All-Star Evan Meek's Comeback Contradicts His Last Name
Evan Meek, a Minnesota Twins minor leaguer able to throw 98 miles per hour, had inexplicably become a danger to plate umpires, peanut vendors or anyone else behind home plate. His own sanity was imperiled, too.
"I was throwing the ball 20 feet over the catcher's head," the 27-year-old recalled, while sitting near ace pitchers such as Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter.
Meek had charged to a 7-1 record and 2.47 ERA in his first pro season. Then, as mysterious as hobglobins, the affliction arrived a year later. With Meek still misfiring, the Twins released him in his third season. He was younger than many college seniors.
"Why was I so good one year, and then I couldn't hit water if I fell out of a boat?" Meek said. "There was never really an answer.''
Here at West Coast Bias, Meek gets extra points not only because he's from Seattle, but because of his survivor's tale. Mental demons similarly vexing have harried many pitchers, some of them big leaguers, into retirement. Meek weathered The Thing, baseball's catch phrase for the mysterious force that cause a pitcher's mental wiring to go haywire. Baseball men often whisper the words, lest they dare the hobgoblins to multiply.
"Not many guys can come back from what we call The Thing," said Padres scout Bill Bryk, a former pitcher himself and one of the men who helped to rescue Meek.
"Very few come back from it," said Padres manager Bud Black, a former major league pitcher and pitching coach. "To overcome it, that says a lot."
Scrambled eggs and cold turkey were integral to Meek's journey beyond.
When the Twins cut him from an A-ball club in 2005, Meek logically could have responded by tinkering more with his delivery. He could've studied videotape for clues. He could have done something. Because that's what athletes are supposed to do.
"And once you start doing that," he said on Monday, "you start overthinking things, and it's a mess. It's scrambled eggs up there."
So he went cold turkey.
"I didn't touch a ball for a month," he said. "I didn't look at a baseball. I didn't watch any games on TV. I tried to do everything I could not to think about it."
Long story short, Meek cleared his mind as best as he could. Then he slowly began to rewire the circuitry between brain and right arm.
He threw a ball against a wall, aiming at a square he'd formed with duct tape, and it's a wonder the wall is still standing.
"I gave it hell for two weeks," he said. " A lot of emotion and anger [was] coming out."
Next he returned to the security of childhood, so to speak. He went to Seattle, which had been home to happy times with his parents and four siblings. He and his father, David, broke out the ballgloves. No longer was Meek an 11th-round draft pick aspiring for the distant majors. He was a lad tossing the ball with dad.
"We just started playing catch again like I did when I was younger, and I just started to forget everything, all the pressure I put on myself," he said. "You want to do so well. When you're in the minors, the big leagues seemed so far away, because they put it up on a pedestal.
"My dad never said 'What's going on with you?' He was always like, 'How can we help?' When we started playing catch again, it was great. I started getting the feel for the ball again."
Eventually, Meek regained his control. In time, the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder evolved into a pitcher that hitters don't like to see.
"He's tough to hit," said Reds second-baseman Brandon Phillips, a fellow All-Star. "The ball seems to rise."
The Padres were the first club to believe in him again, signing him for nothing after he passed muster in a tryout. Padres scouts such as Bryk, Charlie Kerfeld and Mal Fichman lobbied to keep him. San Diego's upper management, as it turned out, gave up on Meek too early, trading him to the Tampa Devil Rays, who would lose him to the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft.
Meek reached the major leagues in April 2008 and slowly gained a foothold in Pittsburgh's bullpen. Working mostly in the seventh inning this year, he is 4-3 with a 1.11 ERA. He has 45 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings. He's given up only 14 walks.
He is probably the only All-Star here in Anaheim who didn't get an All-Star bonus because it wasn't stipulated in his contract. Judging by the look in his eyes, his psychic reward ranks first among them.
"I'm very, very overwhelmed," he said, smiling.
Should other pitchers contract The Thing, Meek may hear from them. He's already answered private questions on the subject from Steve Blass, a Pirates broadcaster whose budding career with Pittsburgh was cut short by the throwing neurosis. The travails of Blass, a former All-Star who went 103-76 in his career, moved into baseball's lexicon. Steve Blass Disease is the term used to describe the permanent loss of throwing accuracy in talented ballplayers.
If anyone wants specific remedies, however, Meek likely will tell them his less-is-more story.
"I never came up with anything," he said. "I just found the more I tried to think about it, the more I tried to pinpoint it, it wasn't productive. It wasn't getting me anywhere. So, it was one of those things where you just let it go and you start over. And that was the hardest part to do."
Sticking with baseball? Not so hard.
"I didn't know what the hell else I would do if I didn't play baseball," he said. "I really didn't."