Kevin Rockwell remembers it one way, let’s call it his way, because everyone has their version of the day Patrick Corbin became a baseball player.
Rockwell, the varsity coach at Cicero-North High School, scanned the crowd of boys filling a hallway by the cafeteria. He always holds tryouts inside because, well, it’s freezing in Syracuse, N.Y., in mid-March. That’s made most years blend together but Rockwell will never forget his assistant, Jim Ilardi, hustling over in 2006, clipboard in hand, curiosity in his voice.
“There’s a kid I don’t really know at the back of the line,” Rockwell recalled Ilardi saying. “Name is Corbin. Pat Corbin.”
Rockwell found a tall, skinny 16-year-old standing by himself. He asked if he could hit. No, Corbin replied, I’m a pitcher. Rockwell asked if he was a righty or lefty and Corbin raised his left hand. They put him on a mound in the gymnasium and his fastball reached the high-80s. Rockwell saw one throw, turned to Ilardi and predicted that this would be their first professional player.
Patrick Corbin had come out of nowhere. It wouldn’t be the last time.
It’s been 13 springs since Corbin went out for the baseball team, since he walked into that second-floor gym to pitch instead of shoot a three-pointer. And a lot has changed. The memories, some fuzzier than others, have created the sort of tale that grows with time. There is the idea of Patrick Corbin, all arms and legs, wandering into his future, and there is whatever really happened that evening. That kid went from a two-sport athlete to a year-round pitcher, from mystery to must-have in junior college, from a struggling major leaguer to, after shining last season, signing a six-year, $140 million deal with the Washington Nationals. That’s what we know. There’s a lot we don’t.
Some remember Corbin in jeans and a T-shirt in March 2006, toeing the rubber in basketball shoes, firing a fastball that danced but didn’t crack 80 mph. Others remember him in shorts — or maybe it was sweatpants — and increase his velocity with each telling of the story. Some in baseball now think Corbin is an expensive risk for the Nationals, not proven enough, more the pitcher he was in 2015 and 2016 than what he was a year ago with a 3.15 ERA in 200 innings. Others believe the 29-year-old is worth the money, the bidding war this past November, the big bet by a team hitching a critical season to a $96 million starting staff.
There is some gap between perception and reality. But the Nationals, invested as they are, need Corbin to bridge it.
“Signing starting pitchers, for six or seven years, there’s definitely a risk,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “The alternative to the risk is you don’t have a great pitcher. When you put such an emphasis and value on starting pitching like we do, like I do, you have to be willing to take some educated gambles.”
Dave Warren only remembers what he heard, sitting in the bleachers in the spring of 2007, making a late run at a teenager from just 55 miles west of his office.
Warren, the manager at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., made the recruiting trip with the school’s basketball coach. That was a first and a last. But Pat Corbin wanted to play both sports in college, just as he did in high school, and Warren figured it was their best shot to get him.
“See that kid on the mound?” Warren was asked, and he doesn’t remember if this was a man or a woman, a fan or a coach, if they talked in the first inning or the fifth. Warren told them that’s who he was here to watch. Pat didn’t play ball until he was 17, they continued, showed up to tryouts in jeans last spring and blew everybody away. Warren was already plenty interested. The intrigue only grew.
“You hear a lot when you’re recruiting a kid. I don’t always know what’s real,” Warren said recently with a laugh. “But when someone has barely played and is already that good, you pay attention.”
Warren was the first outside coach to evaluate Corbin’s potential, to sift through the information and eye tests, to decide if he could still excel one level up.
That didn’t take long.
There was a lot of truth in that recruiting trip. Corbin did join the team as a junior. He did have a strong fastball. Corbin’s slider grip, taught to him by his father, produced a biting break and is still his best weapon. That was more than enough for Warren to clear a spot for him.
But Corbin had played baseball before, in his backyard growing up, in local Little League, and on a middle school team that first introduced him to the mound. He smiles at the thought of him having never picked up a ball, showing up to that tryout and, with his chest out, claiming to be a pitcher without any experience. That’s not quite how it went.
“The next time I hear that story, Pat is going to have thrown his first bullpen session in flip flops,” said Mike Meola, who was a senior second baseman and one of the friends who convinced him to try out. “There’s always a new spin, like Pat is a myth or something.”
Once at Mohawk Valley, Corbin split his time between varsity baseball and basketball. But baseball quickly chose him. A scout from the Cincinnati Reds watched him at a fall practice and asked Warren to stay in touch. By the end of the season, the Reds and Philadelphia Phillies wanted to sign him as an undrafted free agent. Corbin instead joined a summer team, traveled to Georgia and Florida and, after shining against current New York Mets starter Zack Wheeler, was contacted by Chipola College.
Chipola, a junior college on Florida’s panhandle, is a baseball factory run for the past 21 seasons by Manager Jeff Johnson. Johnson had one spot left on his 2009 roster. He had never heard of Corbin, or many players from that far north, but trusted a scout friend who described Corbin as “can’t-miss.” Corbin soon arrived at Chipola, ditched basketball, added 20 pounds to his wiry frame and, by June, only three years after his first high school start, was dominant enough for the Los Angeles Angels to select him with the 80th overall pick. He was one of 23 future all-stars drafted that year.
“When you’re the guy that nobody really knows, you really have to prove yourself extra,” Johnson said. “Patrick did that and a lot more.”
Jim Ilardi remembers that Patrick Corbin stood out for wearing sweats and not baseball pants, like the rest of the players trying out for the varsity team.
Ilardi was an assistant then, kept all the scorecards of Corbin’s starts — totaling a 14-0 record in two seasons — and still has a Google file full of old photos. He still watches almost every one of Corbin’s games from Myrtle Beach, S.C., and catches a handful in person each year. If there were a Patrick Corbin museum, he’d be the curator.
“I don’t know where this jeans thing came from,” Ilardi said this January in his thick Long Island accent. “Pat was an athlete. He knew not to wear jeans to play a sport. That’s just crazy if people think that. I checked him in and remember that he didn’t have the same baseball pants on as everyone else.”
The retired coach took a breath.
“That story is good enough as is.”
Mike Rizzo is familiar with big deals for big-time starting pitchers, maybe more than any other general manager.
He signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract in January 2015. He reached a seven-year, $175 million extension with Stephen Strasburg in May 2016. Then, this past December, he landed Corbin with the largest free agent pitching contract of the offseason — and it wasn’t close.
The next biggest was four years, $68 million for Boston Red Sox right-hander Nathan Eovaldi. Corbin will make an average of $23.3 million per year and turn 35 in his final season of the deal. Some within the organization admit Washington may have overpaid, in both money and years, but they thought it was necessary given the interest of the New York Yankees.
Corbin was pursued by the Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Angels, among other teams. Reports indicated that the Yankees and Phillies didn’t want to spring for a sixth season. A person familiar with the Angels’ plans said they did not want to go past four years or $100 million. The Nationals took a calculated leap.
“It was different than signing Max or Stephen because I didn’t have the same history with him,” Rizzo said. “So it did take another layer of research on our end. We were pleased with what we found.”
Rizzo once scouted Scherzer at the University of Missouri and convinced the Arizona Diamondbacks to use a first-round pick on him in 2006. By the time Washington extended Strasburg, Rizzo had drafted him first overall and watched him closely for seven more years. Corbin was much less familiar, so the Nationals dove into a three-month analysis of his statistics, throwing mechanics, his trends since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014 and, to finish, his makeup.
The Nationals’ front office sees any single season as a trap, especially with pitchers. Corbin was an all-star in his first full season with the Diamondbacks in 2013. He stumbled after missing a full year with the elbow injury, most noticeably with a 5-13 record and 5.15 ERA in 2016. He was moved to the bullpen for part of that season and did not get to pitch in the playoffs when the Diamondbacks reached the postseason a year later. Then he tweaked his pitch usage last season and was a dominant and durable Cy Young candidate.
But Washington didn’t look too hard at any one year. They instead considered more than half of a decade of data. They are confident Corbin will age well because he relies on low-90s heat, and a mix of breaking pitches, instead of an overpowering fastball. They are encouraged by his steady post-surgery improvement and overall athleticism, shown in his delivery, fielding and even by the film of him as a hitter.
The last step for Rizzo was to meet him, in Washington in late November, because Corbin wanted to tour any city before moving to it. They talked over dinner — Corbin, his wife, his agent, Rizzo and Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner — and Rizzo left feeling that Corbin could handle expectations, failure, the constant challenge of living up to the numbers attached to his name.
And that may have mattered most of all.
“If there’s pressure to prove I am worth the investment, or that I am the real deal, or the pitcher from last season or whatever,” Corbin said this month before taking a long pause, “I don’t know, I just don’t feel that.”
Patrick Corbin doesn’t remember much from that day in March 2006, the day he became a baseball player, the day his life may have changed forever.
He was late, that much he knows, so he snuck onto the back of a line and waited for a coach to notice him. He once told a newspaper reporter he wore jeans because that’s what someone told him. He doesn’t know if it’s true. He doesn’t know if he threw 67 or 77 or 87 mph — although he’s pretty sure it wasn’t 67 — and has never thought about it much. He doesn’t know why what happened inside that gym depends on who you ask. He does know he threw a baseball, 20 or so times, and that he hasn’t stopped since.
“I’m really not sure about all of that,” Corbin said 13 years later. “Maybe, for some reason, they just think it’s better than the truth.”