Hell yes, his fellow big leaguers are scared of him.
They're not stupid.
First, there are the physical features of Kyle Farnsworth, who looks like he took a wrong turn at the NFL combine. He's 240 pounds, spread taut over a 6'4" frame, with 6.5% body fat.
Then there's his mien. It's a mean mien. A man's mien. In the clubhouse, his iPod earbuds appear to be surgically implanted, so there's no getting his attention with a polite "how do you do." On his face is a fixed, distant, ignore-it-all stare that players usually reserve for reporters. Farnsworth doesn't relax that countenance for anyone, not even his Royals teammates. There's nary a smile, or any emotion at all. No eye contact either. Not that anyone would want it.
That's because everyone in the clubhouse has seen the videos and heard the stories, and all believe the legend of Kyle Farnsworth. According to The Magazine's MLB Confidential survey (see page 46), the journeyman reliever with the rollercoaster career is the runaway choice as the toughest man in baseball. Surprised? He once mauled a man just for giving him a funny look.
Back in 2005, during a bench-clearing brawl, then-Royals lefty Jeremy Affeldt caught the eye of Farnsworth, who was with the Tigers. After the game, Affeldt offered his version of what happened next: "He said, 'Do you want to fight?' I said, 'No, I don't want to fight. What are you thinking, dude?' " Witnesses remember Farnsworth's reaction like it was yesterday. "Affeldt looked at him wrong, or looked in his direction," says John Buck, a catcher with the Royals at the time who's since moved to the Blue Jays. "Whatever he did, it made Kyle mad." Farnsworth ran at Affeldt, picked him up and threw him down. "He suplexed him," Buck says, shaking his head.
The 34-year-old Farnsworth is pitching for his fifth team in 12 major league seasons. Although blessed with a right arm that can produce radar-gun readings near 100 mph, his career ERA is 4.48, mainly due to poor location. He was supposed to be a lights-out closer, yet he has only 27 career saves. Considering his stuff, his mostly pedestrian performance for the Cubs, Tigers, Braves, Yankees and now Royals has frustrated fans. The flamethrower has had dominant stretches, but that's just made his inconsistency more perplexing. His ERA is again well above 4.00 as a KC setup man.
Among his peers, though, Farnsworth is revered. And feared. An AL outfielder confesses, "I can run over anybody-except Farnsworth." Adds an NL pitcher: "Have you seen the size of that guy? And I know he knows some sh-." The sh- in question would be Farnsworth's expertise in martial arts, though players aren't sure which discipline. All they know, says one NL star in hushed tones, is that "he's a freakin' black belt."
And therein lies a tale. To his peers, Farnsworth the legend is even bigger and scarier than Farnsworth the pitcher. Thanks to a couple of epic on-field brawls, a penchant for pumping iron and a reserved personality, he's become a bullpen hybrid of Paul Bunyan, Doc Holliday and Keyser Soze.
This much is true: Farnsworth will fight you. The Affeldt tackle and his 2003 demolition of Reds pitcher Paul Wilson (keep reading) prove it. And yes, he'll throw at you if he thinks you have it coming. In a 2008 game, when Farnsworth was with the Yankees, a Red Sox hurler plunked Alex Rodriguez. Next night, Farnsworth buzzed a 95 mph heater past Manny Ramirez's ear, drawing a suspension.
Baseball does not harbor goons the way hockey does. And violence is not part of every play, as in football. But in a game in which physical contact is the exception but still greatly admired, Farnsworth has proved himself exceptional. And so his rep has taken on a life of its own. Manning up during bean-brawls is "just being a good teammate," says Buck. "And if you've got a teammate as tough as Farnsy, that'll definitely give you a little more confidence."
Turns out there can be a role, even in pastoral baseball, for an enforcer. "But you know what's the best kind of enforcer?" says Atlanta's legendary Bobby Cox, who managed Farnsworth in 2005. "One who never actually has to enforce." That is, a bad boy with a nasty rep. "It's one thing to wonder if a pitcher is crazy, or more accurately, brave enough to go after you," Cox continues. "It's another thing entirely to know that he will absolutely, positively do it. Everyone knows where Farnsworth stands on that issue."
Standing at his locker, the real Kyle Farnsworth is genuinely honored by being voted MLB's baddest man. He didn't seek this rep, but he's never tried to alter it, either. And so his legend grew. Whenever Farnsworth comes to a new club, it takes time for his teammates to ask him to share fight stories. "They think I'm going to snap on them," he says with a straight face. Farnsworth has a look to him sometimes that's "almost like he's got a wire loose upstairs," says Braves pitcher Tim Hudson. "It'll freak you out."
For his part, Farnsworth says, "I'm real quiet; I just mind my own business and go about my job. People see that, and see me as angry and upset, and it gives me that reputation, I guess. But I'm just in my own little world, doing things my way." Even when he's brawling. After the 2008 season, he trained in MMA-style "ground-fighting," learning submission holds and techniques similar to jiujitsu. His martial arts experience goes way back. As a skinny 15-year-old in Roswell, Ga., Farnsworth took up tae kwon do to improve his strength and flexibility and quickly worked his way up to black belt. He briefly considered moving to Colorado to pursue an Olympic dream, but he believed he had more long-term potential in baseball and gave up fighting (officially sanctioned fighting, anyway) after he dinged his pitching hand in a bout.
He was drafted by the Cubs in the 47th round out of high school. As he grew into his lanky body in the minors, Farnsworth developed a fearsome fastball and was suddenly a hot prospect. In six seasons with Chicago, he interspersed flashes of brilliance (107 K's in 82 innings of relief in 2001) with control problems, both on and off the mound. Farnsy knew his way around last call, but got his wake-up call after the 2004 season when the Cubs traded him to Detroit. "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "It showed me I had to grow up, be a man."
By then, Farnsworth's legend had already been born, based on a few wild off-the-field stories and a few accounts of buzzing the tower to avenge plunked teammates. But what really put Farnsworth on the badass map was the Paul Wilson brawl during a Cubs-Reds game in 2003. Farnsworth threw tight to the Cincinnati pitcher, who shot a glare and stepped toward the mound. Big mistake. The 6'5", 215-pound Wilson wound up on the wrong end of a de-cleater, suspended in the air before being slammed to earth and receiving a punch in the face, one that added several scarlet accents to his Reds uniform.
The tackle, like the Affeldt takedown, was as good as anything you'll see from Ray Lewis. But Farnsworth insists he's not a grudge-holder: "It's a fight, but when it's over it's done with." This is all part of the game, part of being on a team. "Hitters need to know that a pitcher will protect them if they get hit," he says. "We're together 180 days out of the year. So we're basically a family. You have to protect your family."
Farnsworth is big on family, actually. He adorns his locker at Kauffman Stadium with pictures of his wife, Shayla; kids Stone, Hunter and Taylor; and bulldogs Strike and Rambo. He talks admiringly of his brother, Chris, just retired from the Army. And the wild man everybody in baseball fears sounds awestruck when discussing his father. Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Lynn Farnsworth flew F-100s and F-4s in Vietnam, and now, at 68, races planes professionally. Shot down twice in the war, he evaded capture both times. "I've heard him talk about it only twice," says Kyle, who sports an elaborate tattoo of his dad's fighter plane on his abdomen. "He could hear Vietcong walking by him and talking, looking for him after he was shot down."
Makes a few donnybrooks on the diamond seem tame. And the family background gives you an idea of why Farnsworth is so protective of those around him, and why nobody is eager to test that rep.
We're certainly not. Farnsworth asked that his mother, Karen, also be mentioned in this story. He says he never would have made the big leagues without all those countless hours she sacrificed shuttling him to games when he was a kid.
So there you go, Kyle, just as you requested.
(Hey, we're not stupid either.)