was the first thing that Maddon noticed at spring training while mulling over
whether to start him on Opening Day. (He did, making Kazmir the youngest
Opening Day starter since the Mets' Dwight Gooden in 1986.) "I knew he
could handle the pitching, but what was he like internally, could he handle
[the pressure]?" says Maddon, previously a bench coach for the Angels.
"The answer was clear: Yeah, absolutely. He likes the moment; he wants to
be the man." So far, Kazmir has chosen his moments well; in 16 career
appearances against the Red Sox and the Yankees he is 6--5 with a 2.81 ERA.
More telling, Boston sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are a combined 9
for 55 (.164) with 18 K's against him.
As far back as he
can remember, Kazmir says he wanted to be a starting pitcher, to be
"counted on." By age four he was playing in a T-ball league with
six-year-olds in Houston. By eight he was getting pointers from another future
major leaguer, 12-year-old Adam Dunn, whose father, Skipper, worked with
Kazmir's father, Eddie, at Dunn Enterprise, a manufacturing company owned by
Adam's uncle Freeman.
After his senior
season at Cypress Falls High, Kazmir was named Baseball America's High School
Player of the Year, and the Mets drafted Kazmir with the No. 15 pick despite a
large reservation: his size. Generously listed at 6 feet and 170 pounds, he
still looks like a teen waiting to fill out. For this reason his boyhood idol
was another vertically challenged Houston hurler, 5'11" Billy Wagner.
Kazmir still remembers the advice the then Astros reliever gave him when they
met during Kazmir's senior year. "He told me people are going to comment on
my size the rest of my career," says Kazmir. "And the only thing I
could do was ignore it."
The Mets, alas,
could not. At the time of the trade, New York pitching coach Rick Peterson
talked about how he believed he could straighten out Zambrano's wildness. He
also expressed concern that Kazmir, because of the limited number of pitches he
had thrown in the minors, was years away from the majors. There were whispers
too that Kazmir's small frame made it more likely that he'd be injured. Maddon
not only dismisses the concerns about his young ace's stature, but he also
leaves him on the mound for uncommonly long stretches. "My criteria for
whether a pitcher stays in are that he's not struggling and he's not coming out
of his delivery," says Maddon, who notes that four times this season (all
D-Ray wins) Kazmir has thrown 119 or more pitches.
Kazmir claims not
to be too concerned, matter-of-factly noting that he has yet to have an arm
injury. Then again, he's not the type to seem too concerned about anything. He
makes Quizno's runs for "breakfast" at 11:30 a.m., talks to his parents
after every game, plays Wiffle ball with his buddies in the off-season and is
renowned in the clubhouse for his ability to master Xbox games. In other words,
he is like any other kid, only with a golden left arm. "Sometimes when I'm
watching him in the bullpen, I have to remind myself that he's only 22,"
says Butcher. "And that he's still got a lot of future ahead of
It's a future
that will haunt some New Yorkers. This year, of all years, one would expect
Mets fans not to dwell on the negatives. Still, they can't help themselves. At
this year's All-Star Game festivities the players and their families traveled
on a parade route through Pittsburgh. As Kazmir made his way, he was cheered by
many, but by none so fervently as Mets fans. One in particular, a Will
Ferrell--esque character decked out in a Mets hat and shirt, made his way close
enough for Kazmir to hear him. "We miss you, man," he wailed, waving at
Kazmir. "C'mon, man, we want you back."
Eddie, overheard the fan's plea and appreciated the sentiment. "It's
funny," he said later, in describing the reaction of Mets fans,
"because if you think about it, New York could really use another starter
right about now too."
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