When Justin Cassel got the call, he was stunned. After years of waiting in the wings, toiling beyond the scope of the camera, his older brother had finally made it. The feeling was, well, "It was amazing," he says. "When he called and told me, I honestly got goose bumps. It brought tears to my eyes. I just couldn't believe it was finally happening. I was so proud."
Of course, that was for his brother Jack Cassel, long of the minors, called up to what Justin—like most minor leaguers—still calls "The Show" with the Padres.
Yeah, but what about your brother? You know, the one who would inherit the role of starter for the New England Patriots, a team that loses in the regular season once a Presidential election?
"That was just pure surprise," said Justin, who just finished a season on the mound for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox AA affiliate. "With Matt, it's different. You sort of lose some of that feeling where it could happen. He's been behind Brady. With him, I'm just driving in my car and my phone rings and it's 'Brady got hurt. Matt's in the game.' I was just like, 'Whoa'. With him, he's always sort of been there, but not in the game. Then you remember again that he's always been just an injury away."
If Justin has learned anything from his older brothers, it's patience. When you tally Matt Cassel's now famed quarter-backup duty, what Justin admits is Jack's "journeyman" career through the minors and now Justin's own time in the minors, the Cassels were nearing a combined 17 years of dutiful background duty before one finally got a start at the highest level.
Jack, at 28, was the first, and also is the oldest Cassel brother. After a short stint in the bigs last year with San Diego, where he got to start, he's now with the Astros after another stint in the minors. Last Sunday, he entered a game for injured Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez hours after brother Matt, 26, had done the same for Tom Brady. Before Houston, he took this quick slant to the Majors: Fort Wayne (3 years); Lake Elsinore (1+ years); Mobile to Portland, to Mobile, then back to Portland (2+ years); 22.2 IP with the Padres … back down to Red Rock (1 year), and now, the Astros.
Matt, 26, a late-blooming high school football star in Northridge, California, is best-known for playing QB behind Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer on his way to clipboard-duty for Tom Brady. That wasn't his only option. A high school baseball star, Matt continued the game at USC, playing third base and pitching in the Spring. He even stepped in at closer. And he was good.
"Matt's probably the best athlete of the three of us," said Justin, who will soon turn 24. The brothers also have a little sister, Amanda.
When Matt opted for football and a shot at the NFL instead of following Jack into pro baseball—he'd been drafted by the Oakland A's—there were some raised eyebrows.
"I was kind of surprised and maybe a little disappointed," said Justin. "I mean, not in a bad way. I'm glad he's doing so well, I just always had thought of him as such a great baseball player when we were growing up." He pauses. "He was always just so imposing on the mound. He had the look, and the size."
Justin knows what he's talking about. Growing up, the boys turned their love of sports into a regular test of mettle. Separated by two and a half years in each case, the Cassels have similar builds, with the football player the biggest. Matt stands 6-4, Jack 6-2 and Justin 6-1.
"We turn everything into a competition," said Justin.
Now it's more of an evaluation. Justin sounds like an offensive coordinator when breaking down his older brother's first big moment in the spotlight, a 19-10 win over the Jets on Sunday in which he went 16-23 for 165 yards.
"They're continuing to spread the ball out wide," he says of the Patriots attack. "Perhaps you're not seeing quite as many deep balls while he gets more comfortable in the role, but he can take his shots. I thought he did a good job of protecting the ball, being smart and keeping the defense rested."
Will a Cassel appearance doom the season?
"It's still largely the same team that went 18-1 last year," says Justin. "That said, last year sort of obscured things because they were just so dominant, it made people forget that the Patriots team that has won three Super Bowls has been doing it by winning close games."
Justin is right. In each of the Patriots' three Super Bowl wins in this decade, the games were won by three points. The other two Cassel brothers, similar to brother Matt in their willingness to wait and will their way through the system, know something more about close games. A pitcher is never ashamed of a close win.
Justin like his older brother Jack, knows this well.
He won't turn 24 for another week, but in his first season with Birmingham, Justin started 28 games and went 10-4 with a 3.11 ERA. He led the team in wins, ERA and strikeouts. His ERA was also the lowest in a good hitters league. In other words, there is a next step in this process.
Justin seems, however, entirely un-infatuated with his own talents, a little brother well-versed in deference.
"I give up my hits, but I'm more just about limiting the damage," he says. "Sinkers, sliders…you know. I'm not as hard a thrower."
You can probably guess who he's referring to.
For now, the youngest of the Cassel brothers is heading home to California. There, he'll be able to join his family and attend games Matt will start when the Pats visit the 49ers and the Chargers. After that, he'll get to off-season lifting and throwing with his training partner, Jack. Then it's another season of pitching and hoping for his own break. Tolstoy famously wrote, the two most powerful warriors were patience and time.
Unfamously, he also had older brothers, and one sis.