One spring day in 2008, the Rockford RiverHawks almost broke Tanner Roark.
They punished him, pummeled him, then propelled him from the game with a grand slam, all before Roark could snatch three outs. Thus beaten, the 21-year-old righty made his way to the end of the Southern Illinois Miners’ bench, where he sat and stared out at a Frontier League field, the kind of place hundreds of big league hopefuls gave it one last shot. That day, Roark wondered if he would even get a shot at all.
Nine years later, Roark stood on the Dodger Stadium mound, U.S.A. across his chest, staring down an experienced Japanese lineup as the Americans’ best hope to advance to their first World Baseball Classic final. He begins this season as the best pitcher most of baseball doesn’t yet consider great, a man who built his career on the girth of his grit, but nearly did not have a career at all.
“I guess it is a little crazy,” Roark said. “To be a part of the first ever gold medal for the U.S. … I would never have thought I would be here.”
The three stages
Mike Pinto had seen the look in Roark’s eyes that day in 2008 many times before. As an independent league manager, Pinto watched countless players — many used to much more fanfare than Roark — look the same way after their first bruising.
In his time as head of the Southern Illinois Miners, Pinto watched new players progress through what amounted to stages of independent baseball grief. First, he says, comes the disbelief. Most players new to independent ball would rather be playing in the minor leagues somewhere, and are not playing in the Frontier League of their own volition.
Roark, for example, had been a Friday night starter as a junior at the University of Illinois, went 12-2 in his career, and had the second-most wins of any Illini pitcher in a single Big Ten season. He had a fastball that hit the low 90s, and the right-at-you mentality to go with it. If he could compile a strong senior season, Roark would almost certainly get drafted, then take his shot at the big leagues.
Illinois Coach Dan Hartleb and his staff had plucked Roark from Wilmington, Ill., a town with a population of just over 5,100 according to the last census, a place where the purple worn by the Wilmington High Wildcats is a staple of local fashion. Roark played football and baseball there, one of the best athletes to ever play at Wilmington High. When he earned the chance to play Division I baseball at the University of Illinois, he became a local sports legend.
“I was the first — well, me and my other buddy — we were the second and third from our town to go play collegiate sports,” Roark said. “So it was tough. It didn’t pan out.”
Roark was ruled academically ineligible before his senior season. His GPA was too low. Illinois dismissed him from school before his senior season.
“There are absolutely no hard feelings. We all grow up. We all learn things,” Hartleb said. “ … I’m really proud of him because there were some things that happened where he could have basically quit. He wouldn’t do that.”
Pinto found Roark floating in the post-Illini ether. He called Roark’s agent, and asked if the right-hander wanted a place to play that spring, somewhere he could stay on the radar heading into the June draft.
“I was like, ‘Yes. Absolutely.’ I didn’t know what I was doing with my life,” Roark said. “So I went down there to get guys out, but that didn’t happen.”
Grateful for the opportunity, Roark passed through that frustrated stage quickly, and moved into what Pinto describes as the acceptance stage. The $600-a-month salary wasn’t much, and the occasional 10-hour bus rides were far too much, but the Miners’ home at Rent One Park was more up-to-date and welcoming than many low-level minor league facilities. Compared to sitting and doing nothing, which was what Roark would have done otherwise, independent ball wasn’t so bad. Then he hit the third stage.
“Guys go, ‘Uh oh, these guys are better than I thought they were,’ ” Pinto said.
Against former first-round picks and lifetime minor leaguers fighting to fulfill their bygone promise, Roark faceplanted. In three starts for the Miners, his ERA was 21.41. His WHIP was 3.310 — three times what it was for the Nationals eight years later. So it happened that Roark, battered beyond humility, ended up staring down his future from the end of the Miners’ dugout.
“I thought my stuff was invincible, that my fastball was going to play like it had in high school,” Roark said. “It didn’t.”
In a league of players who couldn’t cut it, Roark couldn’t cut it, and reevaluated accordingly.
“I was definitely wondering, ‘am I going to get drafted?’ ” Roark said. “I had no idea what was in store for me. Somehow, some way, the Rangers took a chance on me.”
Betting on the man
That June, the Texas Rangers drafted Roark in the 25th round, 744 picks after the Nationals drafted Aaron Crow ninth overall. Crow never started a game for the Nationals. Roark, who didn’t have the flashy high-90s fastball or the classic pitcher’s build, never seemed likely to start in the big leagues at all.
Jay Robertson was a special assistant to Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels when Texas drafted Roark, but joined General Manager Mike Rizzo in the Nationals’ front office before the 2010 season. Naturally, Robertson scouted the Rangers.
These days, some teams give scouts like Robertson “target lists,” lists of players to see and evaluate. Robertson said Rizzo does not do that. He would probably not have Roark in his rotation this season if he did.
Roark would not have been on any target lists. His stuff never stood out enough. But the way he used it, how he refused to let hitters beat him, caught Robertson’s eye as he roamed the back fields at Rangers camp.
At the time, Robertson evaluated Roark as having “average major league stuff,” which qualifies as a compliment from scouts used to separating chaff from the little available wheat. But when Rizzo discussed a trade with the Rangers for Cristian Guzman and needed to know who to ask for in return, Robertson gave him Roark’s name.
“After 30 years in this business, I’ve learned to bet on the man,” Robertson said. “That’s what I did there. It was more or less betting on a guy who was extremely determined.”
Whenever someone tells a story of a pitcher who made it on determination alone, that pitcher often has a preexisting condition known as a 95-mph fastball, which somehow destroys the relatability of the narrative. But Roark never had that 95-mph fastball in those days – that came years later, to Robertson’s surprise.
“If they knew what they had at the time, they probably wouldn’t have traded him,” Robertson said. “If I knew what they had, my grades would have been higher.”
By 2012, Roark was in Class AAA Syracuse. He lost 17 games, but members of the Nationals’ player development staff stumped for him, and the Nationals kept him around. Two seasons later, he won 15 games in the big leagues. The difference between that Roark and the one the RiverHawks nearly broke, he says now, is the motivation provided by experience: “Not wanting to feel like that again.”
So far, so good.
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