SARASOTA, Fla. – Backward hat covering his slicked-back hair, Brobdingnagian wad of chaw wedged in his left cheek and spit cup comfortable in his hand, Homer Bailey looked more a man of leisure than one who had probably lost his shot at a major-league job.
About 30 minutes after Bailey looked every bit a 20-year-old rookie in a spring-training game, his Cincinnati Reds teammate, outfielder Josh Hamilton, wandered toward Bailey's locker and asked how his appearance went.
"Nice five-spot in the fifth," Bailey said.
It took a few seconds to register. Yes, Homer Bailey, can't-miss prospect, had missed Friday like the vice president with a 28-gauge double-barrel. Five runs in two-thirds of an inning, two home runs and, soon enough, a ticket to Triple-A Louisville instead of a roster spot with the big boys.
Hamilton apologized with his eyes.
"Thanks for asking," Bailey said.
And then he laughed.
No wonder the reasons the Reds – and everyone around baseball, really – love Bailey so much. Being a top prospect today is different than a decade ago. The Internet has created a similar marketplace for minor leaguers that long has existed for the NFL draft. Hype sells. Hoopla rules. Were Bailey the real-life composite of what has been written about him, he would stand 7-foot, throw 127 mph and subsist on a diet of rosin-flavored Skyline Chili.
Here he was Friday, 6-foot-4, hitting 95 mph and prepared to grab dinner with mom and dad – and self-deprecating, humble, seemingly impervious to what had just transpired.
Yanked before he could finish an inning, Bailey walked into the dugout, turned to his teammates and said: "That's a long day of work, boys."
Turns out excessive exposure and beyond-his-years composure are not mutually exclusive.
No longer can top prospects ease their way into the major leagues. Take Hamilton. A high first-round draft choice with immense expectations like Bailey, he fell into a life of drug addiction and relapses that nearly ended his career. He sobered up and now, at 25, is just returning to the game, a Rule 5 pick trying to scratch out a roster spot.
This is not the norm, of course.
Then again, neither is Bailey.
"There's a little Homer hype, and everybody expects him to do well," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "He's putting pressure on himself, and that's part of what we're doing a little bit to him, too, to see how he would respond.
"I was," Narron admitted, "a little disappointed."
It was Bailey's second consecutive poor outing. In his first spring start, he gave up three runs in two innings. On Friday, he nicked Casey Blake's jersey – "I mean, if you're going to hit somebody," Bailey joked, "hit him" – walked Kelly Shoppach, gave up a three-run homer to the slight Mike Rouse and served up a two-run, opposite-field shot to Grady Sizemore.
Hardly did Bailey resemble the dominant pitcher who tore through Double-A last year with a 7-1 record and 1.59 earned-run average in 13 starts and forced the Reds at least to consider bringing him up in September as they jockeyed for a playoff berth.
This spring, the Reds couldn't resist the temptation to let him fight for a job in camp, the fifth spot in their rotation still undecided. Newspapers in Cincinnati focused on Bailey's every move, and why wouldn't they? People in Cincinnati had anticipated his arrival ever since the 2004 draft, another sign of baseball's evolution from the get-to-know-you days of past springs to the already-know-your-favorite-ice-cream-flavor nature today.
"When I was growing up, sometimes they had the spring-training games on [TV], and you'd be lucky and catch one," said Adam Miller, the 22-year-old Cleveland starter and himself a highly touted prospect. "But they're playing at, what, 1 o'clock? I was in school."
Now YouTube abounds with videos of Bailey pitching. People recite his stats like a bible verse. Because he is from Texas, his name gets tossed around with Roger Clemens'.
Saturation is baseball's newest vice. Somehow, Bailey doesn't buy into it.
"I'd like to tell you that was my last bad outing," he said. "It's not. Hopefully, I have a lot more bad ones to come – over a long period of time. Bad ones happen. You've just got to bounce back from them."
Bailey grinned again.
"Sun's coming up tomorrow, boys," he had said earlier, and he was right.
Soon enough, it will shine again on Homer Bailey.