So, it has come to this. The Red Sox are giving the ball today to the best pitcher ever to wear "Clover Park" on his uniform jersey in a recreation league in Topton, Pa. That may not be as ominous as it sounds: While it is true that Wade Miller pitched for Clover Park after flunking out of nearby Alvernia College after just one year -- that was the year he also painted his aunt's house, caddied at a local golf course, and shoveled manure at a horse farm ("At least it was outside; it beat serving soft-serve ice cream") -- he long ago left behind the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania to become one of the best young pitchers in the major leagues.
His story smacks of the movie star discovered at a drugstore soda fountain on Sunset Boulevard. Astros scout Mike Maggart recommended him, writing that he could be a "steal," and the Astros were so impressed, they waited until the 20th round to draft him, signing him for only $7,500 -- but within four years of being drafted, the son of a cement company supervisor was in the big leagues.
"He came up basically for the first time in 1999 and struggled," said Larry Dierker, the former Astros pitcher and current TV broadcaster who was Miller's first manager in the big leagues. "But the second time he came up, he became a dominant pitcher."
In 2002, when Miller went 15-4 with a 3.28 ERA (despite missing eight starts with a pinched nerve in his neck) and was 11-1 with a 2.00 ERA after the All-Star break, he and Astros teammate Roy Oswalt were favorably compared to perhaps the best duo of this generation, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, World Series co-MVPs the year before. Miller had a four-seam fastball that still registered in the mid-90s in the late innings, a 12-6 curveball, and a sinker that reminded some folks of the explosive splitter thrown by ex-Astro Mike Scott. With that kind of arsenal, it was little wonder that Miller ran off 12 wins in a row in '02, tying a club record.
"I've seen that happen a few times in my career," Dierker said of the late-blooming Miller. "A guy appears to have average stuff and is nothing special, but either because of adrenaline or because of the additional challenge, a guy gets better and throws harder than ever before. He had increased arm speed, which made his breaking pitches sharper than before. And he always had that great competitive spirit."
Miller shrugs and says his improvement was just a matter of filling out physically. "Things change a lot when you add 3 to 4 miles to your fastball," Miller said yesterday.
But his competitive spirit probably has not been tested as it is now. When Miller takes the mound in the twilight today against the Seattle Mariners for the second game of a doubleheader, with his mother and father making the trip from Topton, it will be his first time on a big league mound since a sore shoulder forced him out of a game last June 25, the last game he pitched for the Astros.
Medical reports showed Miller had a fraying in the labrum. The Astros also had concerns that Miller may also have done damage to his rotator cuff, which is a much more serious injury.
Houston had seven players eligible for arbitration last winter -- Lance Berkman, Peter Munro, Tim Redding, Brandon Duckworth, Mike Lamb, Oswalt, and Miller. Miller was the only one they didn't offer a contract for 2005 because they thought he was too much of a health risk for what he could have commanded in arbitration.
First, they tried to trade him to the Red Sox, in a bid to acquire outfielder Dave Roberts. But the Sox cleverly held back, and when the Astros nontendered Miller, Sox general manager Theo Epstein signed him for a $1.5 million base salary, with performance incentives that maxed the deal out at $4.5 million.
"He was one of the greatest pitchers ever to come through our organization," Tim Purpura, Houston's first-year general manager, said this spring. "I watched him grow as both a pitcher and a person. We're going to miss him."
Miller said yesterday he harbors no ill will toward the Astros.
"I'm not going out there to prove them wrong," he said yesterday after playing catch with physical therapist Chris Correnti. "They made their decision. They thought they had a better chance with what they had coming up. But part of me wants to show them I can have a good season, that I'm not done."
He has worked too hard to be done, and at 28, age is on his side. But he readily admits that no one should expect him to be the same pitcher he was a couple of years ago, when his shoulder problems began.
"He hasn't thrown since last June," said Oswalt, who remains a close friend, by phone from Atlanta yesterday. "It's unrealistic to think he'll be the same at first. But once he's locked in, and his arm strength comes back, his velocity should pick up, too, in four or five starts."
Miller's delivery, which was described as violent by one big league scout, is undoubtedly responsible for the stress on his shoulder.
"I don't know if I would use such an extreme term," Dierker said. "I don't think it was an ideal delivery, but it was like that old adage, `If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' He was a winning pitcher, so it ain't broke.
"He throws across his body, which is what gives a lot of pitchers movement on their pitches, but he also got his body in front of his arm, a lot like Kerry Wood [of the Cubs]. It's almost as if all of his weight was forward before he started his arm, which means your arm has to be really fast to catch up. That's why you hear pitching coaches say all the time, `Stay back.'
"He seems to be throwing across his body less," pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "He's using his lower half better in getting everything into position. This is all going to take time. We're comfortable with how he feels physically, but this is a work in progress. He's worked so damn hard to get where he is now. This is a big step now. It'll be fun, and it'll be exciting for him."
Miller, described by Dierker as "stoic," pitched in pain last season when he probably should have shut it down. That's when he may have been his own worst enemy.
"Sometimes he is," Oswalt said. "Sometimes he tries to do too much for the team. He doesn't want to let people down. He's a great teammate. He was one of our core guys."
Miller said it "killed me" to watch the Astros make their late run to the playoffs, before succumbing to the Cardinals in the NLCS.
"I probably haven't been this excited since [pitching in] the playoffs four years ago. This is something I've never gone through before, pitching through constant pain. It wasn't easy going out there.
"I'd like to go out there and throw six or seven innings my first time out, the 90-pitch range. Eat up some innings, get the team a win. I'm not a guy who wants to go out there and throw four or five innings.
"I've had to work hard to get back to where I am now. It's been no picnic. I've come a long way to get to the point where I am now, and don't want to stop now.
"I won't be throwing as hard as I did a couple of years ago, but even when I was healthy, there were days I didn't have my good fastball and was able to deal with it, and give the team a chance to win."
And so what started with Clover Park in Topton, begins anew today in Fenway Park. A Hollywood story? We'll soon find out.