Stand back now.
Everything's assembled. The humility. The hunger. The perspective. The ability
to stay relaxed when everyone else is in a knot. The arm that's been saved from
throwing too many innings and too many curves—as so many of his peers have—ripe
to soon begin throwing the slider. The body that's been melting off pounds ...
20, 30, 40 ... as he runs every day in private workouts and then again with the
team, and growing two inches, to 6'2".
collegiate start, against powerhouse Wayne State, Coach Day notices a
first-inning flutter from his radar gunner. "Coach," he reports,
"we've got him throwing 92!"
finally adjusting to his new body. Finding a repeatable delivery. Hitting the
mitt as if he'll have to chase the ball if he doesn't. Allowing just five hits
and losing 2--1 on two unearned runs.
Now comes the
confidence. Ninety-three ... 94.... Now comes the glimmer in his eye, the bite
in his curve. Now comes the shock at how suddenly everything starts happening,
because no one has read the new assembly manual yet. No one knows about the
torsion. Now comes the transfer to Nebraska and his stunning 2005 sophomore
season when he takes the Huskers to the College World Series with a 10--2
record and a 2.81 ERA, the wildest ride the man on the scooter ever took.
Ninety-five ... 96....
Now come the
glowing scouting reports containing the beautiful paradox: The Big 12 Newcomer
of the Year is the same guy volunteering to drag the L-screens and carry the
ball buckets. Now comes the knee surgery, when the father becomes the boy's
legs, awaking in the dead of night every few hours to get on crutches and
change Joba's ice bags.
Now comes his
first-round selection as a supplemental pick in the 2006 draft—41st overall,
the second-highest a Native American has ever been chosen—and the $1.1 million
signing bonus. Then the final touches to the mechanics, the control becoming
laserlike. Ninety-seven ... 98....
Now the other
major league teams come sniffing around, waiting for the Yanks to be the Yanks
and to trade tomorrow for today. To trade another kid who might be good for
another aging star who has to be good, with the paycheck and reputation he lugs
into town. But their impatient, aging owner, George Steinbrenner, has relaxed
his grip on the team, and their newly empowered, sager general manager, Brian
Cashman, digs in when fans demand the instant fix, and the sniffers are all
sent, Joba-less, away.
Now comes the
biggest surprise of all this summer, the 21-year-old kid's four-level leap in
one season, accomplished by few players in modern baseball: from Class A Tampa
to Double A Trenton to Triple A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where he astonishes with
an 18-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, followed by the August call-up to the
Now comes one
more jump. For just these last two months of the season, the Yanks ask, can
they switch him to the bullpen? Hell, yes. The kid's majored all his life in
Now comes that
first step, that long step, from Cornhusker Highway into the house of gods: the
Yankees clubhouse. He approaches Jason Giambi, whom he met when the first
baseman had a rehab assignment in Trenton, and bear-hugs him. Then he starts
picking Roger Clemens's brain with the deference of a freshman ... and busting
on him as if they were high school teammates. Soon he's greeting Johnny Damon,
"Hey, Beautiful!" because, well, that's who Damon is, and advising
teammates as they enter the clubhouse door, "Team meeting at 5:45,
boys!" as if he's the grizzled captain, and leaping and tapping the top of
the door as he leaves like you do at home when you're 12 and first realize you
can reach it. Going from 12 to 32 and back, justlikethat, which is what the
Yanks find more remarkable than his fastball. Because they've seen plenty of
kids come through who were older than their years and plenty who were younger,
but never one who knew when to be each, and how to be both.