The face of Youth
On the first Monday in May, “Youth” strode out to the mound at Kauffman Stadium. Youth took a few warm-up pitches and signaled that he was ready. A batter stepped up to the plate. The face of Youth checked the catcher for the sign. The eyes were intense, but even in a squint, they were without crow’s-feet. Experience had yet to leave its marks. Youth’s hairline remained ridiculously low, and the black hair under the sweaty ball cap was short but thick. Youth was in the big time — exhibiting 90 percent determination and a touch of cockiness along with a splash of raw fear.
Youth can be found in many positions on the Royals. But that night, it was found on the pitcher’s mound in the person of Chad Durbin. Barely 22, Durbin is not far removed from his days at Woodlawn High in Baton Rouge, La., where life was proms, double-dates, and high school ball in front of fellow students, a few fans, and family. Now Durbin was facing the likes of major leaguers Jason Giambi and Ben Grieve of the Oakland A’s.
Durbin had done his penance in the minors, starting out in the Gulf Coast League, then advancing with the Lansing Lugnuts in Michigan, and finally AA ball in Wichita before ending 1999 in the big leagues. He pitched 2.1 innings for the Royals last season after being called up with no earned runs and striking out three batters.
In days past someone like Durbin spent more time in the minors, honing skill and developing arm strength. Young pitchers were brought up slowly, playing sporadically and taking time to see other teams, get familiar with hitters, and, in general, learning how to cope with the pressure of professional sports.
But now, someone like Durbin can go 8-10 at Wichita in one year and become a regular in a major league starting rotation the next. Guffaw all you want. George Brett never batted .300 in the minors and he somehow managed to make the Hall of Fame. Once you get to the pro level, talent surrounds a young player. Everybody can hit, field, and pitch. At that point, it becomes a game of the mind. Can someone like Durbin face the pressures of the major leagues? Knowing scads of family and friends are watching every pitch on satellite TV. Knowing that any slipup can become fodder for ESPN Baseball Tonight. Knowing that on a given night, he could have his best stuff and still get hammered.
The first challenge for Durbin against the A’s came in the second inning. With adrenaline gushing like a geyser, he gave up a double, a walk, a single, then a bases-loaded triple to turn a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 deficit. Next inning, with two outs, Durbin made one mistake over the plate and the ball landed in the grass next to the left-field bullpen, 420 feet away.
This is where Youth can collapse or survive. For some, it means wanting to head back to a safe world of proms, a daytime job, and security. For others, it means experience dictates that a pitcher is cooked for the night after giving up four runs in the first three innings. But sometimes that revelation can work to a young pitcher’s advantage. Although the Royals went on to lose the game 7-5, Durbin triumphed over logic for the next four innings. Counting the final out in the third, he retired 10 straight A’s until leaving in the seventh inning after giving up a one-out walk.
“At first the adrenaline was flowing and I was throwing instead of pitching,” Durbin says after the game. “I settled down and I felt stronger as the game went on. Next start, I’m gonna work on giving up less walks and trusting my stuff. I wasn’t happy about being taken out, because I’m a competitive guy. I don’t think they would want it any other way. Up here, confidence is everything.”
Durbin continued to talk to reporters. There was none of the rolling of the eyes that more experienced players tend to do when questions aren’t crafted to their standards. There was patience. There was energy. For Durbin and other young Royals players, there are still a lot of tomorrows.
Someone in the press box asked whether my media badge, which carried the name of this paper, PitchWeekly, was the name of my publication or a scouting report on the Royals. I didn’t give an answer.
During the game, ballots were passed out for choosing the Royals player and pitcher of the month of April. The player competition was a hot one, although Jermaine Dye had an April that belonged in the Hall of Fame. But as far as pitching goes, it was a little like picking the best place to snow ski in Kansas.
Also lacking for the Royals is “the man” behind the plate. With Gregg Zaun on the DL, the Royals are sending out Brian Johnson and Jorge Febregas. Their jobs are workmanlike, but even Tony Muser says that the continuity of the catcher with the pitcher is the most important part of the game. He explained that was why he liked former Royal catcher Tim Spehr, who didn’t have all the physical skills but was a master at calling a game and handling pitchers. With very few on the current pitching staff who can get into a bar without being carded, stability at the catcher position is going to be a must.