Save situation

Orioles closer was traveling a long, obscure road until Seattle salvaged his major league dream

George Sherrill

April 22, 2008|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN REPORTER

Almost as if he's required to be quirky, given that he's a left-handed reliever and it's practically law, Orioles closer George Sherrill keeps every memo and sheet of paper distributed by the team. Rather than taking a quick glance and tossing them in the nearest trash receptacle, he tapes one edge to the next and hangs them at his locker, creating the impression that he's more interested in saving trees than games.

Sherrill has performed this one-man crusade against waste since his days in Winnipeg, where a guy apparently can learn a lot more than how to stay warm and not surrender his dream of pitching in the majors.

"It's like, they just keep giving you stuff and giving you stuff," he said. "That's how far we are now, and it's not even May. I couldn't get into my locker anymore, so I had to move it to the side. Pretty soon, I'll have to go on the ceiling."

The Orioles don't care, as long as he keeps going to the mound in the ninth inning.

After accumulating only four career saves in 195 major league appearances before this season, Sherrill has converted all six opportunities heading into tonight's game against the Seattle Mariners. His ERA swelled to 6.14 on Sunday after he allowed three runs in a non-save situation, but that doesn't qualify as real adversity in his papered world.

Before Sherrill, 31, became the Orioles' protector of late leads, and before he faced his first major league hitter, he called Evansville, Sioux Falls and Winnipeg his home. He spent 4 1/2 years in the independent Frontier and Northern leagues - some would call it obscurity - and had to find jobs in the offseason to pay his bills.

He still might be in Winnipeg if Charley Kerfeld, a former major league pitcher and scout, hadn't recommended that the Mariners sign him in the summer of 2003. Sherrill was assigned to Double-A San Antonio, moved up one level the next season and had his contract purchased by the Mariners in July 2004 - his first decision being a loss at Camden Yards.

Now he dresses in the home clubhouse, providing his own unique decorations and being entrusted with one of the most important jobs in baseball.

"This was light-years away," he said. "I'm really blessed. It's just an honor to put on this uniform, and any uniform. It's rare that anybody makes it this far, and you've got to remember where you came from."

It's hard to forget when nobody wants you coming out of college and scouts are equally unimpressed by your fastball and your physique. Sherrill weighed about 250 pounds during his first year in Winnipeg, too much for a 6-foot pitcher, but he showed up the next year in much better condition.

"He was about 25 to 30 pounds lighter, and his velocity jumped from 88-90 mph to 93-94. He turned himself into a dominant power pitcher," said Winnipeg manager Rick Forney, an Annapolis High graduate and former Orioles farmhand who served as the Goldeyes' pitching coach. "No one was really sure George would turn into what he has. Give George all the credit for that. He worked his [butt] off to get out of independent ball. And now he's going to go from making $1,000 to $1,200 a month to $10 [million] or $12 million. This is an incredible opportunity for him."

Said Sherrill, "It's been a long journey, but it's all been worth it."

The road didn't end in Seattle, though Sherrill expected it might. Being part of the five-player package obtained by the Orioles for starter Erik Bedard brought an initial rush of disappointment, his loyalties to the Mariners unbreakable.

"When I first got over here, I heard some people saying, `Get over it,' or whatever," he said. "They gave me my shot, but in order to get something, you've got to give up something. And there wasn't any real shock because it was at the winter meetings when they were talking about it, so I had months to get used to it. It is tough to get over with, but it's time to play baseball."

He does it with a deceptive delivery that challenges hitters to find the ball coming out of his left hand. And with a sense of calm that belies his limited experience as a closer.

"The No. 1 thing I like about him is his demeanor," Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "When you look at all the closers in the history of baseball, you've got guys that try to intimidate and guys who, nothing rattles them. He's that guy. Nobody sees him sweat. And he attacks the strike zone."

Said first baseman Kevin Millar: "You look at this guy and you respect the competitiveness. He doesn't fear anybody, he throws strikes, he goes after hitters. ... He gives you that bulldog mentality."

And enough papers to train one.

"He's definitely got some weirdo in him," said Millar, often accused of having the same trait. "He fits in great here. We have a lot of fun. You know when you have a body that looks like Aubrey Huff, you're going to take some grief. And when you have a hat that goes upward, you're going to take more grief."

Sherrill never learned how to properly bend the bill of his cap, so he keeps it straight and takes the abuse.

"And now I guess I look like Charlie Brown, but it's not a fashion show, it's baseball," he said. "I'm not worried about what I look like. And if it gets a laugh out of the hitter, that's an advantage for me."

They're not the only ones laughing.

"It's unbelievable," Millar said. "It's the most talked-about hat in the big leagues. Every first base coach asks me the same question about it. Someday, that hat could be in Cooperstown."

For a guy who has pitched in some unimaginable places, it might be a fitting location.

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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