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.
As exhilarating as that was for everyone involved -- and the McGeary signing finished off a Washington draft that has since been rated, by the trade magazine Baseball America, as the best in the game -- it was, in fact, the easy part.
"We had to say, 'Is this a good idea?' " said McGeary's father, Pat. "I remember making statements like, 'Well, if anybody can do this, Jack can do it.' It's just his ability to focus on what he wants to do and an unrelenting ability to execute on that."
Pat and Rita McGeary know they sound like fawning parents. But they have been receiving this kind of feedback since Jack, the younger of their two sons, was in kindergarten. "Teachers would tell us that he wasn't swayed by his peers," Pat said. More over, Pat said they "literally, never once" had to tell Jack to do his homework.
"He reminds me of stuff," Rita McGeary said. "It's almost like a role reversal, where he's the parent, the more mature one."
The McGearys got a glimpse of his focus when he started to develop into a prospect for the draft, but his 6-foot-3 frame had ballooned to perhaps 225 pounds. Told he needed to lose weight so he could gain flexibility, he radically altered his diet to the point where Rita -- a noted cook and baker -- believes Jack hasn't had as many as three or four cookies in the last two years.
"He's a perfectionist," said Rob Steinert, a former minor league pitcher from Long Island with whom McGeary has worked intensively the past two years. "He has a true passion for the psychological demands of pitching. He understands it physically. His aptitude is just tremendous, and he has the discipline to follow a plan through."
Thus, that Friday morning in Palo Alto began with an egg-white omelet and some fruit in the dining hall across from his dorm. Lunch at a local Thai restaurant brought chicken and vegetables, along with some disappointment when there was no brown rice. In between came a sweltering, 90-minute Bikram yoga session in downtown Palo Alto, where he fit in seamlessly with some 30 others, most of them women, all of them older. "I'm cursed with an Irish body," he said. So yoga has become part of his routine, though when he first carted some high school teammates to a class, none of them returned, and he was left to pursue it alone.
That, though, does not make McGeary uncomfortable. Driving through the Stanford campus in his mother's hand-me-down Lexus sedan -- that $1.8 million safely in the bank -- McGeary considered his challenge.
"The thing is, I kind of figured out it's not that hard," he said. "I knew if I put any effort into it at all I would do fine. It would kind of defeat the purpose if I was out partying all the time. Why would I be here?"
Thus, there will be no Cancun for McGeary's spring break. Rather, he will fly to Viera, Fla., and join the Nationals' other minor leaguers, albeit for only two or three weeks. He hopes to set up a class schedule for spring quarter that would allow him three or four more trips to Viera for long weekends. In the meantime, the Nationals plan on sending a scout to check in on McGeary during the spring.
"I know it can work out," said Spin Williams, who coordinates the Nationals' minor league pitching program. "It's not an ideal situation for us, but it was a deal-maker for us, so it's worth it. . . . I think it takes a special kid. One of the reasons we really wanted Jack in the organization is we feel he is that kind of kid."
Back in the student gym on the Stanford campus, McGeary is hardly special. He waited for another student to finish using a pull-up machine. The varsity weight room, just like Sunken Diamond, is off limits. Come June, though, he will begin a summer job unlike that of anyone else in the room.
"I feel like I'm responsible enough to do this," McGeary said. "I guess we'll see."