Relentless drive pushes Madritsch

Back in the days when he was pitching in independent leagues and getting by on sub-minimum-wage pay and pregame spreads of peanut butter sandwiches, Seattle pitcher Bobby Madritsch once grew so disenchanted by his team's lack of professionalism that he simply left a game in the eighth inning, cleaned out his locker, got in his truck and drove 1,500 miles from Texas to Pittsburgh for a tryout with another league ... without first taking off his uniform.

This would have made for an interesting conversation with a state trooper – "But officer, there's a save situation in Pittsburgh and the bullpen cart broke down" – and it also gives you an idea of Madritsch's determination to succeed in baseball.

After all, when the tryout in Pittsburgh fell through, he traveled all the way across the country to California to pitch for the famous Chico Heat.

Thus, it shouldn't have been a surprise when the Mariners called up Madritsch last summer and he didn't show the slightest intimidation at the likes of Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero. What's the big deal about a 3-0 count to David Ortiz after you've grown up among the gangs in South Chicago, never known your mother and endured that roughest life of all – pitching for four independent teams, including three in one summer?

"I just kept telling myself, I've been through worse before,'' Madritsch said. "And by worse, I mean real-life situations. Being able to move forward and become a better person from that helps me on the baseball field, so I don't get cold feet or put my tail between my legs or start shaking.''

Madritsch, 29, was 6-3 with a 3.27 ERA last year after a late July call-up, and the Mariners need him to continue that success if they are to have much chance of rebounding from their 99-loss season. The left-hander certainly has the stuff – he throws his fastball in the low 90s with an effective cutter, slider and changeup. He also has the attitude that comes from pulling himself out of a life on the other side of the tracks.

Raised by his father, he's never known his mother (though he knows where she lives now and hopes for a meeting). He admits to getting into a lot of trouble as a teen – "I was always playing with fire and getting burned all the time'' – and said he finally turned things around after getting badly hurt: "I knew right from wrong after that."

"I'm sure plenty of people have had worse situations than me," Madritsch said. "I'm just glad I'm out of that situation and where I am. It took me a lot of growing up. It seems like it's come together. I have a plan and now it's just about executing it.''

Madritsch is 50 percent Lakota Sioux (on his mother's side), making him one of the few Native Americans to play in the major leagues in the decades since it became decidedly unfashionable to nickname such players "Chief.''

"I never get tired of it. It's part of my heritage and I wear it on my sleeve. I'm very proud,'' he said. "There are not many of us. I know the traditions we had are still around and I want to keep them. I wish more people knew about us. Being a Native American opened the door to where I can help other Native American kids. They have someone they can look up to. They know that what they grow up with and see every day and grow through on the reservations is not life, and there is life off the reservations – and they can make it."

It took a while, but Madritsch finally made it last year, earning a win his first game in the majors and beating the Angels, Athletics and Red Sox before season's end. He capped his season by pitching a complete game in a 4-2 victory over Oakland that knocked the Athletics out of first place. It wasn't just beating a first-place team the final week of the season that was notable, it was the way he insisted on finishing the game.

"The only thing that got me through that game was the fact they hit Ichiro with a pitch and it pissed me off,'' Madritsch said. "That got me through the last inning, because I was going to go out there and hit the first guy.''

Somewhere, Don Drysdale was smiling.

"I was kind of tired. I threw 135 pitches that game and had 118 after the eighth, but after Ichiro got hit, the adrenaline all came rushing back and I'm like, 'Get me out there,'" Madritsch said. "I couldn't sit down. I was pacing the dugout and everyone was like, 'Sit down, sit down – relax.' Ichiro is like, 'Don't hit him because that could start a big inning.' When a veteran like him tells you something like that, you listen.''

The Mariners like that Madritsch is such a battler, but they say he needs to learn he can't fight every battle.

General manager Bill Bavasi says Madritsch pitches the way former Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill would have – fueled by an inner rage. "There'll come a time when he learns to control it and use it,'' Bavasi said. "But that takes time.''

"He has relentless tenacity, [but] if there's an emotion he needs to curb, it's being over aggressive, almost making it too personal,'' pitching coach Bryan Price said. "I've never seen him back down. Or quit. It's a very, very good combination. His key is not letting the little thing – a tough call by the umpire or a base hit that drops in – take him out of his focus. If he can do that, he can have a very good season.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is being published by Plume and goes on sale March 2. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.