Highschool Heroes

 September 2010

Drizzling rain dews on a morass of brown hair, a playoff beard worthy of a postseason it won’t see—at least not this year. Each warm-up toss flutters, impacting the individual droplets at a hundred different angles, yet never missing the catcher’s target.

R.A. Dickey finishes quickly. Unlike nearly ever other pitcher in the world, his readiness for the game is based not on the looseness of his arm but on how his fingernails are holding the ball. And evidently satisfied with his feel, Dickey puts his head down and soldiers onto the next job.

May 2008

It’s a pleasantly warm day in Nashville. Yet, two pitches into his pregame warm-ups, the hulking figure on the mound breaks out in a tense sweat. Fastball after 95 mile-per-hour fastball whirs wildly into the foul ball netting—quick, straight, errant. To my left and a few rows back, thirty-somethings in SEC football attire call out not entirely malicious jeers—something closer to friendly ribbing than outright heckling.

“Turnboooow! Yo Derrick!”

The figure on the mound doesn’t respond to his name, though. He wipes his brow, resets his foot, and begins the next hopeless pitch.


Derrick Turnbow’s 20 is the only retired number at Franklin High School in central Tennessee. No player in the continuity of the Franklin Rebels will ever again wear said number, an honor more typical of college and professional ball. The school retired the number in the summer of 2001, with the young Turnbow seemingly well on his way to stardom.

Fifteen miles north of Franklin High, at Montgomery Bell Academy, a lone, framed jersey in a dark corner of the gym’s basement, by the soda machine, honors alumnus R.A. Dickey. The shirt, one he wore as part of the bronze medal squad in the 1996 Olympics, is accompanied by a computer-paper inscription, printed in Brush Script MT, the font that says, “This plaque would merit a calligrapher, if we actually cared”:

Anything you vividly imagine, ardently desire, and enthusiastically act upon must, absolutely, come to pass.”

The quotation—unattributed to motivational author Paul J. Meyer—is incorrect. Meyer actually said “must inevitably come to pass,” and had someone told R.A. Dickey that so many years ago, when the jersey was hung, he might have better been prepared for the arduous journey ahead.

Indeed, the inscription reads prophetically now, but for many years, its words were headstone on the grave of R.A. Dickey’s baseball career—fittingly, too, as his hopes were buried in his Team USA jersey. R.A. Dickey was set to collect an $810,000 signing bonus from the Texas Rangers when a team doctor saw Dickey on the cover of Baseball America alongside his Olympic teammates and noticed that something was wrong. Dickey's arm looked strange, and the doctor ordered tests which subsequently revealed that Dickey lacked an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. A future in baseball appeared to be a medical impossibility. The Rangers quantified their loss of confidence in a ten-fold reduction of his bonus, from $810,000 to $75,000.

September 2010

He's a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”
--George Smiley

The reason I’m at this game is the same reason I wish I wasn’t. The Brewers and the Mets play out the rope today in a doubleheader—games 157 and 158 in a 162 game season. I watch R.A. Dickey warm up and wonder how fans stay engaged in baseball when the season is so long and becomes hopeless so quickly and for so many teams.

With the vast majority of clubs treating the postseason as an occasional indulgence, most fans have to find meaning elsewhere. Supporters of teams like the Pirates—or, in my case, the Mets—endure the sheer number of crappy games in order to gain an adequate sample size for an offseason of diagnosing the team's failures. Late-season baseball is a science: the more bad games you see, the better you are at spotting the problem.

And the promise is renewal. Old players are replaced with young stars from the minors and some day things will be better. It's the fallacious and tacit belief of all fans—that sports are naturalistic in exactly this way.

March 2005

Spring Training is the staging ground for baseball's rebirth—the enzyme that brings the fat into contact with the young, lean muscle that will replace it.

In Phoenix, Arizona, Brewers pitching coach Mike Maddux sees potential in newcomer Derrick Turnbow. Claimed off waivers from the Angels the season before, Turnbow possesses a single, very noticeable skill—one you could hear in the pop of the catcher’s mitt. Derrick Turnbow could throw a baseball 100 miles-per-hour and Mike Maddux doesn't know why he would even try to pitch anything else.

20 miles away, in Surprise, Arizona, R.A. Dickey faces an uncertain future. It is his ninth and possibly last spring with the Texas Rangers. In another reality, one with elbow ligaments, Dickey is on the verge of leaving the Rangers for a big payday. In this one, he struggles to hold on. Rangers pitching coach Orel Hershiser tells a desperate Dickey to forget his mid-80s fastball and start using his third pitch—“the Thing”—for what it really is: a knuckleball.

Both pitchers heed their coach’s advice. Turnbow finishes the season 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA and a club-record 39 saves, the best closer in baseball. Dickey finishes the season struggling, in the minors.

Fall 1995

“Derrick, you need turn in your homework,” says my dad. “If I’m going to give you a decent grade, you’ve got to at least meet me halfway.”

For most high school students, getting held after class is a moment of embarrassment. A time for contrition, no matter how little you mean your promises of reform. This is especially true when the teacher plays good cop, and your missed homework is elevated from laziness to personal affront. Most kids would apologize.

Derrick Turnbow plainly replies in his Union City, Tennessee, drawl. “I don’t need to do my homework, Mr. Page. I’m going to be a professional baseball pitcher.”

“How hard do you throw Derrick?” asks Dad.


“Good luck with that, Derrick.”

Summer 2001

How many guys on this planet can throw a ball a hundred miles an hour?” he said in a much louder voice as he sat up.

I can think of one,” said a large man with shoulder-length brown hair as he sauntered into the room and calmly submerged himself in a vat of ice. It was Angels reliever Derrick Turnbow, in Mesa on a rehab assignment. A year earlier he had suffered a displaced fracture of the ulna while throwing one of his 100-mph fastballs.

Now, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen you hit triple digits,” Bobby said playfully.

Go to hell, Jenks,” Turnbow said. “Talk to me when you’ve pitched a game in the big leagues.”

--Colin McCarthy, Odd Man Out

Fall 2003

Derrick Turnbow becomes the first Major League Baseball player to test positive for a banned steroid.

June 2007

The charm of baseball is that, dull as it may be on the field, it is endlessly fascinating as a rehash.”
--Jim Murray

I settle into a seat by the visitor’s bullpen, which is on the field behind the first base-side foul line. It’s unusually hot for a Nashville summer day, but the temperature will settle in the high-70s as the sun sets.

The AAA New Orleans Zephyrs are playing a series against the Nashville Sounds this weekend. The Mets, major-league affiliate of the Zephyrs, have a pair of early draft picks in Phil Humber and Mike Pelfrey that I’m excited to see. On a more trivial note, R.A. Dickey, local washout who attended my high school, also pitches for the Sounds. But I ignore him, eager to document pitchers with futures in the show.

Going to a AAA baseball game is like being an extra in a baseball movie. Everyone plays his part, but nobody really cares about the game, at least in the typical way. The locals cheer to convince themselves they’re entertained. Prospects play to make the show. Veterans play to stick around until someone in the show gets injured. The managers know if they win enough, they could be bench coaches in the majors. And the bench coaches know if they just don’t get fired, they could be the next manager.

For the fanatic like myself, these games create minor league statistics, sacred treasures. They are quantifiable proof that the future will be better. A good minor league slash-line or ERA signifies a prospect breaking out, fulfilling his destiny as a failing major leaguer's replacement. Statistics are our order—they are almost always predictive.

August 2007

R.A. Dickey is named the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year.

May 2008

In between pitches, I keep looking expectantly at Dad, trying to catch a moment of reaction. Dad’s usual stoicism never wavers.

Derrick Turnbow is the starting pitcher for the Nashville Sounds, a role he hasn't filled since Dad taught him at Franklin High School. The Sounds have tried everything to fix Turnbow, save starting him, so today they're doing just that. He is due $3,370,666 dollars this year from the Milwaukee Brewers, who thought they were getting more from the young heavyweight with the flaming arm.

September 2010

R.A. Dickey pitches well in his half of the doubleheader—one run in seven innings—but the Mets lose, which seems fitting. Dickey, completing his miraculous breakout as a knuckleball pitcher at age 35, a transformation started at age 32 in AAA Nashville, finishes the season with a 2.84 ERA in 174 innings pitched. He’s eligible for a new contract this offseason, his work for the year likely to secure a big payday, 15 years since the Rangers retracted his first-round signing bonus, when he failed his rookie physical.

I’m struck then by who isn’t here.

Another country boy with a busted arm and a single, uncontrollable pitch, he should by all rights be retired and coaching in Tennessee, a real Kenny Powers, like Derrick Turnbow. But here he is, and here the young gunners aren't. R.A. Dickey gives me hope in the unpredictability of the game, of the miracle. Ya gotta believe, and all that. A small triumph, I guess, in a lost year.


Sam Page