On the evening of May 22, 1995, Shawn Estes paced restlessly in his room at the Best Western Pzazz Motor Inn in Burlington, Iowa. After having been chosen 11th in the '91 draft, he had spent four undistinguished seasons in the minors. Now the Mariners, for whose Class A team in Appleton, Wis., Estes had been pitching, had given up on him and traded him to the Giants. Estes would have to start over in a new organization, with the Burlington Bees. "I was extremely depressed," Estes recalls. "I was supposed to be living my baseball dream, but instead I was totally humbled. I looked around at where I was, and I thought, What the heck am I doing here?"
Just four months after that moment, which Estes describes as his baseball epiphany, he was pitching for San Francisco in the major leagues. Two seasons later he is the Giants' ace, with a 12-2 record and a 2.51 ERA through Sunday, and, though he has not spent a full season in the majors, he has been named an All-Star.
What turned things around? Estes recognized that his worst enemy was a guy named Estes. After he was drafted out of Douglas High in Minden, Nev., Estes often indulged his wicked temper, showing disgust at his failures by stomping around the mound. Worse, he screamed at teammates when they made errors and was fined regularly for his petulance. "Shawn didn't have a great attitude, and he didn't work as hard as he should have," says Expos G.M. Jim Beattie, who was Seattle's director of player development at the time. "I think it was because in high school he had always been the big fish in a small pond."
Says Estes, "I was a bit of a head case, because I was an intensely competitive guy and a perfectionist, and that's a dangerous mix. The trade opened my eyes and made me realize I had to kick myself in gear or I might never make it."
The Giants recognized Estes's competitive fire and used it to challenge him. They gave him four starts at Burlington, moved him to Class A San Jose for eight starts and then gave him four starts in Double A Shreveport before calling him up to the majors in September 1995. The following spring he started the season in Triple A but rejoined the Giants in July. He finished '96 at 3-5 with a 3.60 ERA, setting the stage for his breakthrough season.
With a fastball clocked as high as 94 mph, a sharp overhand curveball and a good changeup, Estes has overwhelmed batters all season. In his last 11 starts before the All-Star break he went 8-0 with a 2.08 ERA. That streak included a 4-0 win over Colorado last Friday in which he gave up just one hit over 8⅔ innings and tied his career high of 11 strikeouts.
Despite his success, Estes still has occasional outbursts of temper. On May 13, when Giants manager Dusty Baker went to the mound to remove Estes from a game in Cincinnati, Estes flipped Baker the ball and stalked off the mound. Baker stopped Estes in his tracks and then lectured him as they walked off the field together. "He reminds me of a thoroughbred horse," Baker says. "You don't want to take the wildness out of him, because that's what gives him his competitive edge. Those are the guys who tend to be the warriors."
These days Estes tries to reserve most of his wrath for opposing batters. "I really, really dislike hitters," Estes says. "I hate when they complain about inside pitches. Do they expect me to put it on a tee for them? They should know that I still get mad on the mound sometimes, so if I'm throwing inside, hey, you better get out of the way."
The Mets' enthusiasm for interleague play was sorely tested last week when they were swept during a three-game series in Detroit, where they were outscored 31-13 and out-homered 14-0. Eight New York pitchers appeared in the series, and each allowed at least one homer. "Maybe it was my fault for not preparing my guys better for the Tigers' hitters," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said after the carnage had ended, "but what was I going to tell them, 'Fasten your seat belts'?"