Matt Torra has the seven-year itch.
No, his marriage to the former Jessica Reed appears to be in great shape. If you ask Torra about his minor league odyssey, you will hear him talking about his wife, their toddler, Isabel, and the second child who is swinging some bats in the on-deck circle. The Torras live together in North Carolina during the season, and afterward in the house Matt and his dad built in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
But seven years ago this week Torra was picked in the first round of the 2005 draft, and he still has yet to throw a single pitch in the major leagues. Some of the other first-rounders from that draft have already accomplished big things on the diamond. Ryan Braun (No. 5 overall) was last year's National League MVP, while Jacoby Ellsbury (No. 23) finished second in the AL voting.
So you can understand why Torra, a strapping 6-3 right-hander, is getting a bit antsy. He has been living the hard life of the minors for a long time. Forget the numbing bus trips, the parade of nights rooming with a prospect at one Days Inn or another and the paychecks that look like those of burrito artisans at Taco Bell.
There is also the specter of dream-denting injury, which Torra knows about all too well. And beneath the veneer of all that minor league sweetness (the fuzzy mascots, the dizzy bat races, the Little Leaguers yearning for an autograph), there is a ruthless culture. You are always looking over your shoulder. Your teammate's success -- if he plays your position -- is bad for you; his injury helps you out.
Torra has seen quite a few of his friends get "released," the cruelest of sports euphemisms. What it means in real life is generally this: the clubhouse attendant taps you on the shoulder and says, "Skip wants to see you." While your heart is getting clobbered, the clubbie is ripping the masking tape with your name on it off the top of your locker, crumbling it up and tossing it in the trash.
It's a wonderful life.
Torra plays for that most iconic of minor league franchises, the Durham Bulls, the Triple-A affiliates of the Tampa Bay Rays. Before each game, the scoreboard fills with footage from that most iconic of sports movies.
You can see Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh, and that great baseball philosopher, Annie Savoy. In one scene, she professes her belief in "the Church of Baseball." In another, she says, "Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job."
Real-life Durham Bull Matt Torra can only nod his head. By now, he knows all about the romance and the reality of the minors.
"You look back and you think, 'How am I 27 right now, when I feel like I just got drafted?'" he said recently from a hotel in Norfolk, Viginia. "Where did the years go?"
Lots of people claim hard work and family loyalty as shaping narratives of their preferred autobiography, but with Torra it's difficult to argue the point. By the time he was 11, he was laying shingles with his dad, Jim Torra, sole proprietor of Jim's Building and Remodeling. And whenever Matt was on the mound in Little League, in high school or at the University of Massachusetts -- home or away -- his parents were there. Pat Torra's throne was a lawn chair with a sharpened pencil and a scorebook.
At UMass, Matt gained a reputation as a "horse," someone who would not be outworked. One game as a junior, he pitched into the 11th inning. He threw a whopping 149 pitches. The scouts were wowed by his competitive fire and ability to maintain velocity deep into games. He hit the low-to-mid 90s on the radar gun and his curve had 12-to-6 sharpness, leading to one K after another in Pat's scorebook.
That junior year was a magical time for Team Torra. Projected as a possible fifth- or sixth-rounder when the season began, Matt rocketed up the charts. When he pitched, the scouts came out in force to see a UMass team that went just 14-32. One day, the crowd included Theo Epstein, the Boy Wonder general manager of a Red Sox team that had just won its first World Series since the Woodrow Wilson administration. Torra responded with a two-hit shutout. He was the top prospect in New England and owner of the lowest ERA in college baseball.
On draft day, he wore his UMass baseball jersey, No. 31, and sure enough, he became the 31st pick in the nation. The first of 18 sandwich-round selections (all of whom are considered first-rounders), he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
That afternoon, just a few miles from the Norman Rockwell museum, Torra stood on the steps of Pittsfield High in front of a crowd that included his parents, his grandmother, his Little League coach, his childhood friends and even his first babysitter, Mickie Turner. Still a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Torra talked about his goal of making Pittsfield proud.
A week later, having signed for a bonus just a touch over $1 million, Torra flew west, crossing the Mississippi River for the first time. He ultimately touched down in eastern Washington, home of the Single-A Yakima Bears. His future seemed as vast as Ranier.
Just 10 innings into his professional career, he felt what he described at the time as "a giant knot in my shoulder." When that knot was untied, he needed surgery to repair the torn labrum.
Just a year before in 2004, Will Carroll had written in Slate that a torn labrum will "almost without fail ... destroy a pitcher's career." He went on to say, "If pitchers with torn labrums were horses, they'd be destroyed."
While medical advances have since made the outlook a bit less catastrophic, the labrum tear remains a devastating injury for pitchers. For almost a year, Torra slogged away at rehab in Tucson, fighting through pain and doubt. Both were eased by meeting Jessica Reed at this time, but his once-glittering baseball prospects were now transformed. When he got back onto the mound in the summer of 2006, he was a different pitcher. Gone forever was the high-octane gas. He could no longer throw his signature hammer curveball, unable to generate the torque.
Pitching would, in time, become something different. He couldn't overpower hitters anymore. He couldn't reach back for something extra to get strikeouts. He had to learn to pitch to contact, to read how hitters were reacting to his deliveries. He had to rely on a slider, a changeup and a fastball that no longer had even No. 9 hitters choking up or moving to the back of the box. Torra's margin of error was suddenly far smaller.
He had to become someone else. He had to become himself more deeply. It would take years.
There was a 6.01 ERA in Class A, followed by a 2.85 in Double-A, a promotion to Triple-A, then ricocheting back and forth. Always, he made his starts, year after year, battling through nagging injuries, determined to be that horse once again, at least to get back on it.
He saw younger players springboard past him into the big leagues. He saw many others get voted off the island.
In 2011, in the midst of a struggle at Triple-A Reno, Torra was traded to the Tampa Bay organization. For the first time since his college days, he would be playing baseball on the east coast. His parents would again get to see him pitch once in awhile, pushing Isabel in a stroller. When he went 5-1 with a 3.67 ERA in 11 starts for Durham last year, he had reason to believe.
At spring training this year, he heard from a former minor league teammate who had just been laid off at Costco. "I just didn't want to be that person," Torra says. "Whether I play until I'm 40 or I'm done tomorrow, I wanted to make sure I could leave this game and walk into a decent job back at home, where I could support my family."
Along the way, he had nurtured that Plan B by completing 17 online courses to finish his degree in management. In the offseason, he continued to work for his dad. His life was a big juggle: changing diapers, banging nails, writing papers and keeping the baseball dream alive.
"On the one hand, you want to put everything you have into making it, give it everything you've got," he said. "But you always need to have a backup plan. What if I get hurt tomorrow?"
Baseball, he knew, was equal parts passion and crapshoot. Ninety percent of all minor leaguers don't make it to the bigs, even quite a few from the top of the draft. In Torra's class of 2005, a full dozen of the 48 first-round picks have yet to play in the bigs. That includes Wade Townsend, the first right-handed pitcher selected at No. 8 by Tampa Bay. He is now retired, having topped out at Double-A. Then there is John Axford, a 42nd-rounder who had 46 saves with the Brewers last year.
Torra's 2012 season has been all over the place. He got invited to Major League spring training and pitched well. He had a few rough starts to begin the year at Durham. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in a 1-0 win, but also strained his groin in the same game, covering first base on a ball hit to the right side. He gave up a lot of home runs. He had two straight scoreless outings. He worked his streak of consecutive starts up to 155, the most in all of minor league baseball.
Then, just this week, he grudgingly agreed to go on the 7-day disabled list with slight discomfort in his groin. He hopes to miss only the one start, yearning to take that ball yet again.
There is the job of baseball. There is the Church of Baseball. And with Annie Savoy holding court on that scoreboard every night, Matt Torra, that practical pitcher, admits he is still lured by the dream of The Show:
"To have that opportunity, just one day," he says, his voice trailing off. "To have one day in the big leagues would make everything I've done in the last eight [seasons] worth it: all the hard work, all the time and energy, time away from family. Just one day."