GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Several members of the tallest pitching staff ever are watching the NCAA tournament. The North Carolina State-Georgetown game beams over the big screens in the Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse, no accident considering 6-foot-10 right-hander Andrew Brackman once played basketball for the Wolfpack, and sitting next to him are a pair of 6-foot-6 drinks of water.
One is closer Ryan Madson and the other Chad Reineke, a non-roster invitee who minutes later Reds manager Dusty Baker would reassign to minor-league camp. Still, Reineke had the pleasure of joining in one of the oddest spring-training photos in recent memory, taken in February: Madson, Sean Marshall (6-7), Brackman, Logan Ondrusek (6-8), Jeff Francis (6-5) and Mat Latos (6-6), side-by-side, with the Reds' longtime clubhouse manager, Bernie Stowe (5-5, give or take an inch) in front to play Gulliver to the red-jerseyed Brobdingnagians.
"When I saw the picture, I'm not used to it staggering down to me," Reineke says. "In most team pictures, I'm the guy in the back and center, and everything goes down from there. I know right now I'm probably fourth or fifth."
The seven wonders of Cincinnati's clubhouse have company. Six pitchers remaining in Reds camp stand 6-foot-4, and three more measure 6-foot-3. For every Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, each in the neighborhood of 5-foot-10, there are more than half a dozen pitchers who might step on them and not even realize it. The Reds' clubhouse is a dangerous place for the fun-sized.
The genetically blessed, on the other hand, find comfort a few inches up. The average American male stands 5-foot-9 and the average major league player 6-foot-1. The average Reds pitcher is 6-foot-3¼. And for the first time in their major-league careers, most of them are not getting the gawks that inevitably go to the tallest guy on the field.
"It's great," Ondrusek says. "I can get away with more stuff. At least if I'm around all the tall people, I can blame it on one of the other guys."
"I'd love to be a basketball coach," Baker says.
The Reds' manager is serious, too. His first love was basketball. He talks about how Dr. Jack Ramsay tells him he manages like a basketball coach. And if ever Baker is going to feel like one, it will be this year, when he hopes his pitching staff is as good as it is tall.
Cincinnati is going all-in this year, trading for Latos and Marshall, signing Madson, plucking Brackman off the Yankees' scrap heap – doing all they can to be more like the National League Central-winning 2010 Reds than the 2011 version that struggled, flamed out and necessitated an overhaul.
That Reds general manager Walt Jocketty happened to land four leviathans was less target than happy coincidence. The first three happen to be difference-making types, and if ever Brackman can gain control of his delivery and command of his pitches, he'll be one as well.
"I like tall pitchers," Baker says, and he starts rattling off names of old Dodgers teammates: Rick Sutcliffe, who, at 6-7, would qualify as such now, and Bob Welch (6-3) and Dave Stewart (6-2) who wouldn't. Even the guys Baker remembers as being monsters – Ron Reed and Wayne Twitchell – were only 6-6.
"Kids getting bigger now," he says, and, yeah, they are. In baseball history, 119 players have stood 6-7 or taller. One hundred four have come since 1980, and 64 have played this century. Because there are simply too many holes in the swing of someone that tall, almost every skyscraper that plays baseball does so from the pitcher's mound. And they'd all love to be like the standard bearer of baseball verticality.
"Height in baseball doesn't mean much," Willie Harris says.
He's 5-9 – shocker – and has carved out a 12-year career because there's some truth to that. It's not that height is immaterial. It's just one of the more easily scalable obstacles. More than 5,000 major leaguers have stood at Harris' eye level or shorter. Even Danny Ray Herrera – a 5-foot-5 screwball pitcher who is the shortest major leaguer since Connie Marrero in 1956 – spent the first three years of his career, and productive ones at that, with the Reds.
"Maybe it helps pitchers with leverage off the mound," Harris says, "but other than that …"
He turned to Wilson Valdez, another short, slight utilityman.
"Do you care if a pitcher is 6-10?" Harris asks.
"We don't care," Harris says. "I've faced Randy Johnson, bro."
He stops to reconsider.
"Now that's a little different," Harris says. "He's 6-10 throwing 99, and he don't give a (expletive)."
They all look at Randy Johnson because nothing comforts quite like the outlier. Johnson was a freak, of course, one of the only monsters who harnessed his frame and turned it into something. Until he was 29, Johnson was as capable of being dreadful as he was spectacular. By the time he retired at 45, he had thrown 4,135 1/3 innings.
Everyone wants to see Johnson in Andrew Brackman. He is the fifth major leaguer to stand 6-foot-10, an inch shorter than the record holder, New York Mets reliever Jon Rauch. The Yankees took Brackman with the 30th pick in 2007 out of N.C. State and gave him a big-league contract guaranteeing more than $4 million. He missed a year after Tommy John surgery, struggled in 2009, thrived in 2010 and lost his prospect status as he struggled to throw strikes at 25 years old. Rather than give him a $2 million bonus, the Yankees cut him. Cincinnati, where Brackman grew up, gave him a major-league deal for $500,000 in hopes he can work on mechanical kinks.
"If [Brackman's delivery] was that clean," Baker says, "we'd have never gotten him."
Barring injuries, chances are Brackman will start the season in the minor leagues in hopes that if he doesn't turn into Johnson, he'll at least exceed the production of those 6-8 and over, not exactly an illustrious group. After Johnson, the next pitchers with the most innings are J.R. Richard at 1,606 and Gene Conley at 1,588 2/3.
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"As a pitcher, sure, you have an advantage," Brackman says. "Downhill angle on a ball makes it tougher for hitters. But there are disadvantages. You've got so many moving parts, it's hard to repeat your mechanics."
It's one of the troubles for the tallest pitcher in history, Loek van Mil, the 7-foot-1 right-hander the Los Angeles Angels just sent back to minor-league camp. As much of an advantage as height can be, it's often an even greater detriment.
Though anyone in Reds camp queried on it professes to love the Reds' ability to field three basketball lineups with pitchers alone. The biggest ones stretch together before games – no 6-foot-4 short stacks allowed in this line – and stand out even more. The arguments rage on: 6-foot second baseman Brandon Phillips saying he could beat Latos in basketball – and Harris chiming in that he'd outshoot Latos.
Cuts in the coming weeks will pare down the Reds' roster significantly, and some of the height will go with it. Enough could survive – and be in reserve – for the Reds to continue holding onto their title of the tallest pitching staff ever, which they're content to wear.
As long as it doesn't interrupt their quest for a far more important one.
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- Andrew Brackman