All right, I admit it. The other day I took a cheap shot at former Dodger pitcher Jeff Weaver on my blog about the Aaron Harang trade. I talked about how he was advertised by the powers that be in the Dodger organization as if he was supposed to be an “ace stopper” back in the dark times, when the Dodger rotation consisted of Weaver, Derek Lowe, and any three warm bodies that could throw a baseball. (In 2004, one of those warm bodies would be replaced in the rotation by Jose Lima, but that’s a story for another day.) Then I made some quip about him giving up several hits in a row and Jim Tracy subsequently pulling Jeff for Giovanni Carrara.
You’re probably wondering “why apologize? There were probably things similar to that that actually happened.” And no, it’s not the Game 5 World Series-clinching victory that Weaver posted for the Cardinals, although that is definitely worth mentioning.
Let me give you a back story and explain how I got to rethinking my shot at Weaver.
Last night, I went to watch Aaron’s Little League game. (You may remember Aaron from this blog and this blog.) The kid pitching for the opposing team, who for the sake of respecting his privacy I will just refer to as “B,” was laboring a bit. Aaron’s played on teams with B in the past, and usually he’s pretty on. He’s one of those 11 year old phenoms, the kind that throws a blazing fastball that’s got to be at least 10 MPH faster than just about any other pitcher in the division and hits like .750. But today, B was off. Most definitely off. I can’t remember B walking a batter the last two years whenever we’ve played against him, but today he just couldn’t find the strike zone with consistency. Finally, against one of our better hitters, he found what he was looking for, fastball blazing, release point just right. Batter takes a swing and hits an absolute rocket. Right back at B.
You know those moments in life when everything suddenly goes in slow motion? This was one of those.
B couldn’t get his glove up. He took one of the hardest line drives I think I’ve ever seen hit in a Little League game straight to the chest, and in one of the scariest moments I think I’ve ever gone through in my life, B wobbled, his knees buckled, and he crumpled down to the mound.
I’ve heard about kids dying this way. There are those freak situations where a kid will get hit in the chest just so. You see, there’s this brief millisecond between heartbeats, and every once in a while, you hear a story about a kid taking a line drive that hits them in just the wrong spot right in that brief millisecond and it stops their heart. A kid in New Jersey got $14.5 million last year from having something just like this happen to him in a game. In this case he survived, but suffered some pretty serious brain damage. But think about that for a second, and as a father this scares me. One second, your kid’s there playing his butt off and enjoying being a kid, and the next they’re crumpled on the ground and turning blue and people are calling 911.
Fortunately, B was fine. Well, I shouldn’t say fine. No kid’s fine when they get struck by a hard line drive in the chest. But his heart didn’t stop. Still, one of the scariest moments I’ve ever witnessed. I’m glad the kid is fine. I hope he doesn’t let this incident keep him from pitching.
So why am I apologizing? Because when I posted the other day, I wasn’t really thinking about the difficulties of pitching, the danger that pitchers get themselves in, or the effort that Weaver put in throughout his career, win or lose, to try to be the best he could be. Didn’t even think about it.
Then shortly after I made that post, this happened: Angels’ Weaver leaves game after landing awkwardly on his left arm avoiding a line drive (timescolonist.com) I know not all of you are going to want to click the link, so here’s the short version. Jeff’s brother Jered, who has also earned the “ace” moniker and at times in his career lived up to it for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, was pitching against the Texas Rangers the other night. With the Angels trailing 4-3 in the 6th inning, the Rangers’ Mitch Moreland hit a shot up the middle right back at Weaver. The ball didn’t hit Weaver, but in the process of trying to get out of the way, Weaver landed awkwardly and broke his left elbow.
Fortunately for Jered, the elbow is in his non-throwing arm. He’ll miss (depending on which source you believe) anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks, but he’ll be back in the rotation this season. But between watching Weaver just barely get out of the way of that line drive, then being reminded again of the danger pitchers face from line drives up the middle while watching B take one to the chest, I got back to thinking about Jeff Weaver.
I’m sure Jeff faced his share of line drives up the middle in his career. Some of them he probably snared. Some of them he probably ducked out of the way of. All of them had the potential to hit him in the chest, or miss him but cause significant injury in the process. I suddenly had a new appreciation for Jeff Weaver, and to show you how truly sorry I am for my cheap shot, I’m going to tell you about a Major League career that would turn out to be more charmed than cursed, even if sometimes things just didn’t break right.
Jeff Weaver came up in the Detroit Tigers farm system. In fact, Weaver was a first round draft pick. A Southern California native who wound up in Detroit, Jeff, much like his brother Jered, was much-hyped coming out of college (Jeff came out of Fresno State), and was able to quickly move up the ranks and make an impact on some pretty terrible early-2000’s Detroit Tigers teams. If nothing else, Weaver was an innings eater. His potential and effort were rewarded with Opening Day starts for the Tigers in the 2001 and 2002 season, and it would be that 2002 season that people around the league began to take note of what Weaver was capable of. Approaching the trade deadline, Weaver found himself with a hard-luck record of 6-8, which included 3 complete game shutouts, and an ERA of 3.18.
About that time, the New York Yankees found themselves in their annual run to the American League East title and wanting some pitching insurance, and Weaver was one of the best on the market. So the Yankees put together a package in a 3 team deal with the Tigers and the Oakland Athletics, giving up Ted Lilly and Jeremy Bonderman (amongst others,) and getting Weaver as an insurance policy in a starting rotation that included the likes of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, David Wells, Mike Mussina, and Orlande “El Duque” Hernandez. Weaver would split his time the rest of the season between the rotation and the bullpen, pitching in 15 games, sporting an ERA around 4 and working 78 innings down the stretch for the Yankees, who would go on to lose to the eventual World Champion Anaheim Angels in the American League Divisional Series. On the season, Weaver would finish with a record of 11-11 and a cumulative 3.52 ERA, the best of his career.
The Yankees brought Weaver back for the 2003 season and expectations were high. Weaver would flounder at times, pitching his way to a 7-9 record with a 5.99 ERA. Weaver fell out of favor in New York for good, however, when he gave up a 12th inning walk-off home run to Alex Gonzalez of the Florida Marlins in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series. The Marlins would go on to win the World Series in 6 games that year, and in the offseason, the Yankees opted to go in a different direction.
While the Yankees were looking to offload Weaver, the Dodgers were looking to get rid of the final two years of Kevin Brown’s contract. Brown had been solid and at times spectacular for the Dodgers the previous 5 years and even won an ERA title in L.A., but he was past his prime and the 7 year, $105 million contract had become an albatross. The Yankees, always believers in veteran leadership and with an owner in George Steinbrenner who could absorb Brown into his payroll, decided that Kevin Brown was the answer to the question “how do we get back over the top and win the World Series?” With that, Jeff Weaver was bringing his talents to Los Angeles, where he would have two of the best seasons of his career.
As a Dodger, Weaver was looked to as a veteran anchor on the 2004 pitching staff along with Derek Lowe. Weaver’s repertoire included a 4-seam fastball in the high-80’s to low-90’s with some movement on it, a splitter, a changeup, and some variant of the breaking ball. When Weaver was on, he looked unhittable. When he was off, well, at least he still had that game face, and the more he’d struggle, the redder that game face would get. He never liked to come out of the game. On nights when he didn’t have it, Dodger manager Jim Tracy would go out to the mound to take the ball from him and the glares Weaver gave him were, at times…well, if looks could kill, Jim Tracy would’ve died before he crossed the base path on his way to the mound. Whenever he was in a jam, Jeff pitched with a focus and determination that said “leave me alone, I’m one batter away from getting out of it,” and with that intense glare of his, sometimes you wanted to agree with him so that he’d focus on the batter and not on you. That’s the way it felt, even watching on T.V. Jeff Weaver was saying “I just need one more batter. Leave me alone.” You couldn’t help but want to let him pitch to that batter. With a little luck, maybe he’d be scared too and let Weaver get out of the inning.
Weaver’s hard work paid off for the Dodgers in 2004. With a thin pitching staff that became all the more thin when a mid-season injury effectively ended Darren Dreifort’s career and a mid-season trade involving Guillermo Mota right before that injury (along with Paul LoDuca for Brad Penny of the Florida Marlins) that was intended to bolster the Dodgers rotation (and did for a game before Penny suffered a nerve injury and had his season ended as a result,) Weaver was a workhorse, racking up 220 innings pitched, a 13-13 record and a 4.01 ERA. Weaver’s stat line might not have been impressive, but he gave the Dodgers everything he could that season, and Weaver and the Dodgers were rewarded for their collective efforts when the Dodgers beat the Giants on the next-to-last day of the regular season to clinch the National League West. Weaver would pitch Game 2 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, but appeared to have run out of gas by that point, spotting the Cardinals 6 runs in 5 innings and losing the game by a score of 8-3. Still, Weaver had played an important role in getting the Dodgers to the playoffs, and in many ways his 2005 follow-up season would be even better at times than 2004.
2005 was the only time that Jeff Weaver sported a winning record while pitching primarily out of the starting rotation in his entire career and one of only three “winning” seasons Weaver had. Interestingly enough, all 3 of these winning seasons would come with the Dodgers. Weaver would work even harder in 2005, pitching 224 innings while racking up a winning record of 14-11 while seeing his ERA raise a tick to 4.22. Weaver did, however, pitch 3 complete game shutouts in the 2005 season, providing some highlights in a Dodger season that would result in a 71-91 finish and see the roster get decimated by injuries.
Weaver’s 2006 season was his most remarkable. It’s not that he pitched particularly well. In fact, it was a very disappointing season for Weaver in many ways. He started the season up with the Anaheim Angels, starting 16 games before effectively being replaced in the starting rotation by his little brother, rookie sensation Jered Weaver. As if to up the ante, Jered would win his first 9 decisions and finished the season with an 11-2 record and an ERA of 2.56.
Jeff would have the last laugh of 2006. After landing in St. Louis, Jeff continued to struggle. He finished the regular season with a combined record between Anaheim and St. Louis of 8-14 with a 5.76 ERA. Despite this, Weaver managed to pitch just well enough down the stretch to justify the Cardinals putting him in their post season pitching rotation and, with the Cardinals leading the Detroit Tigers 3 games to 1, Jeff Weaver got the ball and a chance to show his former team what they had let go a few season earlier tin Game 5. All he did with the opportunity was stifle the Detroit Tigers’ offense, pitching 8 innings and giving up only 1 earned run on 4 hits as the Tigers won Game 5 by a score of 4-2. After a strange season where Weaver seemed lost at times, he finished on top of the mountain, the winning pitcher in a Series-clinching game and a World Title to his credit.
The next two seasons would be rough on Weaver. After signing a contract with the Seattle Mariners before the 2007 seasonWeaver again struggled and found himself out of baseball by mid-season.
As it turns out, though, you can go home. In need of a middle reliever going into the 2009 season, the Dodgers gave Jeff Weaver a minor league tryout and he made the most of it. A couple miles an hour had come off his fastball, but Weaver had a fine season in 2009. Pitching mostly in long relief with the occasional spot start, Weaver posted a 6-4 record with a 3.62 ERA, helping the Dodgers to yet another National League West title and an NLCS run and providing some big outings down the stretch. Mostly on the basis of his great 2009 season, Weaver came back to the Dodgers in 2010 for one last campaign. Weaver started off well, but arm trouble and overwork, along with an overall collapsing Dodger psyche as the season wore on and they fell out of the hunt for the division title. Weaver posted a 5-1 record, but late-season struggles saw his ERA balloon to 6.09.
Weaver retired after the 2010 campaign. His career record of 104-119 and career ERA of 4.71 suggest a pitcher who was maybe average at best, though he was at his best with the Dodgers, posting a 38-29 overall record in 4 seasons in Los Angeles (not quite “ace” numbers, but not bad, either.) But for anyone who ever watched Weaver pitch, for anyone who knew what he could do on those nights when he was on, we’ll tell you that the career stats only tell part of the story. At Jeff Weaver’s core was a warrior, a pitcher who would battle until the ball was physically yanked from his hand and he was all but forced off the mound, a pitcher who rode through a roller coaster career and fought issues with his own consistency and temperment, and a pitcher who, on one night when he realized his full potential, became a champion.
No matter what the result of the play, Jeff Weaver stared down every line drive that came back at him, made the plays he could, brushed off the ones he couldn’t, and gave everything he had on the field.
Hopefully this serves as an adequate apology for my previous cheap shot.