After some trouble in the past, Dan Cortes looks for a fresh start with Mariners
The Class AA pitching prospect for the Mariners nearly lost his life in December 2005 after being stabbed in a brawl outside a bowling alley in suburban Los Angeles trying to defend colleagues he worked with at a sporting goods store.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — The easygoing smile and carefree manner don't begin to tell the story of what Dan Cortes overcame just to make it this far.
The Class AA pitching prospect for the Mariners nearly lost his life in December 2005 after being stabbed in a brawl outside a bowling alley in suburban Los Angeles trying to defend colleagues he worked with at a sporting-goods store. One of the people in his group died in the fight, initiated by three known gang members, while Cortes was stabbed eight times, including in his pitching arm, the back of his head and also his shoulder blade.
Cortes had given and taken several blows but didn't realize he was badly hurt until his colleagues saw his bloody clothes.
"All the adrenaline was going, so I didn't really feel anything," said Cortes, acquired from Kansas City last summer in the Yuniesky Betancourt trade. "Then, at the hospital, the doctor was saying the cuts on my face weren't deep enough to be causing so much blood. I had a long-sleeved shirt on, so I kind of patted my arm and could feel this hole, this open wound near my triceps. My first instinct was to put my finger in the hole and it went all the way through my arm. I said, 'I think I got stabbed.' "
Cortes was rushed to the trauma ward.
"The doctor told me that had the knife gone a millimeter closer to my lung, it would have been punctured and that would have been it," Cortes said.
It took weeks of weight training at his home in Pomona, Calif., before Cortes could straighten his pitching arm out properly again and salvage his career.
"It was pretty traumatizing," said Cortes, who'd just started working at the sporting-goods store to earn offseason money and had been invited out by his colleagues for the first time the night of the attack. "It's still traumatizing. I still think about it here and there. Sometimes, you've just got to say: 'Thank God that I'm here.' "
The man who died in the brawl, Brian Zelmanski, was a friend of one of Cortes' co-workers. Cortes had met him for the first time that night and then later spoke to the victim's parents at the hospital.
"He seemed like a really cool guy," Cortes said.
The toughness it took Cortes to rebound both mentally and physically from the episode is one reason he was so disappointed with himself for mental lapses in an erratic 2009 campaign. He went 1-5 with a 4.94 earned-run average in 10 starts for Seattle's AA affiliate in West Tennessee after the trade and finished the year with 85 walks issued overall alongside 112 strikeouts.
"I'm going to be more aggressive this year in every bullpen session I throw and every time I get on the mound," he said Thursday, as the Mariners held their first spring workout here for pitchers and catchers. "That's just something I decided to work on after last season. It just seemed like mentally, I got frustrated easily and was all over the place."
At 6 feet 6 and 220 chiseled pounds, with a 95 mph fastball and biting curve, the 22-year-old seemed on a fast track with the Royals heading into last spring. But the free-spirited music lover, who used to do freestyle rapping as a hobby, admits he was a bit too carefree and cocky coming up.
There was also a controversy over photos he'd published in a MySpace page as a high schooler — which baseball fans stumbled on to. Cortes dismissed the episode as a frivolity of youth, took the photos down and the whole thing seemed forgotten.
Then came last year, when, after a disappointing spring, Cortes was arrested in Arkansas on a misdemeanor charge of urinating outside a nightclub. Cortes now says the whole thing was a mistake and that he was innocent.
But the Royals still traded him a week later. Cortes decided to plead guilty and get on with his career with Seattle rather than interrupt his season to fly back to Arkansas to fight the relatively minor accusation.
"I was a little too confident last year and a little too cocky and it kind of caught up to me," he said. "So, I've learned my lesson and I'm trying to be a lot more low-key now and just make it to the big leagues as quickly as possible."
The low-key thing might be tough.
Mariners trainer Rick Griffin this week took one look at the physique of Cortes, a former high-school tight end recruited by USC, UCLA and San Diego State, and told manager Don Wakamatsu to take note.
"He's a specimen," Wakamatsu agreed.
Wakamatsu had heard about Cortes' past and admits he was somewhat surprised in meeting him for the first time.
"He's a guy that we'd really like to wrap our arms around because we know he's got an extremely high ceiling," Wakamatsu said. "It's funny because you hear about a player with some background issues, then you meet him for the first time. I saw a smiling face on a good-looking kid. So, he's pretty impressionable."
Cortes insists that's because he really is a good kid.
His father, Juan, agrees. The night Cortes was stabbed, his father got a call from the hospital.
"Sure I was scared," his father said by phone from California. "Danny had never been in trouble before. But he wasn't being bad. He was trying to help those other people. He's a good boy. He's always been a good boy."
It was his father, an amateur baseball player and boxer in his native Mexico, who taught Cortes how to take care of himself in a neighborhood the pitcher describes as somewhat rough at times. Cortes says he was constantly recruited by gangs but his parents pushed him to get involved in sports and stay out of trouble.
When Cortes was called upon to testify against the gang members on trial for his co-worker's killing, it was his father who told him not to be afraid.
Now, Cortes would like nothing more than to take care of his parents by making it big in baseball. He realizes how fortunate he is to still have that chance.
"It's changed me," he said of that fateful night. "I try to avoid situations like that whenever possible now. I'm not saying I wouldn't jump in to help someone again if they got attacked, but I'm just really aware of avoiding things and not letting it escalate in the first place.
"I've got too much to lose now."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.