The Nationals' Solitary Man

(By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The unrelenting ping-ping-ping of aluminum bats wafted in from the bottom of a nearby pit, a facility aptly dubbed Sunken Diamond. There, the Stanford University baseball team worked out on a perfect Friday afternoon last month, the temperature at 70, the clouds nonexistent.

At the top of a nearby slope, past a thicket of trees, one of the best baseball players on Stanford's campus hopped over a chain-link fence. Jack McGeary, lacking teammates for the first time in his life, plopped a plastic Foot Locker bag down on some artificial turf, pulled from it two baseballs and a glove, ran the length of the field and back again, and began to throw one of the balls into an empty field hockey net, mimicking his pitching motion.

It is in such solitude that one of the Washington Nationals' most promising prospects hopes to develop into an elite pitcher. He is 18. He is equipped with a biting curveball, a 3.5 grade-point average, an overt focus and a $1.8 million bonus granted him last summer, when the Nationals decided he was worthy of such an uncommon arrangement. Over the next seven months, he will be on a trek almost no one has undertaken -- and perhaps fewer could handle -- toggling between school in California and minor league baseball and then back to school again.

"It's manageable," McGeary said, quite confidently.

Yet few people around him know exactly what McGeary is managing. His third-floor room in Branner Hall is labeled just as any other freshman's would be, a handmade sign reading "Jack McGeary, Newton, MA," hanging outside the door. When he stopped in to load up that plastic bag and head out to throw, a hallmate asked, "Where you going?", and McGeary countered, "Just workin' out," as he bounced down the stairs.

"I don't think they understand the whole thing," he said. "They know I'm gone. But it's like, 'Where do you go, man?' "

Depending on the hour or the day of the week, he could be going to run on the track, sometimes at 6 a.m. He could be going to yoga. He could be going to the weight room. He could be going to throw on campus. He could be driving some 15 miles to Santa Clara University where, unlike at Stanford, he is welcome to use the baseball team's facilities, to throw with their players. Toss in what could be a crippling courseload -- Greek mythology; Hannibal; children, youth and the law; and a literature course to which he might relate, "Epic Journeys and Modern Quests" -- and it's safe to say that he'll be unique among pitchers in the New York-Penn or South Atlantic league this summer.

"I don't think this would work for a lot of kids," said his mother, Rita. "But as much as he wants to go play baseball, he has that maturity to sit back and say, 'I have to do this schoolwork. I'll get it done.' I think it works for him. It's not going to be easy. Time will tell, I guess."

As last June's draft approached, McGeary -- who pitched for Boston's Roxbury Latin School and was named the Massachusetts Gatorade player of the year -- had established himself as one of the best high school pitchers available. But a strong commitment to Stanford sent him tumbling in the draft. The Nationals considered him a first-round talent. He fell all the way to the sixth round. "It was the worst," McGeary said.

"We were all set for him to go to Stanford," Rita McGeary said by phone. "We weren't even thinking about the Nationals. We just thought, 'They're not going to pay him.' It wasn't so much what Jack was worth. It's really what Stanford was worth."

So the Nationals got creative. In the 48 hours before the Aug. 15 deadline to sign draftees, General Manager Jim Bowden concocted a plan in which the Nationals would pay McGeary first-round money, allow him to go to Stanford, pay for four years of school -- but have him pitch for them in the summer. Because he would be a professional, he wouldn't be allowed to pitch for Stanford. McGeary flew to Washington. Team president Stan Kasten flew to Toronto to confer with members of the Lerner family, who own the Nationals, at a meeting of Major League Baseball owners.

Ten minutes before the deadline, Bowden, McGeary and McGeary's agent got word. The Lerners approved the deal.

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