Back from his latest freak injury, Joel Zumaya is throwing gas again for the Tigers. He believes there's magic in those triple digits.
But there's danger in them too.
by Eric Adelson
Do you believe Joel Zumaya? A lot of people don't. They don't buy the story about his wrecking his throwing shoulder by moving boxes at his parents' house. The Tigers reliever knows all about the doubts, because he spent an afternoon last inter trolling the Internet with his father, Joel Sr., reading the various conspiracy theories. Maybe it was the rumor that Joel Jr., known to family as J.J., fell off a motorcycle. Maybe it was the suggestion that he was injured while having sex on a couch. Maybe it was the theory that an obese woman sat on him. Maybe it was all three crazy notions that made Joel Sr. snap, pulling the laptop cord out of the wall, grabbing the only computer he owned, stomping out to the patio of his Chula Vista, Calif., home and smashing the offending machine onto the concrete. He kicked it over and over, making sure it was dead. "A hundred pieces," he says.
Joel Jr. refuses to discuss the injury, but his dad, who saw it happen, has plenty to say. "There's nothing to hide," says the elder Zumaya. "All this bulls--- needs to stop."
It's hard not to sympathize with the man who knew J.J. before any of us did, long before he became the flamethrowing phenom who helped resuscitate baseball in the Motor City. But how can we believe Joel Zumaya when his story is so implausible? He grew up poor and couldn't afford to attend baseball camps. (At one point, the Zumayas had to sell their home and stay with relatives.) After he was drafted, in 2002, he stumbled upon a pitching guru named Alan Jaeger, who espoused an eccentric theory about elastic bands and long-tossing. Jaeger worked with Zumaya three times a week for several months, and soon the 11th-round pick became one of the hardest throwers of all time.
During spring training in 2006, new Tigers manager Jim Leyland took a chance on Zumaya after seeing him throw only a couple of times, and on Opening Day, Zumaya bounded into the clubhouse claiming he dreamed the Tigers would make the World Series. The team, three years removed from 119 losses, won the AL wild card on the shoulders of Pudge Rodríguez and Magglio Ordoñez and a bunch of no-names and rookies, including Zumaya, the setup man who entered games to "Voodoo Child" and hit 100 on the radar gun so often—233 times in all—that fans stopped watching the action on the field and started eyeing the digital readout on the scoreboard.
By October, Detroit street vendors were selling ski hats with "Zoom Zoom" on them, and the rookie had a breathless Wikipedia page, which listed several of his 100 mph pitches while offering this disclaimer: "With no scientific evidence, the true speed of Joel Zumaya's fastball remains a matter of interpretation or perspective." In an ALDS game in the Bronx, Zumaya threw so hard that Alex Rodriguez said he never saw the ball. The Tigers beat the Yankees, swept the Athletics and made the World Series.
In the ALCS, Zumaya sustained his first major injury, either by gripping a ball too tightly or by playing Guitar Hero too much—depending on whom you believe. (GM Dave Dombrowski told the Detroit Free Press he suspected Zumaya's wrist and forearm inflammation was a result of strumming rather than pitching.) The rook recovered in time for the Series, but in Game 3 he threw away an easy double-play grounder, one of a litany of errors by Tigers pitchers that cost Detroit a chance to beat the middling Cardinals. Zumaya returned in 2007, struggled with his control and all but ruined his season in early May when he squeezed a bullpen pitch so fiercely that he ruptured a tendon in his middle finger.
Then, last fall, he wrecked his shot at his first big payday. Smoke from the San Diego fires was closing in on his parents' house, so Joel went into the attic to remove crates of teammates' signed memorabilia. When one slid and fell, he suffered a Grade 5 tear in his shoulder, requiring joint reconstruction surgery. It was all too bizarre, even for his dad. "Having a kid throwing 102 mph and then having him sitting here at home, it blows your mind," says Joel Sr. "How could this happen?"
Fans in the D were asking that question a lot early this season. After trading for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis in December, the Tigers were the hot pick to win the pennant again—until they quickly went from baseball kings to high-paid clowns in April. And yet, like the 23-year-old pitcher who could be the key to Detroit's second half, the team is hanging around, gathering steam. How fitting that the future of both rides on this question: Does Joel Zumaya believe Joel Zumaya?
Maybe not. He didn't buy it when he first touched 100 on the radar gun, back in 2003. He was in Class-A, making a few thousand bucks, facing the Lansing Lugnuts as a member of the West Michigan Whitecaps. He walked off the mound and into the dugout, and a teammate said to him, "You hit 100." Zumaya laughed and replied, "Yeah, right."
Nothing had ever come easy for him, so why should baseball? His dad worked in construction, while mom Yvonne worked at Burger King. (Joel Jr., the oldest of three kids, taught himself to pitch with a ball made of electrical tape.) When the construction industry got lean and the family moved in with Joel Sr.'s uncle, J.J. started skipping class at Bonita Vista High to drink and smoke with friends. His mom had to sit with him at lunch to make sure he didn't bolt. "I had lost everything anyway," Joel recalls. He was ready to give up on himself simply because he didn't believe in his own future.
That self-destructive thinking returned in 2006, at the height of Zumaya mania, when fans cheered his name in opposing ballparks, and when he could walk into a packed Capital Grille, dressed in Dickies and Vans, without reservations, and get a table right away. He had become a superhero overnight, and he couldn't understand why. "It was kinda freaky," he says now. "I ask myself, Why did this happen?" He chugged Red Bull and espresso in the bullpen, as if they fueled his power. On the mound, his eyes would dart all over the place, and sometimes he returned to the dugout unable to recall anything that had happened.
When he struck out A-Rod in the ALDS, Zumaya raced off the field and into the clubhouse to watch himself on the replay, as if to confirm it. In the World Series, after missing most of the ALCS, he became so worried he had lost his fastball that he kept looking at the radar readout in Busch Stadium. He flipped out when he saw speeds in the 80s and low 90s—numbers perhaps manipulated by the home team. After losing Game 4 on a hit by David Eckstein, Zumaya dressed, pulled on a hoodie, hurried out into the street and walked a mile to the team hotel by himself, surrounded by rabid Cards fans reveling in his demise. When he got to his room, he sat on the bed and cried, telling his girlfriend, Rachel Sanchez, "I can't do this anymore."
Zumaya's anxiety over baseball was spilling into his personal life. "I would bring it home with me," he says. "It's still something I'm trying to change." (He and Sanchez went to counseling before getting married last year.) Even when Zumaya would go fishing—his one chance to relax—it was hard to leave the game behind. He once cast his line so violently that catcher Mike Rabelo fell out of the boat and into a gator-infested pond.
Last year, Zumaya reported to spring training with a fresh tattoo, a tribal symbol for health, to accompany the flames licking his arms. He said he had honed his off-speed stuff and wasn't consumed by speed anymore. But six months later, on Aug. 21, the night he came back from his freak finger injury, he downed five Red Bulls, took the mound to roars from the Comerica Park crowd and threw nothing but gas, turning to check his speed just to make sure he still had it. Classic Zumaya. He's unable to act like he's been there before, mostly because he can't quite believe he was. He'll veer from absolute certainty to total uncertainty—explosion to implosion—in one inning. Which is tricky business for a guy who makes his living as a late-inning reliever.
While he rehabbed his shoulder last winter, Zumaya cut off communication with his teammates, knowing that his absence had made the Tigers' bullpen—the weak link on a seemingly superior team—that much weaker. Once again, he gave up on himself. Once again, he came back anyway. Once again, pictures surfaced on the web. This time they were shots of Zumaya doing a keg stand at a spring training party, which fueled fans' ire in the blogosphere. "My son is an outgoing person," says Joel Sr. "He likes to make friends. Maybe that's what gets him all this attention."
Time and again, young Joel will act like someone who discovers a million dollar skill and assumes karma is coming to collect payment. "What would I do without baseball?" he wonders. He is 30 pounds lighter now, down to 230, and looks a little less like a WWE villain. He still has a monster truck with the Michigan license plate "Zoom 54," but he doesn't want to talk about his youthful indiscretions anymore. "It gets old," he says. "I'm moving forward." His younger brother, Rich, a Rookie League righthander, is in the Tigers system now, and Joel wants to be in the bullpen when little bro makes it to the bigs.
When Zumaya saw Leyland in spring training, he got a hug from the skipper, and was touched enough to get a photo of the embrace and install it as the screen saver on his laptop. "This makes me feel like I'm back and part of it," he told bullpen catcher Scott Pickens. Finally, on June 20, Zumaya returned to a major league mound, and after just a few appearances Leyland said he "looked like his old self." In early July, the manager even floated the idea of putting Zumaya in the rotation next season, following the path of Yankees phenom Joba Chamberlain. It sounds logical: Zumaya has the stuff, and he was a starter in the minors. On the other hand, it would give him four days to sit and stew over a poor outing. So it could be a spectacular success or a total disaster.
But that's Joel Zumaya. And that's next year. Right now, he's interested only in the present. He's young, still craving approval, still planning to save the Tigers this season—still throwing 100.
If you can believe that.