Oh, What a Relief!

How a rookie from New Jersey blossomed into one of baseball’s best pitchers.

Twenty years before pitcher Andrew Bailey became an overnight sensation and won the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year award as a member of the Oakland Athletics, his parents signed him up to play tee ball in Haddon Heights.

“He thought it was ridiculous to have to hit it off the tee,” says his mother, Lori, chuckling at the memory. “He wanted to play real baseball.”

That would come soon enough. Once Bailey started pitching in the Haddon Heights little league, it became apparent that he had uncanny control for a youngster. “He was one of those kids who could get the ball over the plate,” says his father, Bill.

Bailey continued to throw strikes at Paul VI High School in Haddonfield, in American Legion ball, and at Wagner College on Staten Island.

Which is not to say that Bailey, now 25, breezed from Haddon Heights to big-league stardom. Quite the contrary. As a ninth-grader at Paul VI, Bailey stood just 5 feet 5 inches tall and was, in his words, “a pudgy kid.” In his junior year at college he suffered an elbow injury that required reconstructive surgery. And, while in Oakland’s minor-league system, he had one of the worst seasons imaginable.

Bailey, who now stands 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 234 pounds, went to spring training last year with the Athletics as a complete unknown but pitched well enough to make the team. To everyone’s surprise, he became the A’s version of Mariano Rivera, the relief pitcher whose job it is to finish off opponents in the final innings. Bailey was brilliant.

Bailey earned just $400,000 as a rookie, a bargain-basement salary for a big leaguer. By mid-season he was selected to the American League’s All-Star team. He did not pitch in the game, but at least his teammates learned to recognize him. At first, some thought he was a public relations executive traveling with the team.

One eventful year after his big-league debut, Bailey’s life seems to be in perfect order. A clean-cut, soft-spoken, blue-jeans-and-Nikes type of guy, Bailey is engaged to his longtime sweetheart, Amanda Scalzo, a former lacrosse player at Wagner. They plan to marry after the 2010 season.

Even now, as he enters his second year in the majors, Bailey says, “I can’t relax. I’m still fighting for my job. I’m still fighting for my spot on the team. My dad gave me some great advice last spring training. He said, ‘Don’t give them an excuse to send you down to the minors.’”

He eagerly shares his story—a long shot made good—with youngsters attending offseason baseball clinics near his apartment in Hamden, Connecticut. He sees their eyes brighten as he tells them about the setbacks he had to overcome. “It’s like, This guy made it. Why can’t I?” Bailey says with a bright smile.

Bailey has grown accustomed to flying under the radar. Yes, he could throw strikes as a kid, but then in high school the competition got tougher. “I didn’t really have the velocity to overpower people,” he says. That would change after his junior year at Paul VI.

He had a late growth spurt, and because he was bigger, he could throw harder—without losing his ability to put the ball over the plate. Bill and Lori Bailey told their son that if he really was good enough, college and professional scouts would find him. And Joe Litterio, the coach at Wagner College, did.

“A lot of guys missed on him,” Litterio says.

Wagner is far from a college-baseball powerhouse like warm-weather schools, such as the University of Texas, Louisiana State, or Miami of Florida. But Litterio sold Bailey on the school because he would be more likely to fill a bigger pitching role on the team right away.

At the end of his freshman year, Bailey rejoined the American Legion team in Haddon Heights for the summer. The team went all the way to the 2003 American Legion World Series in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, finishing third. Bailey attracted the attention of professional scouts who were impressed with how accurately he could throw a fastball at 90 miles an hour.

The scouts saw what his coaches had recognized. “If you want to get an out, you got Andrew out there,” says Mike DeCastro, who coached Bailey from the time he was 9 through American Legion ball.
Two years after Bartlesville, during his junior year at Wagner, a ligament in Bailey’s right elbow popped. He underwent a procedure known as Tommy John surgery, named after the former big-league pitcher. A ligament from Bailey’s wrist was used to replace the torn ligament in his elbow. He did not pitch for eleven months.

About a month after he underwent surgery in May 2005, Bailey was picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the sixteenth round of the Major League Baseball draft. Assuming he had been devalued by his injury, Bailey decided to wait to see how his comeback went before he signed a professional contract. He understood that there were no guarantees he would pitch as well as he had before the procedure.

“To turn that down was a big risk,” says Litterio. “But I think that pushed him to rehab the way he did.”
His recovery went well, and the Athletics picked him in the sixth round of the 2006 draft. He received a $135,000 signing bonus and spent the summer with the A’s rookie farm team in Vancouver, British Columbia. He pitched for three minor-league teams in 2007. Then Bailey was sent to Midland, Texas, for the 2008 season.

That’s when he hit the wall. Working as a starting pitcher, Bailey compiled an awful 1-8 record with a 6.18 earned-run average. The A’s decided to test him as a relief pitcher. Bailey felt more comfortable in this role. He finished the season with a surge, then pitched well as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League and was invited to spring training by the A’s in 2009.

“I was one of those guys they bring into camp just to fill up roster space. I thought maybe I could make an impression on them and be sent to pitch at Sacramento,” Bailey says, referring to the A’s top farm team.
An injury to one of the A’s closers from the previous season created an opportunity. While many of his friends were sent to the minors, Bailey stayed in the big-league camp. Susan Slusser, the A’s beat reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, says she did not even talk to Bailey until the end of spring training. She wondered, Who is he? And why is he still here?

“The A’s aren’t shy about talking up their top prospects, and Bailey wasn’t a guy anyone had mentioned, so it’s safe to assume no one in the organization was expecting this at all,” Slusser says. “Just making the team was a major feat coming from where Bailey did, but becoming the closer and winning Rookie of the Year? Staggering.”

Two months into the 2009 season, Bailey’s name started popping up as a possible All-Star selection.
Bill Bailey says, “I’m a pretty positive person, but the last two weeks before the game, I was saying, ‘How could they not pick him?’”

They did. By the end of the season he was a bona fide star, compiling a 6-3 record with a 1.84 earned-run average and 26 saves—the ninth best in the league.

Bailey attributes much of his success to his Jersey upbringing. “I think we value our summer leagues and our summer programs more than they do anywhere else,” he says of his native state.

After his triumphant rookie season, Bailey visited his old coach, Mike DeCastro, and gave him his All-Star jersey and the game ball from his first major-league save. And at Wagner, his No. 17 jersey was retired in a January ceremony.

Bailey’s maternal grandfather, Charles Urban, was, in Andrew’s words, “a die-hard Phillies’ fan” before Andrew made it to the bigs. Charles became an A’s fan, and he saw his grandson pitch in New York, Baltimore, and on the West Coast. After Charles died in December, he was buried with one of Andrew’s green and gold A’s caps.

But now Bailey has his mind set on his second season. Well aware of the sophomore jinx that has plagued so many young stars, he put himself through a rigorous off-season training program. “I honestly don’t think I’ve worked harder than I have this year,” he says.

“He’s a great kid,” says DeCastro. “Hasn’t changed. Same old Andrew.”

NJ’s Other Rookie Sensation

New Jersey is not often thought of as a breeding ground for major-league pitchers, but last year the state produced a pair of young stars. In addition to American League rookie-of-the-year Andrew Bailey, the Garden State can boast Rick Porcello, a Chester native who finished third in the league’s rookie voting.

Porcello posted an impressive 14-9 record as a starting pitcher in 2009 for the Detroit Tigers. By the end of the season, the team chose him as its starter in a one-game playoff against Minnesota for the American League Central championship. Porcello pitched well, allowing two runs in five innings, but the Tigers lost the game 6-5 in 12 innings.

The righty took a straighter path to the big leagues than Bailey. A first-round draft pick by the Tigers in 2007, Porcello, now 21, pitched so well in spring training a year ago that the Tigers put him in their starting rotation. He was the youngest player in the major leagues at the time.

“Every kid has dreams about playing in big leagues and being in Yankee Stadium,” he told the New York Times in 2007. “I dream about all that, winning the World Series, striking out a batter in the bottom of the ninth.”

Porcello, who earned $2 million as a rookie, enjoyed his share of glory during a brilliant scholastic baseball career at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange. In addition to his sparkling performance on the baseball field, he had a 3.93 grade-point average and was inducted into the National Honor Society and the Spanish National Honor Society.

Three years removed from prep school, Porcello has his picture on the cover of the Tigers’ 2010 pocket schedule. And there’s another Porcello in the wings: Rick’s brother Jake, who also pitched at Seton Hall Prep, is a freshman at Seton Hall University, where he plays on the Pirates baseball team.

David Caldwell writes frequently about sports and recreation for New Jersey Monthly.

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