in a lot of teams’ eyes as a top of the draft talent. There were a lot of good choices, but we felt to get somebody who we viewed as a potential anchor for a rotation that’s going to throw 200 innings per year and be an above-average MLB starter, it’s not very easy to find and we thought with Mark’s track record and ties to Houston on top of it. Plus he’s intelligent with a bulldog mentality he brings to the mound, so it really made it hard for us to pass up.”
How was Appel adapted as a professional?
“He had a start [recently] where he was back to his peak velocity, sitting 95-96 and touching 97-98 [mph] which is what we’d seen from him in the past and what he’s capable of. It’s exciting to see him ramped up to full strength and he has continued to adapt to the pro throwing schedule after four years in college. With the arm strength and the physical strength he has he’s really going to take off. We’re excited about him going forward and what he’s shown us so far. He’s got as good stuff as anyone in our organization.”
Is it satisfying to see players nearing MLB, or are you simply focused on reducing the number in the loss column?
“It’s more the latter. We’re happy with the players that we’ve drafted or traded for. Looking at the system as a whole we’re pleased with the depth we’ve put together and definitely feel that things are moving in the right direction. That said, it doesn’t really mean anything until they arrive in the major leagues and produce at the Major League level. You never know for sure, when each of these kids is going to adapt and perform.
“There’s a failure rate in this game that applies very heavily to prospects and we’re aware of that. We know that some of these guys are going to get up there and click and some of them it won’t, but that’s why we keep adding as many as possible and developing them in as smart a way as we possibly can. We definitely don’t feel like we’re anywhere near done and want to see these guys progress to the Major Leagues and help the team there before we deem any of them a success.”
What do you see in the 2014 draft class?
“It’s a good class. There’s a lot of high school pitching this year. I’d say that’s the main thing that characterizes the class this year. There’s a lot of high school pitchers that are impact arms at the top and there’s a lot of depth to the class. I think we’re going to see several first rounders who are high school pitchers this year. I would also say there’s some power bats in the college ranks, guys who play a corner position – maybe third base, first, left field, right field in college and have done some damage during the college season. Those are really the two groups of players that stand out in this class.
“Overall we’re pleased with the level of talent. I think it’s probably a notch better than last year’s class, it’s a little stronger and we’re pretty happy about that because not only do we have the 1-1 pick, but we have three in the top 50.”
Is there a point in the draft that you stop looking for MVPs, All-Stars and Cy Young winners?
“It’s a good question and it’s a difficult one to answer because the reality of the situation is that you may feel at the time that you were targeting a role player just based on his profile or your perceived lack of upside and the guy might surprise you and end up becoming an everyday player, an all-star or even better. We drafted Matt Carpenter in the 13th round [in St. Louis], and in all honesty we liked him, but I don’t think anyone was in the draft room saying ‘this guy’s going to get MVP votes in a few years.’
“It’s part of the nature of the business both good and bad that the players are going to surprise you beyond your wildest imagination sometimes. What we try to do in our approach is we recognize the reality that that variability exists in the game and we try to relentlessly pursue value and smart investments up and down the 40 rounds of the draft. Just because the first few rounds are over, we’re not going to flick off a switch and say ‘hey OK now it’s just a bunch of filler players and we’re just going to start drafting to fill out our Appalachian League roster, or we’re just going to start taking somebody’s nephew.’
“We try to look for guys who might surprise us in the long run with each pick. I think because we’ve put such an emphasis on that and because we’ve listened so closely to our local area scouts who are on the ground, who have seen these later round picks first-hand and are oftentimes the only ones who have seen the players first-hand. It enabled us to have some good luck with some of those later picks and hopefully we’ll get the same results in Houston.”
Why is it that you have called scouting a humbling profession?
“There’s a lot of uncertainty involved. I think it’s like any undertaking where you’re trying to predict the future. You’re not going to get it right. Your goal is to get it more right than wrong and your goal is to get it more right than the next team, but it’s impossible to make every call properly, to forecast every player’s career properly. I think it’s just because you’re trying to predict human future behaviour. Human beings are unpredictable.
“There’s a lot that goes on between their earns that we’re never going to fully understand and it dictates a lot of what happens with the futures of these guys. That said, it is humbling in the sense that oftentimes something completely unexpected will happen and you’ve got it wrong, but we realize that’s part of the business and we try to be right more often than we’re wrong and over time the ledger will tilt in our favour if that’s the case.”
How much does the mental side of the game determine what kind of player a prospect becomes?
“Enormously. I think one of the biggest drivers of future success in baseball is this concept that we call makeup. It’s hard for people to define it fully. There are some guys that get by on natural ability and maybe don’t have the best makeup in terms of maximizing their abilities, and yet when the game starts they’re very competitive or they have the right amount of relaxation when they’re at the plate or on the bound, or maybe we’re talking about someone that just has an insane work ethic. There are just so many ways that someone can have good or bad makeup and it’s hard for us to determine that. Our scouts try and do a pretty good job of it, but it’s probably one of the most unpredictable things that we deal with and I don’t think anyone that’s been around the game or played will tell you that it’s not of the utmost importance. It’s something we try hard to get right and we know it’s really important but it’s always going to be a little mysterious for us.”
How much can a player evolve from draft day to the point that he debuts?
“People can change a lot during those years. Guys settle down, they get married, they change physically, there’s a lot that happens. We do our best, and you do get better with it with experience and you try to ultimately trust your instincts and your judgment about the players and their personalities, but you’re realistic about the fact that you’re not going to nail everybody.”