ANAHEIM, Calif. – Matt Shoemaker, 21 years old, college graduate, right-handed pitcher, closed his laptop computer and looked up at his father.
"But I don't understand," he said.
David Shoemaker thought back over the scouts, the handshakes and the phone calls. The assurances. The father and his only son had watched the computer, followed two days of a draft that called 60 teams worth of players not so different from Matt Shoemaker, RHP, Eastern Michigan University. Fifteen-hundred-and-four of them to be precise. David Shoemaker did not understand either, beyond how the finality of No. 1,504 played in a living room in Trenton, Mich., and then in his inability to fix it.
"I'm very sorry," he said.
It happens, the story of the overlooked and undrafted player, of the one in a thousand who wouldn't be talked out of trying, of the one in who-knows-how-many who fooled them all and became something more, maybe something way more. The story is different when it's your living room, and your boy, and your heart too.
When the story starts there and then barely five years later that boy is walking your way in a tunnel beneath Angel Stadium, where he's just thrown five shutout innings for the home team, well, he'd look like such a grown man now.
"You know," Matt said, "everybody has some type of journey like that, whatever it is, whether it's baseball or life. And my dad wanted the best for what I wanted to do."
From maybe a hundred feet away, still that much ground to cover, they smiled at each other and began to cry. That day in the living room wasn't so long ago then, and neither were the backyard games of catch (David being a pretty fair ballplayer in high school himself), or the twice-weekly pitching lessons with the local pro, or the summer vacations chewed up by travel ball, or the split-fingered fastball they'd discovered.
Forgotten and undrafted, he'd gone off and signed with the Angels for $10,000, which wasn't bad considering, and left his last year of college eligibility and the early work on a graduate degree for some other day. He'd not gone bitter. He'd not shown up to prove the world wrong, to throw muscled fastballs past an unfair system. Matt Shoemaker went to pitch, to learn, to begin the journey alongside the unforgotten, however long the odds.
On a mid-September night those five years later, getting late, he had called home. His father, half-asleep, picked up.
"Dad," Matt said, "we made it."
"The big leagues. We're going to the big leagues."
He'd said "we." And then there he is in a big-league uniform on a big-league mound pitching to other big leaguers, and getting them out, and then walking down a dark hallway wiping his eyes because you can believe all you want for as long as you can, it's different when it's real.
"I didn't know if that was going to be the only time he ever stepped on that field," David said. "I savored the moment in case we didn't have it again."
Matt Shoemaker is older than most rookies, at 27. He has a good fastball, not great. In his dark, groomed beard, old-soul eyes and quiet temperament, he projects more English professor than starting pitcher. Once, back in '08, nobody thought enough of him to risk a draft pick. He'd put one foot in front of the other for long enough, believed long enough, listened well enough, worked hard enough, however, to take his shot at this. He'd been given the ball once last September, and now 12 more times – seven of them starts – this season.
So, on Sunday morning at Beacon Baptist Church in Taylor, Mich., a pastor announced to his congregation, "In case you didn't know, one of our own will be on ESPN tonight."
David grinned and thought, "Oh please, let him do OK."
He pitched into the eighth inning and beat the Texas Rangers. On the tail end of the Angels' rotation, he was 5-1 with a 3.42 ERA over 50 innings maybe few saw coming, but plenty saw that night. In a season in which high-end starters across the league are stricken with bad elbows and shoulders, in which rotations everywhere are running thin, 50 taut innings amount to something. He's been good. He's won ballgames. He's used four pitches – fastball, slider, split-change and a curveball he developed a couple years back when a cutter proved unreliable – and entrusted them all with the strike zone.
Jake Boss Jr., coach at Eastern Michigan before leaving for Michigan State, recruited Matt out of high school and four years later found himself making phone calls, reminding big-league teams they'd missed one in the draft. He watched Matt pitch through the Rangers' lineup a few times Sunday night, watched him win another ballgame, recognized the arm action and attitude and marveled at the distance he'd traveled.
"When he signed with the Angels I don't know if you could have predicted he'd be in the big leagues," Boss said. "I'd love to tell you, ‘I told you so,' but I can't do that. It's an awesome story. It really is."
There are others, plenty of others, whose paths weren't so direct either, whose draft days went without streamers and toasts and television trucks at the curb, whose careers looked over before they'd begun. Some get there anyway, and they don't hit a ball farther than everyone else, and they don't throw a ball harder. They trust. They have to. They lean on their families. They have someone like David, a mom like Karen, a wife like Danielle, even a bulldog named Samson. And they believe too, because the alternative ignores the fight, and the possibilities in the fight, and the ballplayer amid the possibilities.
Six years ago, he might have gone back to school, or become a teacher, just forgotten it all. Hardly anyone would have noticed. Instead, on Tuesday afternoon he sat in a dugout in Anaheim, the story – his story – both behind him and still out there somewhere.
"I thank God every day," Matt said. "It's still a dream. Being here, it's a dream. It's surreal and I'm trying to hold onto it."
The night of his debut last September, the night Matt walked the corridor toward his family, the son and the father knew nothing was promised after that. But they'd both been there before.
So they let the joy run down their faces, and finally they hugged, and knew again not so much had changed in the years that had passed. That, they understood.
"I'm so proud of you," David whispered. "So proud."
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