Friday, May 29, 2009

Foppert's big-league comeback at crossroads

There was a giant inflatable 10-foot high L.L. Bean boot over his shoulder in right field and the 37-foot tall “Maine Monster” -- a replica of Fenway Park’s famed Green Monster wall -- lurking behind him in left field, but what really distracted Jesse Foppert from pitching last week at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine was Slugger, the Sea Dogs furry mascot, chasing a young boy across home plate during an in-game promotion. Foppert had to stop his warm-up pitches and wait.

Such is life in the minor leagues. This is where small-time promotions get the most cheers and most big league dreams die.

Yet Foppert, the one-time Giants phenom pitcher out of San Rafael High School, keeps plugging away.  At the age of 22, he was a starting pitcher for the Giants at AT&T Park in 2003. His rise to the big leagues was faster than Matt Cain’s. He won eight games, logged 111 innings but then he had Tommy John surgery. Foppert has pitched in only four games in the big leagues since, none since 2005.

This season, Foppert will turn 29, and he is still a long way from getting back to the Show. When I spoke with him in the empty visiting clubhouse in the Portland Exposition Building before a May 22 game on an uncommonly warm night in the Pine Tree State in the middle of the black fly season, Foppert wasn’t bothered. He was OK with his status. He was getting much-needed work. He was throwing in the low 90s. He was in the starting six-man rotation for the Connecticut Defenders, the Giants’ Double A team, pitching between future stars Tim Alderson,  20, and 19-year-old Madison Bumgarner. He was very impressed with them and their maturity and he was happy with himself for the first time in a long time. He had thrown five shutout innings in his previous start.

Foppert pitched well that night in Maine, striking out Lars Anderson, the No. 1 prospect in the Boston Red Sox minor league organization, and left the game in the fifth inning trailing 2-1. But then Foppert was apparently bumped from the starting rotation. He was scheduled to make his next start on Thursday and appeared in relief instead, allowing five hits and three earned runs in an inning against the Binghamton Mets.

He can’t be happy with that.

Foppert is a great guy with a burning desire to return to the big leagues. His quest is admirable, inspirational. He loves the game too much to quit it and everyone is rooting for him as they should.

And yet Foppert still struggles with his control and command. He has logged only 78 innings in the last four years. He is learning to throw a split-fingered fastball. He is 0-2 with a 4.56 ERA with Connecticut this season, striking out 20 batters in 25.2 innings, though walking 17. Younger pitchers with brighter futures in the Giants organization are catching up with him and exceeding him.

It’s do or die trying time for Foppert and his professional baseball career. 


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