The Oakland Athletics’ Sean Doolittle did not have a strong outing Thursday night against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The left-handed reliever came into the game in the 9th inning with Oakland leading 4-0. His job was to close it out. He recorded a strike out, but he also gave up a couple of hits, including a double, before being replaced by Oakland’s All Star closer, Ryan Cook. Cook did his job and the A’s won 4-1. No harm, no foul, and Sean Doolittle, who’d never pitched professionally until last fall, continues to be one of the great stories in MLB this year.
Few men ever get the chance to play major league baseball. Even if a young man stays healthy, gets some lucky breaks, gets noticed by the right people, and lands in an organization with talented coaches and a spot for him, his chances of playing major league baseball are slim. They’re even worse if all the stars aren’t properly aligned.
Sometimes a guy with loads of talent heads down the wrong path. Other times a young man’s physical limitations make thoughts of a baseball career seem preposterous. And then there are guys who keep grinding it out year after year, surviving injuries, long stints in the minors, even going overseas, hoping someday they’ll put it all together at the big league level. When someone who doesn’t have everything going for him gets a shot at the big leagues and succeeds, his story is worth repeating. Three who come to mind are Ron LeFlore, Jim Abbot, and Ryan Vogelsong.
Ron LeFlore was a young man going nowhere except to prison for armed robbery until he got a look from Detroit Tigers manager Billy Martin, who was acting on a tip. LaFlore was serving time in Michigan and playing ball for a prison league team. He impressed Martin so much that he got to try out for the Tigers. LeFlore went on to an eight-year major league career that included a 1976 All-Star selection, 455 stolen bases, and a lifetime batting average of .288. Not bad.
Jim Abbot was a pitcher who was born without a right hand. In spite of that seemingly insurmountable limitation, he pitched for the University of Michigan; was named the nation’s best amateur athlete in 1987; pitched for team USA in the 1988 Olympics exhibition games; and had a major league career that included 88 wins, a no hitter, and an 18-win season. Not bad at all.
Ryan Vogelsong’s “career” was anything but a career for years. He started out as a fifth round draft choice of the San Francisco Giants; got traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates where he struggled and missed an entire year after Tommy John surgery; played in Japan for three years; tried to return to the bigs in 2010; was released by the Philadelphia Phillies; played in the Los Angeles Angels’ minor league system; played winter ball in Venezuela; and signed a minor league contract in 2011 with the team that originally drafted him, the Giants. Voglesong, who recently turned 35, is 21-12 since joining the Giants’ vaunted starting rotation at the end of April of last year. Again, not bad.
LeFlore, Abbot, and Vogelsong made it against odds longer than many face, which brings me back to Sean Doolittle.
Doolittle was a pitcher and a first baseman in college. He was a first round draft pick of the A’s in 2007, and was slated to be a position player. Injuries and two knee surgeries made a career as an everyday player essentially out of the question. So in late 2011, Doolittle switched back to pitching, something he hadn’t done since playing for the University of Virginia Cavaliers. At that point, making the majors as a pitcher was more than a longshot.
He first pitched professionally in the Instructional League last fall. Remarkably, he made his major league debut a little more than two months into the next season, on June 5th of this year. His first assignment was against the Texas Rangers, and he struck out three of the four batters he faced. That appearance by itself would have been a nice capstone to a nice story. But Doolittle wasn’t, and hopefully isn’t, finished. I had the privilege of being at the ballpark for what was undoubtedly his most impressive appearance to date.
On July 21st, the A’s were playing the New York Yankees in Oakland. The A’s had already won the first two games of a four-game set, and were tied with the Yankees 1-1 going into the bottom of the 8th in game number three. New York’s starter Phil Hughes was dealing, but he gave up a solo home run to Brandon Inge to start the inning. The A’s went into the top of the 9th leading 2-1, but the Yankees had the heart of their lineup coming to bat: Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Mark Teixeira. The A’s had Sean Doolittle on the mound, a guy who’d been pitching professionally for less than a year; a guy who’d thrown less than 20 innings at the major league level; a guy who’d been in a major league uniform for all of six weeks. You had to like the Yankees’ chances.
Doolittle started off by giving up a single to A-Rod. At that point it looked like the late inning train wreck had left the station and was rolling down the tracks. Robison Cano, one of the best in all of baseball, was up next and ready to do some damage to Oakland’s rookie reliever. Instead, acting as if he hadn’t gotten the memo, Doolittle struck Cano out on five pitches. Teixeira stepped in and, looking worse than Cano, struck out looking after falling behind 1-2. That left Andruw Jones to do the honors of driving in the tying run. The aging Jones battled Doolittle to a full count before he struck out swinging. Incredibly, the A’s won, and Sean Doolittle, who was pitching in the Instructional League a few months back, recorded his first major league save. The crowd, except for the healthy contingent of shocked/sullen/malevolent Yankees fans, went nuts.
Doolittle has struggled a bit since that incredible outing. Hopefully, he’ll get back on track and have a long, healthy career. However things turn out for him, on one Saturday afternoon he took the mound in a big league ballpark, faced the heart of the New York Yankees’ line up, and struck out the side. Not bad, not bad at all.
Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com