Ode to Affeldt

Jeremy Affeldt kept me young. Every time I saw him pitch through the years, whether it was a on television or live during the season or in the World Series, the beginning would rush back. He was a 22-year-old kid who had no idea about the future. I was a 35-year-old new father with a baby daughter who had come with us to Florida for her first spring training. She doesn’t remember it too well. She was 6 months old.

She stayed behind with Mom and did not come to Bradenton with me on a windy day in 2002 because … I don’t remember. I suspect it was because that was an early spring-training game between the Kansas City Royals (who were terrible) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (who, if possible, were worse) and it was an old ballpark, and the weather was cool and windy, and it all felt kind of pointless. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Scouts, I recall, were marveling at the way the birds were chasing blowing kernels of popcorn. And that was DURING the game.

Everything about that game felt flat, lifeless, colorless, like the whole scene had degenerated into black and white. I was sitting in the scout section with the Royals’ general manager at the time, Allard Baird, and we were talking about family and life and anything that came to mind to distract us from the dullness of the game itself.

And then Jeremy Affeldt entered.

He was a non-prospect, even though he was left-handed and had flashed some decent stuff in the minors. I’ve always loved the way he was summed up in the 2002 Baseball America Prospect Handbook (where Affeldt was ranked the Royals’ 13th best prospect): “He’s a poor man’s version of Jimmy Gobble.” That pretty much tells the story.

But Allard Baird liked him. Baird now works for the Boston Red Sox, and he has the soul of a scout. Something in that soul — something it noticed about Affeldt’s body type, his arm action, the life of his pitches — told him that Affeldt had a chance to be something more. “Let’s watch him,” Baird said.

It was one of the coolest sports experiences of my life. There was hardly anyone in the stadium that day. The scouts were yawning and looking at the birds. And Affeldt came in, and he threw that first fastball, and it popped into the glove, and all the scouts seemed to wake up at once. They looked at their radar guns. It was 92. Nobody had touched 90 all day.

Then came the Affeldt curveball, a roller-coaster curveball that seemed to start at the eyes and then tumbled to the knees. A fastball came in at 94. Another. A curveball dropped from the sky. He struck out the first batter on a high fastball — the hitter never had a chance. He blew a fastball by the second. He froze the third with that beautiful curve.

Next inning, he came out and did it all again. In two innings he struck out five and got the sixth on a foul popup. Nobody put a ball into fair play against him. It was against spring-training leftovers, sure, but it was some kind of dominant. And the reaction all around was beautiful — the scouts had dug in, the few fans there had regained interest, and Baird sat there with this great look on his face, the sort of look you see on the face of a pianist or guitarist when he’s playing just right.

“You won’t see a lefty better all year,” Baird said happily after that, and he was bouncing around joyfully along with the other Royals officials. It was clear: I had just seen the beginning of a career.

“I just hope to make the ballclub,” Affeldt nervously told me after the game.

He did make the ballclub, beginning what would be a fascinating baseball life. The first part of it was with the hopeless Kansas City Royals, and it seemed like nothing ever went right. He started. He relieved. He closed. He started again. It was all kind of the same mess. When he began pitching well, he found his momentum stopped by (of all things) hblisters. Once, I recall, he had a chance to win a game by turning a double play on a ball hit back to him. He turned to throw to first, began his throwing motion and then … slipped on the rosin bag. The ball sailed to the outfield. The Royals did not win that game. The Royals did not win much at all.

We talked sometimes. He told me one of my favorite Zack Greinke stories, one that I have shared many times. Affeldt gave up a home run. When the inning ended, he went back to the dugout and was grumbling to himself. “That wasn’t even that bad a pitch,” he said.

“Actually,” said Greinke, who suddenly appeared, “it was a pretty bad pitch,”

Affeldt looked up in disbelief. “Thanks, Zack,” he said sarcastically.

“No,” Greinke said. “Really. I went back to the clubhouse to looked at on video. It was really a bad pitch.”

Affeldt, now feeling a bit like a sitcom character, said again: “Thanks, Zack.”

“Really, right down the middle, I could have hit it out.”

At this point, Affeldt just shrugged. “Thanks, Zack,” he said a third time.

He was just a great young man, terrific in the community, a fantastic teammate, but as a pitcher it just wasn’t working for him in Kansas City. Every so often, you’d see a flash of the stuff he showed in Bradenton that day, but it was always just a flash and then it was gone. He had trouble finding the plate, had trouble missing bats, and five years into his career the Royals dumped him in a trade to Colorado for a first baseman named Ryan Shealy.

He pitched a bit better in Colorado, then he went to Cincinnati for a year and pitched OK. And then, when he was 30, he signed a deal to be a reliever with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants were no bargain then. They had lost 90 games the year before, 91 the year before that. They had this gorgeous ballpark by the bay, but attendance was sluggish and there seemed little connection to the team.

But for Affeldt there would be something magical about the place. He had his best season as a professional (including the minor leagues) when he pitched 62 innings with a 1.73 ERA. The league hit .197 against him. The Giants dramatically improved to 88 wins (they would have won the second Wild Card if the league had one then) and Affeldt even got a 10th-place MVP vote from someone. And the town began to catch on.

And after that, he was just part of the Giants’ magic carpet ride. In 2010, he struggled a bit during the regular season, but he got key outs in the Giants’ stunning upset of Philadelphia in the playoffs. “Who’s that?” one reporter asked me during the postgame media scrum surround Affeldt.

A few minutes later, Affeldt grabbed my shoulder. “That guy had no idea who I was, did he?” he asked.

He was one of the people in the champagne rain after the Giants won that first San Francisco World Series. He pitched in two more Giants World Series runs — 21 2/3 postseason innings total. He never gave up another run. If you look on the all-time postseason list for lowest ERA (minimum 30 innings), you will find Jeremy Affeldt is third with an 0.86.

Fourth on the list is some guy named, um, Ruth. Babe Ruth.

It was all a wild party, with that San Francisco stadium rocking, with that team always finding ways to win, with one of the coolest cities in the world completely entranced. And Affeldt got to be a part of it all. Three World Series rings. He wrote a book. He became something of a celebrity.

Every time I saw him pitch, though, I thought about Bradenton when he was young and I was sort of young, that moment when he emerged. That’s one of the best parts of this sports writing gig. You get to see the beginnings. You get to see Michael Phelps swim when he’s just 15. You get to see Serena Williams play when she’s still just Venus’ little sister. You get to see Paul Pierce when he’s a shy and unsure sophomore in college and doesn’t really want the ball.

Then, you see the endings too. Jeremy Affeldt just announced that he’s retiring at the end of the season. It’s been a rough one this year — the ERA is more than 6.00 and he league hits about .300 against him. Baseball can be pretty cruel — Affeldt is retiring at 36, barely older than I was that day I saw him in Bradenton. Still it has been an amazing career. One time, not so long ago, Affeldt and I were talking and I said something really weird. I told him that, strange as it sounds, I was proud of him. That’s something an old person would say, isn’t it? But I guess that’s the point. He always made me feel young. In the end, though, he made me feel old.

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