Second time is charm for Borkowski

O's officials remembered, had faith in Tigers castoff


August 03, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

When the Detroit Tigers released David Borkowski last year, setting the scene for his stirring comeback with the Orioles, it wasn't your typical baseball transaction.

Growing up in Michigan, Borkowski knew about everything there was to know about the Detroit franchise. He can still remember skipping grade school to watch his beloved Tigers play in the 1984 and 1987 playoffs.

For a long time, he was living his dream. The Tigers drafted him out of Sterling Heights (Mich.) High and brought him to the majors in time to pitch the second-to-last game at Tiger Stadium in 1999.

"I always pictured myself staying up there forever," Borkowski said, "playing at home forever."

Of course, it never seems to happen that way any more. Like so many pitchers, Borkowski saw his career derailed by arm injuries. He suffered through two painful seasons before finally having a pair of surgeries -- one for his shoulder, one for his elbow -- in fall 2001.

The Tigers stuck with him until April 2003, when they called him into the manager's office at Double-A Erie and handed him his release.

A new wave of pitching prospects had arrived, and for all his determination, Borkowski's arm strength simply wasn't coming back.

"I was devastated," said Borkowski, who takes a 2-2 record into tonight's start against the Seattle Mariners in the second game of a doubleheader at Camden Yards. "I didn't want to leave, but I just packed my stuff and got out of there as soon as I could."

And this is where the story turns -- right here, in the middle of a shattered boyhood dream.

Borkowski returned home from Erie that day, and as he said: "I didn't have very long to think about it. Doc called me the very next day."

That's Doc, as in Orioles minor league director Darrell "Doc" Rodgers.

In 1996, Rodgers was working for the Tigers when Borkowski was still pitching in Single-A.

"I think bulldog is the first word that comes to mind," Rodgers said when asked to describe the kind of pitcher Borkowski was then.

And Borkowski had another big fan in the Orioles' front office. Rodgers' top assistant, Tripp Norton, spent three years with the Tigers before coming to Baltimore.

So just when Borkowski thought he had hit rock bottom, the Orioles offered him a road map back to the top. Banking on a hunch Borkowski's arm strength would eventually return, Rodgers sent him to the team's extended spring training facility in Sarasota, Fla.

Within days, the plan accelerated. The Orioles needed bullpen help at Double-A Bowie, so Borkowski went and filled the role for about two weeks before they put him in the starting rotation. He finished 6-7 for the season, and his 3.29 ERA ranked sixth in the Eastern League.

"His arm strength started to pick up," Rodgers said, "and by the end of the year, he was throwing 90-91 [mph]."

Looking back, Borkowski views the arm injury as a blessing because it taught him how to pitch.

As a young pitcher, he said he figured: "I'll go out there and throw as hard as I can and blow people away. And if they're hitting that, I'll try to throw harder."

He learned to change speeds. He learned better control. And when last season ended, he had a chance to take those new skills anywhere he wanted. He was a free agent, so the Orioles had no hold on his rights. But he gladly returned.

"They treated me so well, and you appreciate that, and you want to be loyal to someone who gives you a good chance like that," Borkowski said. "Whatever I've been told here has come true. They haven't lied."

The Orioles didn't give Borkowski a major league invitation this spring, but they sent him to Triple-A Ottawa, where he went 6-9 with a 4.85 ERA. It was nothing spectacular, and yet, once the door to the big leagues opened, Borkowski barreled right through it.

Staggering through a stretch of 16 games in 15 days, the Orioles needed Borkowski to start the second game of their doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on July 5. He was supposed to make one start and return to Ottawa, but the Orioles asked him to stay after he carried a shutout bid into the ninth inning.

"You couldn't ask for a better script," Borkowski said. "It was almost as good as being called up the first time. I couldn't be happier to be here, and I hope I keep doing it the rest of the year."

After two mediocre starts, Borkowski was brilliant again Thursday, when he held the Boston Red Sox to three hits in seven shutout innings. The Orioles beat Curt Schilling that night, 4-1.

Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie passed all the credit for the Borkowski discovery to Rodgers and Norton. "Those are the types of things," Beattie said, "that when other teams do it, you say, `Darn, why didn't we think of that?' "

NOTE: As first reported by the Web site, the contract for Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro actually includes a $4.5 million vesting option for next season. Yesterday, an industry source told The Sun the option will vest if Palmeiro plays 140 games in the field. Palmeiro has already played 98 of the team's 103 games at first base, so at this rate, he will easily trigger the option and remain an Oriole through 2005.

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