It's a warm June afternoon at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and relief pitcher Jason Childers, who led the Durham Bulls in appearances in 2009, is taking a trip through his past.
"When I was in rookie ball in '97, I was in Helena, Mont., and we went to play in Great Falls. Before we left, our manager said, 'Boys, just look out the window: This is gonna be the prettiest bus ride you ever take in pro ball.' And it is: through the mountains, a stream follows you the whole way. Bald eagles, mountain goats. I still remember that trip. Every time we took it, I just stared out the window. It was the prettiest trip in baseball."
Above Childers' boyish face, his shaggy hair shows the first traces of gray, the only hint that he's actually 35—ancient for a minor leaguer. Technically, though, he isn't currently a minor leaguer: Childers is out of work for the first summer in 14 years. In that unfamiliar position, he utters these unfamiliar words.
"At the end of it all, I know that I'm really not a big-league prospect, and I'm probably not gonna go back to the big leagues," Childers reluctantly says, hesitating as he picks his way through the words.
The end of it all? In an interview published in this paper last August, Childers insisted he could still get big-league hitters out. In September, he was selected to Team USA, with whom he made his first trip to Europe, and came home proudly with a World Cup championship medal. Wanting to rest his arm after the extended post-season tour, Childers skipped his usual winter ball stint in Mexico and then waited for minor league offers to come in for 2010.
But they didn't. Childers wound up signing with Monterrey of the Mexican League—he got the job with help from a referral by his former Bulls (and Team USA) teammate Jon Weber, who played with Monterrey's pitching coach over the winter in Mazatlan. Childers, a career reliever (he hasn't started regularly for 10 years), was thrust into the Sultanes' starting rotation, and he struggled. He was released in late May and returned to his native Georgia, where he lives with his wife and daughters.
Childers didn't take long to solicit his former employers. He drove up to Durham on the day that 20-year-old Stephen Strasburg—the most hyped pitching prospect in the history of baseball—made his electrifying debut for the Washington Nationals. Childers came to catch up with former teammates, of course, but also to "throw a bullpen," as it's called, for Durham pitching coach Xavier Hernandez—just in case the Bulls could use a versatile, healthy right-handed reliever.
That's why Childers is sitting in the Bulls dugout in his T-shirt and shorts an hour before game time, while his former teammates are suiting up in the clubhouse. Meanwhile, he keeps sifting through memories of his 14-year career and naturally lands on one of the 19 days he spent in the majors, in April 2006 with Tampa Bay.
"What's vivid in my head now is my first big-league strikeout. We were in Toronto," and Childers was facing the Blue Jays' All-Star slugger, Troy Glaus. Childers got two strikes on Glaus. "I wanted to throw him a curveball." But his catcher wouldn't signal for it, "so I kept shaking, kept shaking. Called time, he goes over the signs again, he still won't put down a curveball."
The catcher came to the mound. "He goes, 'Look, I know you want your curveball.' 'Yeah, I'm feeling it.' He goes, 'Yeah, but I know this guy hitting. Throw your changeup.' I said, 'You sure?' 'Yeah, throw your changeup.' So I throw my changeup and Glaus swings right through it and I get my first big-league strikeout."
Two weeks later in Fenway Park, Childers faced the feared duo of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, then in their prime. He struck them out, back-to-back.
Barring a reversal of fortune, he'll never face another hitter.
This season has thrown Childers a curve. "My plan was to pitch one more year and finish my career as a player at the even age of 35," he says, relying on a number for guidance, as befits this most numbers-obsessed of sports. Childers has reached the hardest part of a ballplayer's life: not how to make a career but deciding when that career is over.
Childers compared himself to another aging Bull, first baseman Chris Richard, who at 36 is still hitting well and plans to play on, even though he could find other work in baseball. What keeps him on the diamond? "Fear," Richard says, laughing. Of what? "Exactly," he shoots back. "What [else] are you really qualified to do if you've just played baseball?"
To keep playing is playing it safe. It actually takes a lot of courage to move into the unknown.
"I know I could pitch a few more years," Childers insists. "I got the age on me, but my body seems a lot younger than I am. And I feel good and I'm healthy. I think I can get people out throwing 84, 85 [mph]. But it gets harder and harder every year to find jobs if you're not that dominant prospect."
Asked about a couple of those dominant prospects—Strasburg and the Bulls' own hard-throwing youngster Jeremy Hellickson—Childers replies, "I would have loved to have been able to throw that hard, but I'm not jealous. You can work hard in the weight room and maybe [add] a couple miles an hour, but people that throw 100, that's God-given. Strasburg doesn't even have to lift a weight and he's gonna throw 100."
Years ago, Childers' coaches asked him to throw harder. "Sure enough," he says, "my velocity went up—I was working out my legs hard and all that—but it was doing me no good." With more speed comes less precision. "For me, throwing 90–91 down the middle, that's basically hitting speed for these guys. You have to get up over 94 to blow people away."
Told that even Hellickson, whose velocity rarely exceeds 94 mph, has been working on a couple of new pitches as he anticipates the more complex challenge of facing major league hitters, Childers is quick to jump in: "Pitching is about adjustments. Even here in Triple-A, you learn that you might need to tweak a pitch. That four-seam [fastball], let's turn it a little bit, do something to make that pitch cut instead of run."
If that sounds like a coach speaking, welcome to Childers' new professional goal. "My plan is to be a pitching coach. I've always wanted to stay in baseball. I think I communicate with people well, read people and talk to people." To that end, he and his agent are polishing his résumé and getting word out that Childers wants to make coaching visits to the mound, rather than a hurler's living on it. "If that's the end of my [pitching] career, that's OK. I'm content. But I would like to finish this year as a player."
If he's thrown his last pitch, does he have any regrets?
"No," he responds immediately, decisively. "One thing I've never done is second-guess any decision I've made."
Childers has earned that confidence. His sheer determination makes it hard to bet against him as he begins pursuit of his second baseball career. Undrafted out of college in 1997, he was signed as an afterthought by the Brewers, who took a flyer on him after selecting his younger brother in the ninth round. The odds of his reaching the big leagues were as long as the trip itself—and as long as the memory Childers would need to surmount those odds. His trip was much more than pretty. It was an education, with a learning curve as winding and steep as that long-ago Montana bus ride.
For in order to notch his first major league strikeout in 2006, Childers had to remember spring training of 1998. He was assigned to the Brewers' Class A squad. "One day they said, 'You're gonna have to go pitch for Double-A today.' I said, 'OK, great.'" The opponent was the Anaheim Angels' Double-A team. "I threw two innings. My first inning, every time I was ahead in the count or had a chance to get a strikeout, I threw my curveball. My curveball was pretty good back then. So I had a couple strikeouts on curveballs."
The next hitter was the Angels' No. 1 draft pick, and Childers knew it.
"I guess in his mind he was just gonna wait for a curveball. So I threw a fastball for strike one and he didn't swing. Another fastball, strike two; he didn't swing. So now he's looking for this curve.
"I threw him a fastball down the middle, he didn't even swing."
The hitter's name? Troy Glaus.
Childers laughs. "It's weird how it comes full circle and you end up facing the guy again in the big leagues, years later.
"And I still wanted to throw him that curveball."