PITTSBURGH – He already was in a dugout filled with players who can't legally take a drink. Then Juan Salas turned around and saw Jose Tabata, all of 17, a New York Yankees prospect who can't even take a drag off a cigarette without getting cited, and … well, he might as well have pulled a flask of Metamucil from his back pocket and taken a nip.
"I feel old," said Salas, 27, and comparatively, he was right. Salas is a relief pitcher in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization, and he was their designee this season for the All-Star Futures Game, baseball's gathering of top prospects with, you know, bright futures. That, generally, means 20- or 21-year-olds. If you're 24, that's pushing it, and if you're 26, you'd better have a good excuse, like the New York Mets' Matt Lindstrom. He spent two years on a Mormon mission.
Amid all the potential stood Salas, who was here because the Devil Rays' best prospects are as follows: Delmon Young, who tried to decapitate an umpire with a bat, and B.J. Upton, who was arrested for drunken driving, and Elijah Dukes, who is more trouble than both of them. Oh, and because Salas is in the midst of organized baseball's greatest run of zeros since Orel Hershiser: Between Double-A and Triple-A this season, he has thrown 47 1/3 innings and not given up an earned run.
"I see all these guys who are younger than me, and I know that I might not fit in exactly," Salas said. "At least they're not calling me grandpa."
Or Marty McFly, because Salas' future – celebrated Sunday afternoon with the United States team beating the World team 8-5 to kick off All-Star game festivities – has come and gone three times.
The first came in 1998 when he signed with Tampa Bay as a third baseman. He was 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, muscular like a mannequin and – the best part – only 17.
Until 2002, at least, when Stage 2 occurred: Salas, like so many other players from the Dominican Republic, used fake paperwork to make him younger and more appealing to teams that love molding teenagers. After Sept. 11, immigration weeded out the counterfeits. It turned out that Salas was three years older than the Devil Rays realized.
And that, frankly, he stunk as a third baseman. In six seasons, he walked 77 times. He had only 28 home runs in more than 2,000 at-bats. Salas was bored and frustrated and pedaling and pedaling and pedaling only to realize his career was a stationary bike. Everything exploded July 3, 2004, when Salas struck out and was ejected in a game with Double-A Montgomery. On the way to the team's clubhouse, he threw his bat toward the umpire.
The Devil Rays suspended him indefinitely, and if not for his right arm, Salas' career would have ended there. Instead, while Salas waited in the Dominican for the team to mete out its punishment, the Tampa Bay brass decided his final future would be as a pitcher.
"I've been in baseball more than 25 years, and he had the best third-base arm I've ever seen," said Cam Bonifay, the Devil Rays' farm director at the time. "But conversions are something where you don't know if they have the capacity to translate the velocity."
Bonifay proposed the idea to Salas.
"Give me the ball," Salas said. "I want to play."
"And that's what had to happen," Bonifay said. "He had to fully embrace the idea."
On Aug. 10, 2004, Salas reported to rookie-league Princeton – the same place he started his career five years earlier – and won an extra-innings game with a scoreless frame in relief. He threw exclusively fastballs, though fast they were – sitting at 95 mph, riding to 97, boring in on left-handers and tailing from right-handers.
Last year, he struck out 65 in 60 1/3 innings between Class A and Double-A, and with Salas' addition of a slider that touches 86 mph, the Devil Rays this season started him in Montgomery, where each time he went to the mound he passed the spot where he chucked his bat. In 34 2/3 innings, Salas gave up 13 hits and struck out 52.
"He was filthy," said Joey Votto, a Cincinnati Reds prospect and World teammate. "Couldn't touch him."
Inside clubhouses, word spread about Salas. It became a game to see who could score off him. It's one they're still playing.
"I know I'm going to give up a run eventually," Salas said. "I just don't think it's going to be for a while."
At Triple-A Montgomery, he's at 12 2/3 scoreless innings and counting. And, naturally, he made it through his one-third of an inning at the Futures Game with no hassle.
Should he keep up the pace, the Devil Rays surely will summon him for the stretch run, perhaps landing him a call-up before any of the other 48 players here Sunday.
The third future, after all, is a charm.
- Juan Salas