Jayson Werth was walking through the aisles at the Giant in Bowie late one night last week when he decided to pull out his cell phone and call home. The 20-year-old catcher with the bushy brown hair and soft voice had plenty to talk about, having gone 3 for 3 in that night's game, including his first home run since being promoted to the Bowie Baysox, the Class AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, and moving a step closer to reaching the major leagues.
With one hand on the shopping cart and the other keeping the tiny black phone pressed to his ear, Werth maneuvered through the grocery store while talking to his mother in Chatham, Ill. The late-night call was no problem for Jayson's mother, Kim. She is accustomed to the odd hours kept by baseball players--her grandfather, father and brother were professionals, the latter two having successful careers in the major leagues.
That is where Jayson Werth wants to go. The major leagues. Where the average salary is seven figures, trips are by chartered plane and players are catered to. But for Jayson Werth, this is not about money. It is about a goal he has had since childhood. For most kids, reaching the big leagues is a far-fetched dream; for Werth, it is something he set his mind to a long time ago and now he is close to achieving.
"I've always known my ability, especially in high school where the level of competition isn't the best," Werth said, his tone confident without being arrogant. "But I'm not a guy who is going to parade around running my mouth."
He doesn't need to. His play, including a batting average of close to .350 since joining the Baysox, lets baseball personnel know who Jayson Werth is.
"I look at him as a guy who is going to play in the big leagues," said Baysox Manager Joe Ferguson, who played 12 seasons in the majors as an outfielder and catcher. "We are very, very high on this young man. He's a future major leaguer for the Baltimore Orioles."
From the Beginning
Werth's baseball career started as soon as he could walk. Kim Werth, a track and field standout who nearly qualified in the long jump for the 1976 Olympics, put a plastic red bat in her 9-month-old son's hands and softly tossed tennis balls to the toddler.
It might seem odd to some a mother would have her son swinging a bat at such a young age. In the Schofield family, though, it was natural. Ducky Schofield, Kim's grandfather, played in the minor leagues. Dick Schofield, her father, was an infielder who played 19 seasons in the majors. And Dick Jr., Kim's brother, was a shortstop who played 14 seasons in the majors. (Jayson's father, Jeff Gowan, played in the minors but never made it to the bigs.)
For the Schofields, baseball was a religion, and it did not take long for Jayson to catch on.
As a child, he would go to sleep wearing a red St. Louis Cardinals hat on some nights; on others, he took his Louisville Slugger to bed with him.
"He would hit religiously," Kim said. "He has always been around athletes. I was an athlete. All my friends were athletes. It didn't matter what we did, it always involved sports."
Jayson was also a pretty good soccer player and basketball player. But baseball was always No. 1.
There was a batting cage in Werth's back yard since Jayson was nine years old. His stepfather, Dennis Werth (who played four seasons in the majors with the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals) often was there to give tips and pointers. At age 11, when Jayson started playing catcher, he would aim the pitching machine lower so he could practice blocking pitches in the dirt. When Jayson was a teenager, Dennis formed a traveling team, the Springfield Thunder, so Jayson and other top players from the area could play against top competition from around the nation.
"As he grew up, he had fun playing baseball," Dennis Werth said. "It wasn't something that just because [Kim's] dad played, and his dad played, and I played . . . I don't think he was under the gun. He really enjoyed what he did."
As a senior at Glenwood High School in Chatham, Ill., Jayson batted .617. In his final high school at-bat, he hit a three-run home run. Werth's stock rose steadily, his name climbing higher and higher on the list of top prospects for the amateur draft. Werth had signed a letter-of-intent to play for the University of Georgia, but it was obvious he planned to turn professional immediately out of high school.
On draft day in June 1997, the Orioles made him their first pick, 22nd overall. Within two weeks, Werth signed a contract with a reported signing bonus of $850,000, caught the ceremonial first pitch before a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, then reported to Sarasota, Fla., to play for the Orioles' team in the Gulf Coast League.
Werth spent last season with the Delmarva Shorebirds of the low-level Class A South Atlantic League before joining the Baysox for the final five games of the season. He began this season with the Frederick Keys of the advanced Class A Carolina League and was the league's starting catcher in its all-star game against the California League before being promoted to Bowie June 29. Given Werth's ascent through the minor leagues, it does not seem far-fetched he might be in an Orioles' uniform for Opening Day of the 2001 season.
"I don't like to put timetables on kids; I like to let them go out and perform," said Orioles General Manager Frank Wren, adding he expects Werth to finish the season with the Baysox. "At some point, they'll be ready, and we'll make a spot for him. . . .
"He's got more work to do, but he has a good feel for it," Wren said. "He just needs the experience of playing and getting all the experience he can in the minor leagues so when he gets [to the majors], he's not overwhelmed by what he has to learn. There's a big learning curve for catchers at the big league level."
At first glance, Werth appears a little out of place in the Baysox clubhouse. He is the second-youngest player on the team--pitcher Matt Riley, one of Werth's buddies and the team's other top prospect, turns 20 next month. And Werth has yet to fill out his 6-foot-5 frame, weighing only 205 pounds. He has tried to bulk up--he played last season at 190 pounds and was 215 in February--but he has had a hard time keeping the weight on catching through the heat of summer.
"He looks like Bambi out there," Kim Werth said. "Most of those guys are 25 or 26 years old. But I think he just learned a lot at a young age about life. He just grew up a little differently than maybe a lot of kids did."
When the Baysox played in Akron, Ohio, earlier this month, rock musician Pat Benatar had a concert during the city's Fourth of July festival. Some of the players were excited, Werth didn't make anything out of it. "I didn't even know she is a she," he said.
Werth received a hard time from teammate/roommate Rick Short for not knowing who Benatar is. He also took some major league ribbing during spring training this past winter, particularly from Orioles veterans Will Clark and Mike Bordick.
Clark and Bordick took notice of a three-inch tall wooden doll Werth would keep on the top of his locker. A Christmas present from his stepfather, its name is Hudo (rhymes with voodoo), and it is supposed to be a good luck charm. (Dennis Werth received it as a gift in 1979, the season he reached the major leagues).
Clark often would arrive in the clubhouse before Werth, take Hudo from the locker stall, paint the wooden lips orange and hide Hudo in various locations--sometimes under the bagels in the kitchen, other times on top of the refrigerator. When Werth showed up, the veterans told the youngster "hot" or "cold" as the youngster searched for the doll.
"They were all over me," Werth said. "But I'd rather have that than nobody talking to me."
On the field, Werth has been just fine. In just two weeks, Werth has established himself as one of Bowie's best hitters. In his first six games, Werth was 13 for 22 (a .591 batting average) with six walks, for a .679 on-base percentage. He called his recent stretch, combined with his last two weeks at Frederick, the best he has hit.
"He's been patient . . . and he is getting good pitches to and hitting them when he gets them," Ferguson said. "And he is hitting them where they are pitched. When they are pitched away, he doesn't try to pull it, he just goes to right. He is hitting consistently. That's why I like him. He doesn't try to do too much.
"In time, it will come, and he will hit for power," Ferguson added. "He has good leverage and very quick hands. In time, he will come into that. But first he has to learn to be a hitter and hit line drives."
In a game last week, Werth batted in the bottom of the sixth inning with the Baysox trailing 3-2. He took the first four pitches, working the count to 3-1. The next pitch was a fastball on the outside part of the plate, hardly an ideal pitch to hit. Werth went with the pitch, hitting a hard drive to deep right field. The right fielder leaped at the fence to make the catch, but the ball deflected off his glove and went over the fence for Werth's first home run in Class AA, a small milestone in his climb toward the majors.
As he circled the bases, Werth thought to himself, "I haven't done this in a while."
In the Same Mold
As Werth works his way toward Baltimore, the inevitable comparisons are drawn. Most often, his play is likened to former major leaguer Dale Murphy, who hit 398 home runs during his 18-year major league career.
"When you talk about long, lean guys that were good athletes and could run," said Wren, "there probably haven't been too many of them."
The 6-4 Murphy, whose playing weight was 210 pounds, did most of his damage offensively after switching from catcher to the outfield early in his career. There have been whispers Werth also might change positions, though Wren said it is unlikely.
Asked about Murphy, who spent most of his career with the Atlanta Braves, Werth chose his words carefully.
"I never saw him catch, so I don't know," he said. "I was just a youngster when he finished up his career [in 1993]. He was a good player. I am honored by it. If I can have as good a career as he did, I will be okay."
CAPTION: Recently promoted to Bowie Baysox, 20-year-old Jayson Werth is hitting close to .350 since joining Class AA team. Before call-up June 29, Werth started at catcher and represented the Frederick Keys in Class A All-Star Game.
CAPTION: "As he grew up, he had fun playing baseball," Dennis Werth says of stepson.
CAPTION: "He would hit religiously. He has always been around athletes," says Jayson Werth's mother Kim, who once was a standout long jumper.
CAPTION: Jayson Werth has sights set on big leagues after Orioles made him their first pick in 1997 draft.