No Cap on a Pitcher's Talent

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sssshhh -- Chad Cordero is a secret.

At 23, he's sneaking up on baseball. Less than two years ago, he was pitching in the College World Series for Cal State Fullerton. Yet his next game for the Nationals will be his 100th in the major leagues, where his career ERA is 2.50 and his save conversion rate is a lofty 80 percent. Until last week, he'd never let an inherited runner score. He's already saved nine games and won two this year with a 1.00 ERA. But, thanks all the same, he'd prefer to be a quiet, inexplicable conundrum to hitters.

Don't peek under his cap, with its yanked-down brim. He doesn't want you to see him. As for hitters, he'd rather be a mystery, a pitcher who never looks them in the eyes, but rather gazes at their knees, then buzzes his fastball past them. Soon enough, he'll be a known commodity if he stays this effective. But for now he wants to stick with the subtly psychopathic flat-hat look and the raw attacking pitching style as he relentlessly challenges the best hitters, treating them all with youthful disdain. So far, it's working as Cordero has traveled almost incognito toward what may become a remarkable relief career. Among the game's relievers, Francisco Cordero of Texas, with 49 saves last year, is far more prominent. Even on his own team, Chad is not the best-known Cordero, since that distinction belongs to veteran Wil.

Then, of course, there is the matter of Chad's hat -- the one quirk that simultaneously identifies him and disguises him. How on Earth could anybody see him clearly under that goofy lid? The cap is yanked so far down that it folds over the tops of his ears. The brim is so low that it touches his eyebrows. Who could recognize him on Wisconsin Avenue? No one.

No wonder Cordero throws so many knee-high strikes. He probably can't see above the batter's knees. "Not much," he concedes.

Not only is his hat pulled comically yet also menacingly low, but its brim is absolutely flat in defiance of any known baseball style. "He irons it every day," teases pitcher Esteban Loaiza.

Cordero's unique look makes grunge and hip-hop seem sleek. Even Neil Young wouldn't wear a hat that way. Chad's not going for a counterculture statement but something that's directed at a hitter's subconscious. If you wore Cordero's hat style on the street, the cops might get a warrant to rip up your floorboards and dig up your backyard.

"He's going for an image something like that," Loaiza says. "He always dresses like a biker or a street skater. He does everything to get those negative [images] going. And, of course, he can't stand straight. His feet go sideways like a duck."

Yes, an odd duck, indeed. A fastball pitcher who rarely gets the radar gun above 91 mph. A kid with the thick skin of a veteran who, so far, has been able to ignore the occasional long home run or fielding blunder or blown save. "You're going to give up your runs," Cordero says. "You have to learn how to forget about it." Many spend a career searching for that trick.

Cordero's biggest secret may be that he's nothing like his look. For decades many of the best relievers have tried to look wild and dangerous, crazy and shaggy, tattooed and unpredictable or simply worn glasses so thick that they advertised their bad eyesight. And, when he's on the mound, Cordero has some of those traits. "When he goes out on the mound, he hits the button and turns into a [expletive]," says outfielder Ryan Church. "That's good."

That's good because, as Manager Frank Robinson says, "He's just an unassuming kid with a big smile." Don't tell anybody, but Cordero is a modest Southern California kid with a sense of humor who made friends easily, even as a rookie.

As soon, that is, as he got over one of the worst first impressions that any first-round draft pick ever made. After the Expos signed Cordero, they brought him to Shea Stadium for a workout. Cordero brought his father and two younger brothers. When he went to the bullpen mound, he found he was being watched by Robinson as well as two coaches.

"He couldn't get the ball to home plate. Every pitch bounced," assistant general manager Tony Siegle said.

"He threw one strike," coach Tom McCraw said. "I said, 'Is that our number one draft pick?' " recalled Robinson last night.

Actually, Robinson himself may have been the problem. "I was nervous. I'd had two weeks off [after the College World Series]. I had Frank Robinson, Randy St. Claire and the bullpen coach all watching me," Cordero said. "It was just weird."

What's even weirder is that Cordero barely seems to have been nervous since then. After throwing one strike in his workout, he barely threw anything but strikes in a dozen games late in '03. His first big league game was back in Shea. But this time he faced Mike Piazza with men on second and third base and two out -- and struck him out with a slider.

"When he first came up, we had to tell him, 'Throw a ball once in awhile,' " said Robinson, laughing. "Then, last year, he fooled around a little bit. He wasn't aggressive enough at times. He's a fastball pitcher. He has to come after you. We had to say, 'Get back to what you were when you first came up.' "

And, for now, that's where he is. "He's got that closer's demeanor," Robinson says. "You have to walk a tightrope every night and, if you fall off, get back up there the next night."

Last Friday, Cordero fell. He didn't blow a save. But he made a clumsy comic error, trying to shovel a dribbler to first base for an out with his glove hand. Then, the next two games, he came back with saves in nerve-wrenching one-run games. After his final strikeout to close Sunday's win, he pounded his fist in his glove and screamed with vindication.

As he came off the field, his buddy, the veteran Loaiza, greeted him and initiated their postgame handshake ritual that ends with both pretending to pull an arrow out of a quiver on their backs, then shoot their arrows with an invisible bow into the air.

Cordero is, you see, "one-eighth Cherokee on my mother's side." In baseball, that means it was inevitable that his teammates nickname him "Chief."

"Last week in Arizona, when I went in the game, they even played 'Hail to the Chief,' " he said.

Sounds like the Chad Cordero secret is already getting out.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company