As much as baseball people like Josh Phelps' numbers -- 18 homers and 58 RBI in just 74 games last year after his July 2 callup -- the Toronto DH might like numbers even more. How many guys in the big leagues dug calculus their senior year?
Phelps isn't your average big league power prodigy. Born in Alaska and raised in tiny Rathdrum, Idaho, he reads books -- real books! -- forsaking the standard clubhouse fare of "American Pie" and "Bonzo Goes to the Big Leagues." He graduated fourth in his Lakeland High class of 150 with a 3.94 grade point average. Manager Carlos Tosca jokes, "I just bought a new Cadillac, one of those ones where the seats adjust when you put the key in. I couldn't get it to work. He overheard me and said, 'For a minimal fee, I can set that up for you.' "
Phelps was going to pursue engineering in college before he signed with the Blue Jays as a 10th-round catcher in 1996. Now DHing behind first baseman Carlos Delgado, the 24-year-old stands an imposing 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and has one of the most powerful, natural strokes among young major leaguers today. His numbers don't show it this year -- he's batting just .214 with two home runs and three RBI through Thursday -- but anyone who saw Phelps mash a fifth-deck SkyDome home run in his first career at-bat against Roger Clemens last year knows this kid won't stay quiet for long.
Ironically, "quiet" is the best adjective for Phelps off the field, where he mostly keeps to himself, retaining his small-town Idaho roots. But he sat down recently with Alan Schwarz at Yankee Stadium as his promising career tries to hit its stride.
Question: What is it about mathematics that intrigues you?
Phelps: I used to really enjoy it. Unfortunately now if I had to tutor somebody through Algebra II I'd have to do a lot of re-learning. It was something I really enjoyed because it was so challenging. It never came easy by any means. For me, I always had to work at it. It always took a lot of extra effort to figure it out. There was always an answer. There was a right and a wrong. And there was a process you could go through to get the answer -- some cases, multiple ways. But you could always solve the problem. You get that cookie at the end.
Question: One of your strengths, I'm told, is your ability to quickly recognize pitch sequences and patterns. Does your interest in math play into that?
Phelps: I chalk it up more to tendencies, to tell you the truth. A lot of pitchers have the same tendencies, like habits. It's out of habit that they do certain things. I try to pick up other pitchers' tendencies -- this guy likes to start me out with a breaking ball with guys on base, stuff like that. These are things you try to learn when you've seen them enough times. It's definitely something that can only help you. The more perceptive you are, the better your chances of making the adjustment quicker than they do.
Question: Is it innate? Or do you use video?
Phelps: I try to pay attention. There's a little bit of video when I'm a little off, but it's mainly going on feeling. I like to break everything down step-by-step. It makes it easier to figure out what went wrong -- take A, B, C, D, which one didn't work? It's much easier to put things back in line.
Question: You seemed to figure out Roger Clemens pretty good last August, when you hit two home runs the first time you faced him -- one of them into the fifth deck at SkyDome. Vernon Wells said that guys in the dugout, their jaws just dropped. What happened that at-bat?
Phelps: It was a 1-2 count. I felt myself relax for some reason at that point in time. There was so much adrenaline in that first at-bat, I was swinging at pitches about head height, fastballs trying to foul off. During that pitch, I felt myself completely relax for some reason. I wish I could bottle that and sell it. When you're locked in you're locked in -- I really can't explain it.
Question: Then on Opening Day this year, Roger hits you with his first pitch.
Phelps: That's an enormous compliment -- after the fact. I did everything right when I hit those two home runs. I did everything right -- I ran hard around the bases, I didn't show anybody up. I don't know if he did it on purpose. If it was an accident, then it means nothing. But if it wasn't, that's a little different. That's OK. If you'd rather hit me with guys on first and second than pitch to me to make your point, whatever.
Question: I'm sure you know that you're only 29 hits behind the all-time leader for hits by players born in Alaska. Do you know who that is?
Phelps: No idea.
Question: It's Curt Schilling. I imagine there's some Alaskan pride pulsing through you just thinking about passing him.
Phelps: He was born in Alaska, huh? I only spent maybe six or seven months as an Alaska native before we moved. I consider myself from Idaho. There's a lot more hits to take that record -- everyone from there knows that Harmon Killebrew is from Payette, Idaho, and the 573 home runs. So it'll take quite a bit to get into the books in Idaho.
For a while I didn't know that he was from there. Major league baseball isn't a pulsating, big-time sport in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The closest team was Seattle and when I was growing up they were terrible.
Question: I imagine the weather in northern Idaho wasn't too conducive to baseball.
Phelps: High school season is like 25 games -- that's including your district and state tournaments. That's not much compared to Florida and Texas and California. We're way behind in that respect. Summerball we'd drive 4-5 hours, sometimes seven hours to get to Boise for the state tournament. And in Idaho you have a lot of mountains -- there's no real direct route anywhere.
Question: You did a lot of skiing. Were you a better ballplayer or skier?
Phelps: In high school, probably skier. I wasn't that crazy. I didn't have that no-fear attitude that a lot of my friends shared. They'd go jumping off cliffs, stuff like that. I was like, "If I don't land that, I know it's gonna hurt." I wasn't too wild and crazy and all.
Question: Speaking of hobbies, what do you like to read?
Phelps: I like action-adventure, murder mysteries, stuff like that. I'm reading Harlan Coben, "Tell No One" right now. I have favorite authors. Patrick McManus -- he's an author from Idaho. He writes for Outdoor Life, short stories, stuff like that. I like to read Dean Koontz -- more of his earlier stuff than his later stuff. I like to read James Patterson books, too. To kill time here at the ballpark, I'd rather do that than watching a movie. To me, reading a good book, I can picture the movie in my head.
Question: What position do you prefer playing -- DH, first base or catcher?
Phelps: At this point in time I just want to be a major leaguer. I don't feel like I'm in the position to demand anything. I used to love to catch. I don't know if that's in the future or not. I don't have enough experience at first base to know if it's something I'd like to do for the next 10 years. It's something I'd like to do. And I think I'd be able to catch. But honestly, it doesn't matter to me. DHing's OK. I enjoy it.
Question: Are you concerned about being pigeon-holed as a one-dimensional player so early in your career?
Phelps: A little bit. But man, DHing's one heck of a job. All I'm responsible for is hitting. I don't have to go out there and beat myself up mentally or physically behind the plate all game long. It's not as bad of a racket as people make it out to be.
Question: I heard you had a bit of a hitch behind the plate at Triple-A Syracuse last year, having a hard time throwing the ball back to the pitcher.
Phelps: It was more throwing to second base between innings. During the game it was more something that reaction could take over. But some people just develop that mind block and then you start worrying about it, and it snowballs on you -- until you have a chance to step back and relax. When you're stressing out about things, sometimes you just try to damn hard.
Question: Is it thinking too much? That's a label that gets put on smarter players.
Phelps: Definitely, that's part of it. You beat yourself up over and over and over again -- "Why can't I figure this out? Why not this? Why not that?" You do think too much.
It was tough for me this spring training. It was the first time I haven't had to carry around a catcher's bag. You start to feel a little guilty seeing your catching buddies carrying all their stuff, and I'm like cake-walking through, taking ground balls and BP.
Question: Is your slow start at the plate this year from thinking too much?
Phelps: Right now, my feeling is sooner or later somebody's gonna have to pay. I can't press today because I didn't get four hits yesterday. I take a pretty logical standpoint to it -- as long as I'm in a good position mechanically, if I do the things I want to do, if I go out there with a plan every day, and there's a positive mindset, hits are gonna come. Good things are gonna happen.
Question: As a math fan, do you just chalk two bad weeks up to randomness?
Phelps: It's definitely random. I know for a fact that I can be feeling great and hit 10 balls hard on the nose and hit those 10 balls right to people. 0-for-10. How else do you explain that? And you can be feeling terrible -- "I hope I just get a bleeder today," something like that -- and just out of luck, fate, randomness, whatever you call it, you get three hits. You can't put too much stock in things that you have no control over.
I've never gotten off to a good start -- even in the minor leagues. I don't know what it's like to come out of the gate hitting .450, .500. But I do know how to persevere and I do know how to work hard and keep going.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.