Delabar a deserving All-Star due to both story, skills
AL Final Vote winner excels in setup role after being removed from baseball
Blue Jays reliever Steve Delabar just became one of the best things about this All-Star Game, because his story is so improbable and so sweet that it's worth retelling again and again. It's for anyone who has refused to let go of a dream, for anyone needing motivation or inspiration.
He'll be part of an American League team that will have veteran stars like David Ortiz and Joe Mauer, and dazzling kids like Mike Trout and Manny Machado. Yes, Steve Delabar, whose career seemed over almost before it began, and who didn't make his Major League debut until two years ago when he was 28, will be there, too.
Winning the MLB.com Final Vote sponsored by freecreditscore.com might be hard for him to grasp for a while. It's just that after all the disappointment and all the pain, so many good things have happened so quickly.
He won, in part, because the good folks in his hometown of Elizabeth, Ky., went to work casting votes. As one woman, Mary Rose Shackleford, told the Louisville Courier-Journal, she'd punched so many votes that her fingers were sore, her keyboard almost fried.
"Every person I've ever known has come out and showed support," Delabar told the newspapers. "Schools, places that I've played, host families -- the support has been pretty unbelievable. They're giving 150,000 percent."
Know this, though: He earned it.
He did not win because his journey has been unique. He won because he has been one of baseball's best relievers this season. In 37 appearances as the setup man for Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen, Delabar has a 1.74 ERA. He has not allowed a run in 21 of his last 24 appearances.
There's a fairytale quality to his baseball career on several levels. He was a 29th-round pick by the Padres in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft. To be available in the 29th round speaks volumes about what scouts thought of him. To be blunt, they didn't see it happening for him.
In five seasons with the Padres, he never got out of Class A. After the Padres released him, he signed with two independent league teams because he simply wasn't ready to give up.
In 2009, his career finally appeared to be over after a gruesome elbow injury that required a steel plate and nine screws to repair. He spent the '10 season working as a substitute teacher and part-time coach in his native Kentucky. He said he was comfortable that he'd given baseball everything he had to give it.
And then something he never expected happened. In working with young pitchers, he used a program devised by former big league pitching coach Tom House that includes weight work combined with an obsession on mechanics. One of the drills House gave him was simulating his pitching motion hundreds of times without a baseball in his hand.
Along the way, something he never expected happened: He got his fastball back. He was throwing 89 mph, then 93 mph. One of his friends, Joe Newton, asked Mariners scout Brian Williams to take a look. A high school catcher was called out of class to catch Delabar.
The Mariners offered him a contract in April 2011, and four months later, Delabar was in the Major Leagues. His development wasn't complete. The Mariners traded him to the Blue Jays the following year, and it was there that he hooked up with Pat Hentgen, a Toronto coach who won 131 games during a 14-year career.
Hentgen helped Delabar fine-tune both his slider and the split-finger fastball that help keep hitters off-balance from the hard stuff. And on Monday, Delabar will walk through the door to the AL All-Star clubhouse for another little reality checkpoint.
His teammates and coaches say they're thrilled for him, not just because of how far he has come, but also how seriously he takes his craft. He's obsessive about his workout routine and his mechanics. He's meticulous in studying scouting reports. It's as if given a second chance, he's going to get it exactly right.
"One of these days I'll sit back and think about all that happened, and think it's pretty cool," he told the Courier Journal this week.
He doesn't have time for that yet. He's got an All-Star Game to prepare for.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.