M's Downs a longshot you have to root for
Just two weeks before the start of his first big-league training camp, Mariners prospect Brodie Downs stands in front of a mirror feigning...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Just two weeks before the start of his first big-league training camp, Mariners prospect Brodie Downs stands in front of a mirror feigning pitches, shadow drilling as they call it in baseball.Downs checks his arm angle, making sure it doesn't dip too close to sidearm. In front of the mirror, he studies his follow-through with the same seriousness models study their makeup.
And alongside, in a scene that Norman Rockwell should have witnessed, his son Dawson mimics every toss, watching Dad wind up and slowly deliver another imaginary two-seamer.
They do this father-and-son waltz over and over again. It is as sweet as it is serious.
Say you haven't heard the name before? Say you've been too preoccupied with the Erik Bedard trade rumors? Say you're too caught up with questions about the Mariners' rotation to worry about a kid prospect?
Well, yes, Downs is a prospect, but certainly he is no kid. He turns 29 in July. The M's took him in the 23rd round of the 2007 draft after he had pitched all of one season at Modesto Junior College.
This spring, Downs is the longest of Mariners longshots, but he also is a reminder that you don't fail when you dare to pursue something grand.
"It's the kind of baseball story people want to hear," Texas Rangers scout Butch Metzger says.
After a high-school career where he pitched infrequently, Downs left baseball, lasted for one day, one class at Modesto J.C. (Psychology 101), then went into the real world.
"In high school I was an underdeveloped, overlooked kid," Downs says from his home in Ripon, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley. "I always loved the game, but after high school I kind of gave up on it. I didn't think there were any doors open for me."
He became a land surveyor, getting into the business during the housing boom. He was making good money, settled into a steady career and threw his glove and spikes in some metaphorical closet.
But six years ago, his high-school friend Danny Ayala told him about a recreational league, the Cal-Mex League based in nearby Stockton, that was filled with college players, former minor league and ex-college players. They played on Sundays, used wooden bats and, just like the big leagues, always were looking for good pitching.
Downs joined the league. The first couple of years he only played the infield, but four years ago, he climbed back on the mound with his one pitch, a two-seam fastball that sunk like it had a paper weight attached.
"I was just rearing back and throwing the crud out of the ball. Definitely a good time," Downs says. "Beer drinking afterward. It was one of those playing-for-the-love-of-the-game kind of leagues."
The rest of this story sounds like pure fiction. Like a B movie that, 10 years ago, might have starred Kurt Russell.
Every season Downs believed he was throwing harder. Every year he became more difficult to hit. And one day when Metzger was watching, checking the progress of a third baseman, he saw this 6-foot-4, 230-pound man, throwing pure gas.
"I think I'd better go back to the truck and get my radar gun," Metzger told himself.
"There hasn't been a scout out here in 30 years," one of Downs' Coyotes teammates told him in the dugout.
He topped out at 94 mph, but was consistently throwing between 91 and 93.
"Butch kind of opened my eyes a little bit," Downs says. "He put the question to me, 'Do you want to pursue this?' I talked with my wife [Nicole] about whether this was a realistic dream. She told me, 'If you're going to do this I want you to put 110 percent effort into it.' "
Downs quit his job, enrolled at MJC again, played the 2007 season there and got noticed. Scouts called him every weekend, but as enthusiastic as they were about him, their bosses were equally skeptical because of Downs' age.
"When you're 28 years old and pitching where I was, most teams don't care how hard you're throwing," Downs says.
Only one team had the foresight to give him a chance. In the 23rd round of the 2007 draft, the Mariners chose Brodie Downs.
"I can tell you, there's a lot of scouts that are kind of rooting for him for all the right reasons," Metzger says. "He's a nice guy and he's been out in the real world, working and toiling and providing for his family and now he's got an outside chance to change his life significantly. Everybody's rooting for that."
Downs threw 23 innings in Peoria, Tacoma and West Tenn last season. He was 3-1 with a 2.49 earned-run average.
"I was surprised with what I did last year," Downs says. "It was mind-blowing for me to pitch in Triple-A and know that I could get guys out. I knew I had the drive and the competitiveness and the desire to do it., but now I know I can pitch with these guys."
Knowing Downs' biological clock is ticking faster than any other prospect, the Mariners have fast-tracked him to their big league camp.
"I'm hoping I can go there and open some minds up," Downs says.
He is the great unknown. Nobody honestly knows how far Downs can go, or how quickly. But the Mariners like his work ethic and they love the way his fastball moves.
"Everybody likes my story, but I have to prove to them that I'm not just some guy from the beer leagues," he says.
Downs' age is good news, bad news.
"You can look at it that he's a 28-year-old pitcher," says Mariners bullpen coach Norm Charlton, who was a roving minor-league instructor last season, "but he's minus about six years of abuse on his arm. That's an honest way of looking at it."
Downs calls himself an "innings eater." From Modesto, to the minor leagues, to the fall league, he threw 160 innings last year and never felt a twinge. In the Cal-Mex League he often threw back-to-back complete games on the same day. One Sunday he threw a league-record 22 innings.
"I'm 28 years old, but I feel like I've got a 22-year-old arm," says Downs. "I can throw every day. My arm's not going anywhere."
After the fall league, Downs got a call from the Mariners' personnel director, Greg Hunter, telling him he was invited to the big-league camp.
"I was blown away, man," Downs says. "They've told me from the very beginning, 'You have a slim chance, but we're going to give you a chance.' They've told me, 'If you keep doing your job, we'll keep moving you along. You have a short window, but let's see what you can do.' They were the only team out of 30 teams that would do that for me. That says a lot."
In his perfect world, Downs would pitch at Tacoma this season and if someone in the Mariners' bullpen was injured or some reliever wasn't pitching well, maybe, just maybe, he would get a call-up.
"We're going to push him as fast and as hard as we can to see how much we have," Charlton says. "He knows the hand he's been dealt, and he's playing it the best he can."
He is a gamble worth taking. Downs has a live arm and a good head. Charlton calls him a "sponge," because he is so eager to learn.
"I remember sitting in that cubicle in my office one day deciding whether or not to try this," Downs says. "And I asked myself, 'Do I want to sit here going over civil-engineering plans for the rest of my life, or do I want to try to get to the big leagues?' Now I'm glad, no matter what, that I chose to go after baseball."
Shadow drilling in front of a mirror with son Dawson, Downs can look past the looking glass into a future that even he couldn't have imagined just a couple of years ago.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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