After five years watching him throw a mediocre fastball as a starting pitcher in the lower levels of their minor league system, the Padres finally cut Steve Delabar loose. In desperation, Delabar signed with the Brockton Rox, a team in the independent Can-Am Association with no ties to a Major League organization. Twelve games into that 2009 season, his baseball career came to a torturous end … or so it seemed.
He threw a pitch, heard a pop, walked to the dugout, looked in shock at his elbow. Remember the beast protruding from Sigourney Weaver's womb in the Alien movie? Delabar would use that metaphor in a television interview two years later, to describe the appearance of his elbow that fateful day.
His remarkable story since strains the imagination. Now throwing his fastball up to 10 mph harder than before the gruesome injury, Delabar is safely tucked into the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse this spring, assured of a job in the bullpen when camp breaks this week, praised by manager John Gibbons as a third option as closer should Casey Janssen or Sergio Santos be unavailable.
"It's crazy," says the 6-foot-4, 232-pound right-hander. "I'd like to sit back, look at what I've done and say, 'This is really cool.' But then I don't focus on what I'm supposed to be doing here. I've got to get guys out."
In surgery, Delabar had a steel plate and nine screws inserted to bond the shattered bone. Resigned to move on with life, he began substitute teaching back home in Elizabethtown, Ky., primarily at Central Hardin High where his wife taught fulltime. For fun, he played softball on Friday nights. He also started working with the Players' Dugout, a baseball instructional facility operated by a friend, Joe Newton, in partnership with Tom House, the former pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves who runs a separate academy in Southern California.
Newton was bringing in a pitching program devised by former college coach Jamie Evans. The philosophy boils down to balancing arm strength and arm speed in order to minimize shoulder strain and maximize velocity. Delabar would help market the program.
"I told him, the study doesn't have anybody with nine screws and a plate in his elbow, but we'll try it and at least you'll be better prepared to tell the kids what it's about," Newton said by telephone, from Kentucky. "Well, at first he threw 87-88 miles an hour. Three weeks later, he was up to 93. A month after that, 96-97."
Delabar got the itch again. He asked Newton to get in touch with a mutual acquaintance, scout Brian Williams, who worked the area for the Seattle Mariners.
"Think about it from his perspective," Delabar says. "This guy's out of baseball, he had a broken arm, he's 27 years old. So it was kind of like a favour."
During a hastily arranged lunchtime tryout at the high school, Delabar hit 98 on the radar gun.
The Mariners signed him to a minor-league contract as a relief pitcher in April of 2011, and that season he jumped from Single-A to Double-A to Triple-A until, ultimately, in early September, he got the call to the majors, eight years after the Padres drafted him in 29th round. On that occasion, he related his feelings to the Seattle Times: "It was tough, I mean, I called my wife and I couldn't talk. It's one of those things that you always hear people talk about it and you go, 'Oh, I'll be able to get it' and … I broke down immediately. Then, I was like, 'I've got to call my dad' and I called my dad and I couldn't even put words together."
Last season, he made nine appearances at Triple-A Tacoma and 34 for the Mariners before the Jays traded outfielder Eric Thames for him in July. GM Alex Anthoplous has pieced together his middle relief accordingly. Right-hander Brad Lincoln ws obtained from Pittsburgh at the same time, for Travis Snider. For allowing manager John Farrell to break his contract, Anthopolous received Mike Aviles from Boston and flipped him to Cleveland for Esmil Rogers.
Between Seattle and Toronto, Delabar (4-3, 3.82 ERA) made 61 appearances, held opponents to a .193 batting average and struck out 12.55 batters per nine innings, the highest rate in the American League for a pitcher working at least 60 innings. He throws a fastball and splitter, and is working on a slider.
With at least two days' rest he performed significantly better than on the back end of consecutive-day outings, and this offseason he cut down his body fat. Dramatic increases in performance these days lead to inevitably suspicions about the possible role of PEDs. Newton says, don't even think about it, in Delabar's case.
"I see it all the time with these athletes," he says. "It never works. They cheat and then they either get caught, or they get hurt. Steve does it the right way. A lot of major league guys work hard; nobody works as hard as Stevey. You cut down body fat by watching what you eat and hard work."
Delabar talked recently with former Jays closer Tom Henke about changes in the game but really, in his case, Henke's formula is pretty much the same for Delabar: Country hardball, nasty splitter, presto. It's that easy.