How a former mover became one of MLB's emerging stars

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist
Chris Devenski is emerging as one of the better relief pitchers in baseball. (AP)
Chris Devenski is emerging as one of the better relief pitchers in baseball. (AP)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – “Mike Devenski,” the gray-bearded man says, holding out his hand.

He’s wearing a Fresno Grizzlies T-shirt over heavy blue work pants, those splattered with bleach or white paint at the hems, and sensible black work shoes. His wiry gray hair is specked gray. His eyes are a dull blue.

Mike Devenski Jr. solely owns and operates M&M Moving and Storage in Artesia, Calif., and has since his father, the other M, died many years ago.

“Dr. Junk,” he says, meaning himself, an alias. “That’s when I don’t have a moving job.”

Then he picks up stuff people don’t want, cleans it up, and sells it to people who do want it. The shabby chic era still makes Dr. Junk bounce a little, remembering a time when he had more trucks and a whole warehouse full of stuff waiting to be cleaned up that somebody would want some day.

His hands are soft, not at all what you’d expect. But also bigger than you’d think, as he’s not a large man, and strong. He stands close and talks fast, those blue eyes starting to glow when his son comes near. Mike is standing behind the batting cage at Angel Stadium, a place whose lights had often set his weary boy to dreaming about being a big leaguer.

They’d set out on a job in the morning and return hours later, the truck full or empty, the opposite of what it was before, Mike driving, his son Chris dozing beside him.

“This was my inspiration,” Chris, now 26 and a relief pitcher for the Houston Astros, said. “This stadium. I came to a few games. Not many. But I’d see these lights coming home and I was always imagining what was going on in that game. What I would do if I got there.”

From as far back as he could remember, Chris would tag along with his father and the men in the truck, carrying pillows or knick-knacks, taping and marking boxes, laughing along when the older guys would tell him to go get that refrigerator, get it on the truck. His father would pay him in cash or in a new pair of sneakers or in a burger at the drive-thru window.

“There you go,” Mike would tell him. “You earned your food.”

When the truck was loaded or unloaded, whatever it hadn’t been before, and when his homework was done, Chris played ball and survived the neighborhood, hawked avocados from the backyard tree on the block, got his sleep, and then started again. Always, it seemed, with Mike nearby. He’d have a lead on a job, and so a call to return and a run to make, and Chris would hoist himself into the cab and ride along. Times were good and they were bad, but people always had to move, and they always had belongings that weren’t of use to them anymore, and Mike always had a plan.

“I’m not a millionaire,” Mike says. “But I’m a millionaire in here. In my heart.”

Chris gives him a long hug, saying, “I gotta go get ready.”

Chris’ mom, Shirley, stands near, as does his twin sister, Amanda. They’re wearing Astros jerseys, DEVENSKI across the shoulders. Mike says there was a time they slept four to a king bed, “plus the dog,” and he says it with a smile, fondly, because that’s what families do, he says, they hold on tight and they figure it out. Just Thursday night, Chris went home to Artesia and fell asleep on the couch. He was awakened at 1 a.m. Mike had just returned from a six-man job. Rather than go to bed, Mike curled up on the love seat near the couch, to be near his boy, and they talked for another hour. When Chris opened his eyes Friday morning, Mike was gone, out on another job.

“He wanted to come,” Mike says.

They’re here to see Chris, of course. He’s an emerging star in one of the game’s better bullpens for one of the game’s better teams. A 25th-round draft pick out of Cal State Fullerton six years ago, Chris was a starter through the minor leagues, then reached the big leagues and found he was suited for the bullpen. In a little more than a year, over 56 appearances, five of those starts, his ERA is 2.13. In eight games this season, his ERA is 1.96. Over 18 1/3 innings, he’s struck out 34 and walked two. His fastball is plenty big, at 94 or 95 mph. What separates him is a changeup he throws four out of 10 pitches, what teammates in the minor leagues called “The Circle of Death,” the “circle” in reference to his grip on the ball. He learned to hold the ball that way as a boy, he said, by studying the photo on a baseball card, then throwing the pitch to exhaustion.

The story wouldn’t surprise any of his teammates or coaches. The only thing Chris Devenski fears, manager A.J. Hinch guessed, is being outworked. And so he is relentless, and maybe that is why he has thrived in relief, when the work can be daily and rigorous. In spring training, when the club was considering Devenski as a starter instead, Hinch would allow that day’s starter to arrive later than the other players. When Hinch walked into the clubhouse at 6 a.m. on Devenski’s day to pitch, he found Devenski at his locker, in uniform. The game was seven hours away.

“I think it’s in his DNA,” Hinch said.

He’d get no argument from Chris, who called his father “my inspiration.”

“I’m proud of where I come from,” he said. “I come from a hard-working family. Very supportive. Very humble. Very happy …”

He smiled and finished, “When the work is flowing good.”

And then, he said, “You gotta show up. You gotta accomplish something every day.”

One fall when Chris was nearing college age, the work wasn’t so good, so Mike and Chris flew to New York, where there was work. They stayed a while, then loaded up a truck, slammed the door shut and pointed that truck west. It was winter, so they chose a southern route back across the country. They slept in the cab some nights, when the motels were full. They talked about the towns and the people they saw, and they bothered over the patches of black ice, and they reminisced over all the jobs over all the years, through heat and rain and back aches and the way they’d made it all work.

They awoke on Christmas morning in Tucson, Arizona, where they agreed that on that day they might not show up, might not accomplish something. They stayed in the bed they’d shared because it was the last room left, puffed up the pillows, turned on the television and watched the Lakers play. Inside the conversations they had that day, Mike told his son again that he didn’t want him to end up like him, having to break his back his whole life. Go to college, he said, chase your baseball dream, find another way to happiness. There can, after all, be only one Dr. Junk.

“You’ve seen the grind every day,” he told his boy. “You know what it takes. There’s a better way to live.”

Yes, he’s proud, Mike says, talking fast, standing close, waving his arms. He’s standing on a big-league baseball field, the very one his boy dreamed about. His boy is wearing a uniform. He’s good at this. Really good. But that’s not exactly it. His eyes flare bluer.

“I’m proud,” Mike says, “because he’s here with us. With our family. We’re blessed we’re here together. He’s respectable and he’s with his family.

“I mean, it’s an unbelievable feeling. I’m not a real emotional person. I’m not going to sit here and cry. But I’m so proud of him, of what he’s accomplished.”

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