BALTIMORE — Kyle Drabek spent the afternoon before his first big league start walking around the streets near Camden Yards, the memories flooding back like faded, old pictures. Then again, the last time he walked around these streets he was 10 years old and his dad was winding down his major league career with the Orioles.
“I remember the Astros, White Sox and Orioles and I do remember coming here,” young Drabek said about life growing up with a dad working as a big-league pitcher. “Today, when I was walking around the city I was able to point out to my mom things that I could remember.”
Strangely enough, the very first start of Doug Drabek’s big league career came in Baltimore when he was coming up with the Yankees. In a perfect bit of symmetry, the elder Drabek’s final game in the big leagues came when he was pitching for the Orioles.
It’s also a fun, little coincidence that Kyle Drabek, the Phillies’ much-ballyhooed first-round draft pick in 2006, made his major league debut on a night when Roy Halladay sewed up his 19th win of the season for the team that drafted him. The differences, of course, are vast. While Drabek was taking the ball in a September call-up for the Blue Jays who were playing out the string against the Orioles at Camden Yards, Halladay was in Florida helping the Phils display their dominance over the rest of the NL East.
At Camden Yards, Drabek lasted six innings where he allowed nine hits, three runs, three walks and got five strikeouts. Four of those whiffs came during the first two innings and the young righty pitched from the stretch to 16 hitters. In other words, Drabek had his back against the wall quite often, yet displayed some big-time maturity in a game that lasted just one-hour, fifty-five minutes.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Drabek said after the game. “I felt like I was taking more time between pitches. It wasn’t moving too fast.”
So even in Toronto, Drabek is a piece of the puzzle for the Phillies. After all, Halladay would not be in Miami solidifying his Cy Young Award credentials if it weren’t for Drabek potential and polish. It’s also doubtful that Drabek would be pitching in a major league game at this stage of his career if it weren’t for general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s obsession with acquiring Halladay. After all, Drabek appears to have the inside track for a spot in the Blue Jays’ rotation in 2011and that’s without spending a single day at Triple-A.
Talent, of course, wins out. At least that’s what Phils skipper Charlie Manuel always says. And in that regard Drabek is one of a kind. Just 22 with five pro seasons and a Tommy John surgery already under his belt, Drabek is wise beyond his years on the mound. Mix in the fact that his dad, Doug, spent 13 seasons pitching in the big leagues and won the NL Cy Young Award in 1990 and the young Drabek has a pedigree better than most Kentucky Derby winners.
In other words, the kid knows how to pitch. So much so that Manuel didn’t compare him to his dad when discussing Drabek before the trade, but to another hard-throwing right-hander…
Yeah, try Tom Seaver.
“It'd be tough for me to trade Drabek,” Manuel said last year when the Phillies were talking about dealing the kid. “I like Drabek because he’s strong in his legs and his hips and he’s a drop-and-drive kind of pitcher. I’m not a pitching coach, but I like his mechanics and I like where he comes from and he’s a strong-bodied kid, like a Tom Seaver type or a Bartolo Colon, and he’s got that kind of stuff. And he’s young, and I think he has a big upside to him.”
His stuff is pure power pitcher. Drabek throws a fastball in the upper 90s and a hard slider that looks like it’s going to kneecap the hitter before it takes a hard left to the opposite corner. It’s a repertoire that is rarely learned and seldom taught. It’s force of nature stuff.
But like any kid his age with a right arm touched by the baseball gods, Drabek just shrugs when asked about the nuances of the game. He was simply happy to be pitching and having fun with his family making the trip from their home near Houston, Texas to watch him play. He couldn’t stop smiling when talking about how his dad must feel watching a second generation of Drabeks make it to the majors.
“The main thing I wanted to do was finish the whole season without any injuries and I was able to do that,” the kid said. “Then, getting called up was just icing on the cake.”
Drabek’s current skipper, the well-regarded Cito Gaston, sees something different in Drabek that most doe-eyed kids stepping into a major league clubhouse don’t possess. It’s self-assurance that he belongs in the big leagues, as if a birthright. Moreover, unlike most of the entitled elite class, Drabek has paid some dues. He’s been smacked around and he’s had to go through seasons of rehab. In Drabek, Gaston sees something that he has seen in other sons of big leaguers he worked with.
“They have been around the park and they have been around the game. I think they have some of that bloodline in them so most of them know how to stay calm and cool,” Gaston said. “Kids of major leaguers, you can tell, they’re different. … They have been a part of this for a long time.”
So in his debut in the big leagues, add another bit of wisdom to the young Drabek’s development. After throwing a first-pitch strike to Brian Roberts and waiting for a new ball to replace the one tossed aside for a keepsake, Drabek’s second pitch was laced to left for a single. His third pitch was also smacked to left for a single, too, before he settled in and retired the next three hitters in the one-run first.
For Drabek, the first outing in the big leagues opened with three pitches, two hits, two stolen bases, one run and one loss.
“Good damage control,” the beaming dad Doug said as his son walked out of the third-base dugout to the mound during the third inning. “It could have gotten bad, but to get out of it with just one run he had good damage control. Probably on my report it would say, ‘Good damage control in the first inning.’”
Drabek continued the damage-control theme in the third and fifth innings, too, but it was the fourth inning that sealed his fate when the Orioles cobbled together two runs on three hits. In six innings Drabek pitched to eight hitters with runners in scoring position, but still managed to keep the Blue Jays in the game. That’s where the pedigree comes in, says Gaston.
“That’s part of him growing up in a family of baseball players,” Gaston said afterwards. “Guys that know how to stay calm in tough situations end up staying up here and guys that can’t stay calm, don’t. He showed a lot of poise when he got in trouble.”
Cool and calm
The son probably showed more poise than the father. In fact, it will probably take a chisel to remove the ear-to-ear smile off the elder Drabek’s face that was put there with equal parts nervousness and immense pride.
But rather than act like an overbearing stage dad, the elder Drabek said he just wanted his son to enjoy the moment. Careers in baseball don’t last too long, and even though the father spent 13 years in the majors, he was gone from the game when he was still a relatively young man. He was actually two years older than his son is when he broke in and spent six years as one of the best pitchers in the National League. However, after he signed a big free-agent deal with the Astros, Drabek won just 42 more games in the big leagues and by 1998, the career was over.
He was just 35.
“The only thing I told him was not to change anything – it’s still the same game,” Doug said. “I just want him to soak it all in and enjoy it.”
That’s what the old man did.
“My first start was [in Baltimore at] the old stadium,” he remembered, smile plastered on his face. “My first game was in Oakland and I remember my first two pitches were two sliders to [Jose] Canseco and I got a popup. Then Dave Kingman was next and then [Mike Davis] was after him. That’s three big guys. That’s what I remember the most.”
Kyle, on the other hand, faced a team headed for 100 losses while the team that dealt him was increasing its lead on the way to a fourth straight playoffs appearance. But Kyle didn’t care much about the Phillies. Not anymore. Sure, they helped him get started, but figured they didn’t need him to get another trip to the World Series.
Maybe in time the Phillies will kick themselves for trading away Drabek, but for now it’s working out pretty well for both sides.
“It kind of felt like any other day. I got a few more texts than I normally get, but it was a lot like any other day,” the rookie said.
“I was glad that my whole family was here.”