The Crafty Lefty

Tucson Toros pitching coach Ed Vosberg just can't give up the game

It's a Saturday in late May, impossibly bright, the warmth of the afternoon a trumpet of summer's coming. Tucson Toros pitching coach Ed Vosberg steps through a door into a clubhouse hallway at Hi Corbett Field, out of the glare, and leans against the wall, one leg bent back, still catching his breath after throwing batting practice.

A portrait photographer could capture everything this shot represents: A barrel-chested jock in the winter of his athletic life, looking older than his 47 years, his T-shirt drenched in sweat, hair matted, his face looking tired but showing every bit of the determination, struggle and triumph that accompany 25 years of pitching for his supper around the world, including for eight big-league teams in 10 seasons.

I want him to talk about some of the triumphs. But it takes prompting.

Vosberg, a Tucson native and a former UA pitcher, doesn't seek attention, a reticence that stems from his mother, Olga, who told him, "Don't tell people how good you are. Just be good, and people will know it."

"I struck out Sammy Sosa at Wrigley in 1999," Vosberg says. "That was cool."

"Do you remember the pitch?" I ask.

He doesn't hesitate. "I threw a curve that he hit way out, a foul home run. I'm not going to do that again, so I threw a fastball in, and he swung and missed."

Orioles' third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. went 1-for-12 against Vosberg. He faced Eddie Murray three times and struck him out three times.

In Vosberg's first big-league start, in 1986, he pitched against Vida Blue. He struck out Will Clark in that game, his first big league K.

"Got him on a slider," says Vosberg. "Got Paul Molitor once. I got Tony Gwynn, too. Fastball down and in."

He runs down a list of names amid the din of the pregame clubhouse. The Toros play in the independent Golden Baseball League, roughly the equivalent of low Double-A ball. They play the Orange County Flyers this night.

Starting pitcher Danny Knox is down the hall, napping on the clubhouse couch. Manager Tim Johnson is padding around barefoot, slapping backs, getting his boys ready.

I'm amazed at Vosberg's memory. He not only recalls getting them out, but how, the kind of pitch he threw. "I can't remember yesterday," I say. "How do you do that?"

His answer touches on the key chemical in the DNA of every professional pitcher.

"When you get a guy out on a certain pitch, you have to remember it for next time," Vosberg says. "If he gets you, you remember that, too. It's how you survive."

Survival is what Vosberg does best. He's seen baseball life from the penthouse, and he's seen it from the basement. He threw for the Florida Marlins in the 1997 World Series, and he's ridden buses through just about every baseball backwater on the map.

He twice wound up deathly ill in Mexican hospitals. He played nine winter seasons in the Mexican Pacific League, and two more in the AAA Mexican summer league. They called him guero—slang for blondie.

"I get sick now more than I used to," Vosberg says. "My immune system hasn't been the same since Mexico. It's taken a beating."

He played in Puerto Rico and in that cradle of baseball, Italy. It was 1992.

Vosberg had been released by two teams the previous year and didn't feel like begging for another job. So he packed up and flew to Novara, Italy. Wife, Lori, and daughters Emilie, now 24, and Larissa, now 29, joined him later. He also has a 9-year-old daughter, Sophia; a 5-year-old son, Noah; and a 6-year-old granddaughter, Bella.

"I thought it was all over when I went to Italy," he says. "I was basically on vacation." But he rediscovered his curveball. He got innings; his arm strength came back.

One night after pitching a shutout, an agent pulled him aside and said, "What're you doing here? The way you throw, you belong in the big leagues."

In 1994, he pitched in 16 games for the Oakland A's. But he didn't last.

"Getting to the big leagues is one thing," says Vosberg. "The hard part is staying there. At spring training with the Dodgers in 1995, I had Tommy Lasorda tell me to my face, 'You're not good enough.'"

A week later, Vosberg was back in the big leagues with the Texas Rangers.

In 1997, he signed a two-year deal with the San Diego Padres for $1.25 million. One of his first contracts, for a California League team in Reno, Nev., paid $600 a month.

In the big leagues, he worked mostly in relief. His fastball peaked at 88-90 mph on the gun, sufficient with location, and he threw a hard breaking ball, a combination curve and slider. But his pickoff move is what everyone remembers.

Just last month, on a May 13 broadcast, Fox Sports analyst Kevin Kennedy called it the best move he's ever seen. Former UA coach Jerry Kindall would intentionally walk batters, then have Vosberg pick them off.

But it wasn't enough. His lifetime record in the majors defines journeyman—10 wins and 15 losses. He threw his last big-league pitch for Montreal in 2002.

The Expos are gone now, the franchise converted into the Washington Nationals.

Vosberg is still around, and that's his story—how he never quit, how even on days when he walked up to the cliff and looked out at life beyond baseball, he always pulled back, because nothing he saw looked better than hopping over the chalk lines in a clean uniform with a brand-new baseball in his hand.

"Deep in my heart, I always believed I could perform, even when other people believed I couldn't," he says. "That's what motivated me to keep coming back."

Knox is awake now, watching the Women's College World Series on the clubhouse TV. "I'm looking for a wife," cracks the 24-year-old lefty.

Johnson brought Knox to Tucson from his previous team, the Lincoln (Neb.) Saltdogs. Sitting in the quiet of his office, his feet up, the manager says he likes what he sees in the kid.

"Danny goes right after them and makes the defense work," he says. "He doesn't piss around out there."

Knox stands 5 foot 9 and weighs 190 pounds. "I'm smaller than most pitchers," he says, "so I have to be more competitive than the guy in the box."

He has a reputation for his intensity. He has the names of his pets, a pitbull and a bulldog, tattooed on the inside of his arms. He also has a sense of humor.

"What can we expect to see from you tonight?" I ask.

"If I don't hit my spots, I'll drop a few f-bombs out there," Knox says. "If I walk anybody, I might go berserk for a minute or two."

If not for Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, Vosberg's baseball odyssey would be one-of-a-kind. They're the only men in history to have played in the Little League World Series, the NCAA World Series and the Major League Baseball World Series.

But Vosberg has Varitek beat. He twice played in the Caribbean Series—a matchup of winter-league teams from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

"I'm a trivia question," says Vosberg.

He grew up in the neighborhood around Broadway Boulevard and Swan Road. In 1973, he led the city's Cactus Little League team to a magical season, tossing a no-hitter in a state tournament game in Phoenix. The next day's headline read: A Nolan Ryan in the Making. He was 11.

The team made it all the way to the Little League championship game in Williamsport, Pa. But Cactus lost 12-0 to a team from Taiwan.

Vosberg went on to Salpointe Catholic High School. As a sophomore, he pitched one game for the JV team, striking out 17 batters in seven innings and giving up three hits. They couldn't get him on the varsity team fast enough. He went 11-0 as a junior and 9-2 as a senior, arguably becoming Arizona's best prep pitcher.

But his on-field memories of Salpointe are more negative than positive. "I remember the things we didn't do," Vosberg says. "We never won the state championship. We had great teams, but we always found a way to lose."

In 1980, he pitched for the UA in the College World Series. The Wildcats had lost to St John's, setting up a win-or-go-home game against Florida State. Kindall sent Vosberg, a freshman, out to the hill. After a few innings, it started to rain, and the game was delayed for more than an hour.

"I was skeptical about bringing him back in," says Kindall. "He's cooled off. I'm assuming he's nervous. I don't know if he can handle it." But hitting coach Jerry Stitt, who'd managed Vosberg at Salpointe, and pitching coach Jim Wing pulled Kindall aside.

"Oh, no," they told him. "Leave Eddie in there. This kid has it. He'll carry us."

Vosberg pitched seven complete innings and won the game, and Arizona went on to win the NCAA championship. "We wouldn't have won it without him," says Kindall. "He's a remarkable competitor."

In 1983, the San Diego Padres drafted Vosberg in the third round, and he looked to be on his way. Then everything fizzled. He says the Padres, with their emphasis on veterans, didn't give him much of an opportunity.

"I wasted my 20s in the minors," says Vosberg. "Spent 31 days of my 20s in the big leagues. But I'm not complaining. That's the breaks. You can't be bitter about things."

Knox is warming up on the sidelines. He's got pop. His pitches hitting the catcher's mitt sound like small-arms fire. Vosberg watches, spits seeds, watches some more, spits and says nothing to the young lefty.

Some pitching coaches talk too much. Vosberg vows not to do that, saying he's had coaches watch him throw one time, then step in and try to change him.

"I'd say, 'You have to at least let me fail first,' he says. "I had Dave Duncan as a pitching coach, the best in the business, and in six months, he never said a word to me."

Knox finishes up. His coach still hasn't spoken. As the kid heads to the dugout, seconds from game time, Vosberg whacks him on the shoulder and offers precisely two words of advice.

"Be aggressive," he says.

Toros' designated hitter/first baseman Jim Rushford has a little red goatee that looks like something out of the London theater. But he's a lunch-pail guy, 6 feet tall, 240 pounds, and when he squares up a fastball, he can launch it over the sun.

He's just finished batting practice, and now he's telling his story.

Last year, Rushford came to spring training in Tucson with the Chicago White Sox and got released. He went to Mexico to play for the AAA Oaxaca Warriors, went 5-for-20 and got released there, too.

Back in Tucson, he landed a job driving a haul truck for ASARCO copper. Eight months later, the economy tanked, and he was laid off. He found work with the Toros, a 36-year-old who knows one difficult thing better than any other: His best shot has probably come and gone.

It came in September 2002. He got a call-up with the Milwaukee Brewers, but the baseball roulette wheel dealt him a wicked list of pitchers: Matt Morris, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Clement, Roy Oswalt, Curt Schilling.

"Schilling walked me. He was pissed," says Rushford, smiling. "I faced Jason Schmidt when he threw 98 mph."

His September batting average, in 77 chances, was .143. "They handed it to me," Rushford says. "I had one home run. Off Rick Helling."

The name gets Vosberg's attention: "Rick Helling? I got traded for Rick Helling."

After Milwaukee, Rushford went back to AAA and had some good seasons. But nobody gave him another chance.

One lousy month seven years ago.

Vosberg stands in the sun, bats cracking in the background, talking about the baseball roulette wheel, the stress and insecurity of knowing that every time he took the mound, he was one pitch away, one bad bounce away, from losing his job.

"It's a great game, but there's a lot people don't see," he says. "At times, I thought about quitting, and I'm glad I didn't. You don't want to look back and say you should've persevered."

His wife, Lori, understanding that baseball is part of his makeup, would talk him into staying in the game. It got tough toward the end. Vosberg was always the oldest guy on the team, and it weighed on his conscience to see young players released while he kept his spot. The road trips became a trial, too.

"Eddie's a bit of a loner, and if you're living right, baseball is really lonely," says Lori. "When the young guys would go drinking after games, Eddie stayed at the hotel. If we were with him, he was fine. But more and more, he wanted to be home with his family."

Except for a shoulder surgery in 1998, his body never gave out. He pitched past the age of 45. But the game wore on him mentally. Yet he kept coming back.

Vosberg has seen more resurrections than a month of Easter Sundays.

It's August 1997. Vosberg is sacked out in a Boston hotel room when the phone rings. He picks up and learns his team, the struggling Texas Rangers, have traded him, for Helling, to the Florida Marlins.

Seven weeks later, he's pitching against the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

In the third game, the coldest World Series game in history, the wind chill at 15 degrees, he gives up two runs in two innings.

In game six, he comes in with a runner on second, nobody out. He strikes out Jim Thome, gets Marquis Grissom on a fly to center, and Kevin Seitzer pops out to third.

Now it's the seventh game, all tied up, bottom of the 11th. Marlins' shortstop Edgar Renteria comes to bat with the bases loaded and two out.

Vosberg is warming up in the Marlins' bullpen. The manager has sent word: If Renteria doesn't get a hit and win it, Vosberg will come in to pitch the top of the 12th.

His heart is hammering in his throat. He's trying to focus on getting ready. But one thought keeps racing through his mind: "Please get a hit, Edgar. Please get a hit."

Renteria hits a ground single up the middle. The Marlins are world champs.

"All I wanted to do was run out onto that field and celebrate," says Vosberg. "I didn't want to have to worry about pitching in the seventh game of the World Series in extra innings. Nobody in that stadium was happier than I was."

Now Vosberg is talking about the hitters who "got" him. There's a list of names for that, too.

"Was Barry Bonds one?" I ask.

"Yeah, Barry got me in 2000 in San Francisco."

I stand as a left-handed hitter as Vosberg uses his hand to mimic the path of the pitch, a slider tight against Bonds' fists. Bonds manages an inside-out swing that powers the ball over the left-field fence.

As it sails out of the park, Vosberg is thinking: "How do you do that? How do you hit a homer to the opposite field on an inside-out swing? Say what you want about steroids; Bonds is a great hitter."

Knox pitches a gem. He gives up a home run in the third, but only two other hits. He leaves after the seventh inning, the Toros leading 3-1, and they go on to win. He does not go berserk.

Rushford goes 1-for-4, the hit a bloop single. In one at-bat, he gets fooled on a curve and takes a called third strike with the bases loaded. Even as he walks back to the dugout, his head hanging, he's not thinking of going back to hauling copper.

"Driving a mine truck is a job," he says. "But it doesn't compare to this. I love being on a baseball field."

Vosberg is sitting at his locker talking about the Kevin Kennedy comment. It causes some excitement in the family, with Lori e-mailing the link to friends and relatives.

Toros' manager Johnson coached for Kennedy when the latter managed the Red Sox in the '90s. Johnson goes into his office and retrieves a calendar he keeps in his desk drawer. It has a team picture of the Sox from 1995, and there's Clemens and Canseco, hitting coach Jim Rice, and bench coach Tim Johnson, too.

He's excited to show it off, because in baseball, no matter how long you've been around, it's always about the big leagues ... the big leagues ... and the competition, too, the fire to perform and win that makes these guys different from everybody else.

"I was nice of Kevin to say that," Vosberg says and shrugs. "I guess it's better to be remembered for your pickoff move than not at all."

He pauses, and something comes over him, a new aspect. I can see it in the hold of his shoulders and in the look in his eyes. It's the fire.

"But I could get guys out, too," he says.