The best pitcher
in the National League likes to roam San Diego's beachfront and the swank
downtown Gaslamp Quarter in Wranglers, beat-up hunting boots, and camouflage
T-shirts. Three years ago he dumped agent Scott Boras, whose hardballing style
conflicted with his own easygoing nature, a move that might have cost him
millions but bought him much peace of mind. Last year a San Diego car
dealership gave him a spanking new Hummer, but he preferred the familiar
comfort of his white Chevy pickup. "It just wasn't me," Jake Peavy says
of the black H2.
The folks of
Semmes, Ala., where the San Diego Padres ace grew up, aren't surprised to hear
their town's most famous citizen still holds fast to his country-boy ethos, nor
do they profess shock by how far he's come--though their recollections are of a
scrawny teenager with rail-thin arms and a pair of legs brittle as twigs.
"Never was anything much to look at," says Andy Robbins, his middle and
high school baseball coach. Had the kind of luck too that his favorite crooner,
Hank Williams, could've turned into country platinum. Going back to his high
school days, Peavy has been sidelined with a broken ankle he sustained falling
into a ditch during a jog; a severely cut left hand suffered while taking out
the trash; a sliced heel incurred when he stepped on an open suitcase; and a
cracked rib, the result of his jumping up and down during a postgame
celebration. "You name it," says his wife, Katie, "and it's
happened to him."
As if those
setbacks weren't enough, there is this too: He is, without corrective lenses,
nearly blind. "Can't see a lick," confirms Houston Astros ace Roy
Oswalt, one of Peavy's closest pals. Oswalt found this out two winters ago when
he and Peavy, both avid hunters, were navigating through Pike County in western
Illinois on their way to a weekend in the woods chasing white-tailed deer.
Oswalt would steal glances at Peavy, who was hunched over the wheel and
squinting into the darkness as his truck swerved unnervingly along the winding
roads. "I made him pull over, and I drove," says Oswalt. "Then--and
I hadn't been driving more than 20 minutes--I hit a deer."
By now the entire
baseball world should be convinced: You're in good hands when the kid from
Semmes is behind the wheel--even if he does have 20/300 vision. Three years
after becoming the youngest player to win an ERA title since Doc Gooden did it,
at age 20, in 1985, Peavy, 26, has cemented his place as one of the game's most
dominant hurlers. Though somewhat undersized for a power pitcher at 6'1",
182 pounds, he throws 97-mph heat and for most of April and May he was close to
unhittable; through the first weekend of June he was sitting atop the NL in
just about every statistical category for starters, including ERA (1.68),
strikeouts (92) and walks and hits per inning (0.98). His seven wins was second
only to Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels, who had eight.
That's enough to
impress even the Padres' resident four-time Cy Young winner. "He's really
good," says Greg Maddux. After a pause he adds, "One of the best in the
game." After another pause he finally allows, "Could be the
Opponents are less
coy in their appraisals. "He comes at you with everything hard," says
Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox. "He's as good as it gets."
Says Mike Maddux,
the pitching coach of the Milwaukee Brewers and Greg's brother, "He
commands his fastball down and away as good as anybody. The way he's throwing,
you'd have to say he's the best in the league right now."
In the summer of
2000 Padres general manager Kevin Towers was sitting in the stands at a Class A
ball game in Fort Wayne when a skinny teenager sat down next to him and
introduced himself. It was the kid out of St. Paul's Episcopal in Mobile whom
the year before Towers had taken in the 15th round of the amateur draft on the
recommendation of scout Mark Wasinger, who had raved about the kid's mound
"I don't get
it," the kid said after a while. "Why don't these hitters ever make
adjustments? They're supposed to be professionals. I make adjustments every
time I'm out there pitching."
"That was the first time that I had met Jake--and I remember thinking, Is
this kid 19 or is he Greg Maddux?"