Eastlake High grad Blake Hawksworth building his major-league career
After a roller-coaster tour through the minors, nearly ended by labrum surgery in 2004, Blake Hawksworth finally broke into the majors last June and quickly became a mainstay of the St. Louis Cardinals' bullpen.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
JUPITER, Fla. — Here at Planet Jupiter, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch likes to call Cardinals' camp, the endless focus has been on the return to uniform of new hitting coach Mark McGwire.
It was still a little jarring to see him Sunday, standing stoically behind the batting cage as Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and the rest of the Cardinals took BP. I decided to give McGwire his space, mainly because his story has already been probed to death, and the Cardinals are sick and tired of talking about it.
I gravitated toward a different spring training yarn, one that has all the classic elements. Local boy makes good. Overcoming adversity. Perseverance.
Even a little Olympic hockey on a day when that's all anyone really cared about.
This is the story of Cardinal reliever Blake Hawksworth, whose family left their native North Vancouver for the Puget Sound area when he was 5. Yet Hawksworth still wore a Canadian T-shirt to camp Sunday and left no doubt who he was rooting for in the gold medal game.
Hawksworth, despite spending his formative years on the Sammamish plateau and graduating from Eastlake High School in 2001, is still a Canadian citizen and proud supporter of Team Canada — "all the way," he said firmly.
That's understandable considering his grandfather is Jack Poole, who as chairman of the Vancouver Organizing Committee was instrumental in landing the Olympics bid. Poole died of pancreatic cancer last October, mere hours after the Olympic flame was lit in Greece to start the torch relay.
"We have a lot of ties to these Olympic Games," said Hawksworth, who is married to a Californian and may eventually pursue dual citizenship. "It's pretty exciting."
But what's most exciting to Hawksworth, as he turns 27 on Monday, is the way his baseball career is taking off. After a circuitous, roller-coaster tour through the minors, interrupted and nearly ended by labrum surgery in 2004, he finally broke into the majors last June, and quickly became a mainstay of the Cardinals' bullpen.
In 30 appearances, Hawksworth was 4-0 with a 2.03 earned-run average, allowing four runs in his two-inning debut against Colorado, and five total thereafter. Hawksworth was placed on the Cardinals' playoff roster for the division series against the Dodgers (he worked a scoreless inning) and is being counted on by manager Tony La Russa to be one of closer Ryan Franklin's prime setup men.
He's the classic overnight sensation ... almost 10 years in the making.
"There was definitely some doubt along the way if I could ever come back, if I could ever make it to the big leagues," Hawksworth said. "It's scary to think about. But that's what God had in store for me, and I had to grind through it. I learned a ton about myself and what I could get through.
"Looking back, it's made me a lot stronger mentally, knowing I've come from rock bottom back up. It's awesome."
Coming out of Eastlake in 2001, Hawksworth and teammate Andy Sisco were both regarded as top draft prospects. Sisco went in the second round, signed with the Cubs, and was in the big leagues with Kansas City by 2005.
But Hawksworth had committed to attend Cal State Fullerton, so the Cardinals waited until the 28th round to select him in 2001. The first roadblock to Hawksworth's career came when he didn't have the grades to get into Fullerton, and enrolled instead at Bellevue Community College.
Retrospectively, Hawksworth says joining coach Mark Yoshino's highly regarded BCC program was "an absolute blessing. That's exactly where I needed to be. He showed me a lot about pitching. I owe him a lot of credit."
After BCC's season ended with a loss in the championship game, Hawksworth signed with the Cardinals, who retained his rights as a "draft and follow" player. He quickly gained acclaim, at one point earning the coveted spot as Baseball America's No. 1-rated Cardinals prospect.
But that was before Hawksworth's shoulder started aching in 2004. The diagnosis was the dreaded torn labrum in his right shoulder — an injury that has ended many a pitching career.
But here's where the perseverance part comes in. After two lost seasons, Hawksworth finally broke through in 2006, winning 11 games as a starter combined between Class A and AA. One catch — he had lost his status as a fast-tracked prospect. He was nowhere to be found on any Baseball America list.
"I've been No. 1 prospect to suspect, as they say. I've seen both ends of it. But that was my journey," he said. "That was the one I had to be on to get through it. I had to take my lumps, learn about myself. I wouldn't change it for anything."
Hawksworth and teammate Chris Carpenter are two living, breathing examples of pitchers overcoming labrum surgery, something that the Mariners' Erik Bedard is trying to do. Both are testament to the fact that it can be done — and that it's not easy.
"It took me two years, and it's still not normal," Hawksworth said. "I had to reach a point where I said, 'OK, it's not going to be like it used to be. You've got to go out there and try to make it work.' "
Hawksworth slowly re-established himself. Finally last June, while his Memphis team was on a bus in Oklahoma City, preparing to head home, manager Chris Maloney gave him the news he sometimes thought might never come: He was heading to St. Louis.
The good news was that he retired the first batter he faced, Todd Helton. The bad news was that he gave up a three-run Clint Barmes home run.
"You think, 'Geez, that's not the way you want to break in,' " he said. "But they let me stick around awhile, so I was lucky."
From that point on, Hawksworth was lights out, and now he's in camp as something more closely resembling an established player. The No. 77 he wore in camp last year has been replaced by 53. No longer will he have to wear a Hello Kitty backpack to the bullpen each night.
Blake Hawksworth is a major-leaguer, and that's a story to bring a smile to anyone's face.
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
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