Learning Curve

Gavin Floyd: A bonus baby among men, the Mt. St. Joe phenom is pitching in while he learns during his first pro season in Single-A.

July 18, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

LAKEWOOD, N.J. - Don't turn lunch on days you're scheduled to pitch into a high school reunion.

Be a tad wiser about the ribbing you get from teammates.

The education of Gavin Floyd is progressing nicely, as the biggest bonus baby in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies adjusts to pitching to men instead of boys. Floyd's potential netted a club-record signing bonus of $4.2 million last summer, but his craft requires a wealth of knowledge bought on time.

"So many of the guys just know more than I do," Floyd said. "Some might not have as much talent as I do and some might have more, but they all have experience that I lack, about the mental and even physical parts of the game."

A native of Severna Park who starred at Mount St. Joseph High, Floyd is the only teen-ager on the Lakewood BlueClaws, the middle of the Phillies' three Single-A teams. His next start comes tonight, at the Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads.

The Delmarva Shorebirds and the Hagerstown Suns are among the competition in the South Atlantic League. His teammates include a smattering of Caribbeans and former collegians, like his big brother. While Michael Floyd spent spring 2001 playing for the University of South Carolina, Gavin was striking out overmatched kids from Archbishop Curley and Loyola High.

"I have to remind myself every day that he's only 19 years old," said Ken Westray, BlueClaws pitching coach, "but there's a reason he was drafted that high."

The right-hander, the fourth selection overall in the 2001 draft, measures 6 feet 5 and 210 pounds. Floyd's fastball has been clocked in the mid-90s, and Baseball America has rated his curveball as the best in the Phillies' organization. But that breaking pitch spent the first half of the season on the shelf.

The standard procedure with all young arms is to force them to develop a third pitch, and Floyd was under orders to throw his changeup in situations in which he had come to rely on his curve. Other than that mandate, Floyd has been on his own as he settles into the rhythms of professional baseball that are second nature to BlueClaws manager Jeff Manto, a name that rings a bell with Orioles fans.

Manto was the third baseman when Cal Ripken tied and broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record, but he totaled little more than 700 big-league at-bats. With 243 home runs in the minors, Manto could have been the role model for Crash Davis, the role Kevin Costner played in Bull Durham.

`Doesn't know any better'

On July 8, after their getaway game at Lexington, Ky., the BlueClaws bused 670 miles to Lakewood. With Floyd on board, they may as well be traveling with a big puppy, say, an Irish setter in the case of the redhead.

"Gavin is a clown, but he just wants to learn everything," Manto said. "Watch him in the clubhouse, he's bumping into things. He'll do silly stuff on the field because of his age; he just doesn't know any better. The guys keep playing tricks with him, like when he's the pitcher who has to take the bucket back to the batting practice pitcher. The other guys leave the balls about 15 feet from the bucket [instead of in one area] so he has to walk for every ball.

"There are certain things, you say, `God, when is he going to figure this out?' "

There are laughable moments and learning ones, like his May 20 start in Hagerstown. Floyd went to lunch with some former high school teammates, then allowed eight runs before Manto finally yanked him in the fourth inning.

"We pull up in the bus into Hagerstown, and his family and friends are there," Manto said. "We're getting ready to play a professional baseball game, and he gets [hit hard]. It was good; I was happy. I told the pitching coach [Westray], I was hoping that he would get hit a little bit, to teach him a lesson.

"His brother Mike can pull up to his buddies, say hi, then go out and get three hits. What I've observed, every time there's an outside distraction, it affects Gavin's next start."

Michael Floyd knocked on Manto's door after that game, to discuss what had happened to his younger brother. Drafted by the Phillies in the 22nd round in June 2001, Michael, an outfielder hitting .270, is a fellow rookie who still knows a little about the road.

"Gavin hasn't really been away from home before," Michael said. "When that happened to him in Hagerstown, I had a long, intense talk with him, and even with my parents. This is our job, what we're getting paid to do. This is what we take pride in day in and day out. Every fifth day he needs to be ready mentally and physically. He needs to be totally in tune to playing that game that day."

Michael goes to Gavin for feedback about his batting stroke, but in at least one way Michael has more in common with the BlueClaws' lesser-regarded prospects. Some minor-leaguers make less than $1,000 a month, but Gavin, represented by Shapiro and Robinson Associates, obviously isn't a player who needs a host family to curtail the rent.

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