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You think you know a baseball player with a good story. Then you hear the story of Seattle Mariners reliever Steve Delabar.
There's an area on the floor of the North Sea known as the Witch Ground. Not too far off the shore of Aberdeen, the Witch Ground contains a number of pockmarks from which methane gas escapes to the surface. One of the largest of these pockmarks is known as the Witch's Hole. Lying in the center of the Witch's Hole is an old sunken ship, upright and still in one piece. The working theory is that the ship was sunk by escaping gas, which rose to the surface and created an area of negative buoyancy. That's a cool story.
Seattle Mariners reliever Steve Delabar is also a cool story. You say you don't know who Steve Delabar is? Not to worry, because until a week ago I didn't, either, and I write about the goddamn team every day. I came back from a camping trip to find out that the Mariners had promoted two players I'd heard of and one player named Steve Delabar.
My immediate reaction: "Who the #&@! is Steve Delabar?"
Steve Delabar is a 28-year-old rookie. Immediately, that should tell you that he's not an ordinary kid. He was drafted by the Angels in the 43rd round in 2002, and then again by the Padres in the 29th round in 2003. He'd sign with the Padres, and the amount of time that's passed between his being drafted and his being promoted implies an arduous climb.
But it's the details of that climb, that path that Delabar has taken, that stand out as being so remarkable. This is Geoff Baker's feature piece, and you should read it. I will provide the outline, but Baker has quotes and more depth.
The long and short of it is that, for quite a while, Delabar was nothing. Or, I guess he was something, but he was a nothing prospect. He debuted as a professional in 2004. Come 2008, he was still in single-A, working out of the Fort Wayne Wizards' bullpen. He left the ranks of the affiliated minor leagues and shifted to the Brockton Rox of the Canadian-American Association, with whom, in 2009, he blew out his elbow. But not in the usual way you're thinking of - his bone snapped and a fragment emerged through his skin.
Delabar obviously needed major surgery, and he wouldn't be able to pitch in 2010. The Rox let him go, and facing the probable end of his career, he started taking classes at Louisville to finish his teaching degree. At the same time, he worked as a substitute teacher and baseball coach at John Hardin High.
A friend of his at a nearby baseball facility then deployed a program intended to improve pitcher velocity, and Delabar - curious to see if the program could help the pitchers he coached - decided to try it out for himself. As he progressed, he noticed considerable improvement, and got his fastball up to 97 miles per hour over the winter.
That's when his friend called an area Mariners scout to come watch Delabar throw. Delabar threw, and a little while later, in early April, he threw again, for more Mariners representatives. The team signed Delabar, and he wound up in single-A.
That might've been enough. Delabar got his foot back in the door. But after seven games with single-A High Desert, Delabar advanced to double-A for the first time in his life. And after 23 games with Jackson, he advanced to triple-A Tacoma. There he remained until early September, when he was promoted once more. Five months after working as a substitute teacher, Steve Delabar rather improbably found himself in a major league bullpen.
And as the cherry on top, he debuted on Sunday in a 2-1 game.
A Escobar flies out to center
A Gordon strikes out swinging
M Cabrera strikes out swinging
Delabar might have been promoted to the majors in part as a favor - I can't say - but he struck out 68 batters in 56 minor-league innings this season, and then in his first major league appearance, he used a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s split to make good hitters look silly. Delabar isn't just a good story; he's a good story who could conceivably stick. God knows he has the stuff.
Truth be told, I don't know if Steve Delabar is contemporary baseball's best story. He's teammates with Tom Wilhelmsen, who took six years off to travel and tend bar. He's teammates with Alex Liddi, who is the first born-and-raised Italian player in major league history. Jon Lester has come back from lymphoma. Ryan Westmoreland is coming back from brain surgery. Daniel Nava hit a grand slam on the first pitch he ever saw. Jim Morris just happened in 1999. R.A. Dickey doesn't have a UCL. Jim Abbott had one hand(!). And on and on. Baseball is littered with guys whose career paths have been both odd and incredible.
But if it gets better than Steve Delabar, it doesn't get better by much. So many people have complained about how, despite their importance, teachers don't get paid like professional athletes. In a way, you could say that this one does.