PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — — Kam Mickolio was cut from the freshman basketball team at Belgrade High in Montana because the coach said he was too small.
He grew 9 inches over the next three years, but his body continued to stand in the way of his athletic pursuits.
"Scouts would come to me and say, 'I'd just like to see him repeat his delivery,' " said Eric Madsen, Mickolio's coach first at the College of Eastern Utah and then at Utah Valley State. "And I would say, 'I would like to see you repeat your delivery if you were that big.' His body had changed so much. He's grown into his body finally. His best innings are still ahead of him."
The Orioles are banking on that and consider Mickolio, a hard-throwing 6-foot-9 right-hander, a key part of this year's bullpen - and potentially their closer of the future.
"I think he can taste it," said Orioles manager Dave Trembley, who has been effusive in his praise of the reliever all spring. "I think he knows it's there for him and he's going to have to go get it, and in order for him to go get it, he's going to have to pitch well here in spring training. Not only is this the best opportunity that he's going to get, but I think this is the best he's done to prepare himself in order for that to happen."
Mickolio, a 25-year-old who was part of the Orioles' five-player return from the Seattle Mariners for Erik Bedard in February 2008, has made 20 appearances with the Orioles over the past two seasons, allowing nine earned runs in 21 1/3 innings (3.80 ERA). His path to the major leagues has been a circuitous one.
The 21st Montana native to play in the big leagues, he didn't play on a high school baseball team because his home state didn't sanction the sport. He went to junior college for two years at Eastern Utah and then spent two years at Utah Valley, where he had a 2-10 record and a 7.98 ERA during his junior season.
He showed enough to be drafted in the 46th round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003 and by the Mariners in the 18th round in 2006. For once, Mickolio's height worked to his advantage as scouts were intrigued by his size and potential.
"What I always heard was, 'There's a lot to develop; he's still growing into his body,' " said Mickolio, who made his Grapefruit League debut Thursday, allowing one run in an inning in the Orioles' 6-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. "I kind of looked at it the same way. I didn't stop growing until I was a sophomore in college. I felt like I was still fairly clumsy, but I was at least strong enough to do what I needed to do."
Mickolio was 5-10 as a 15-year-old, but there were about a dozen other players trying out for the Belgrade freshman basketball team who were bigger than he was. By the time he graduated from high school, he had grown to 6-7.
"He broke his arm playing football his sophomore year, and when the X-ray came in, the doctor said his growth plates were still open and he still has a lot of growing to do," said Gene Mickolio, Kam's father. "That surprised us because he was already 6-foot-4. We thought he already had his growth spurt."
Julie Mickolio said her son's rapid growth caused him problems.
"His body was in transition so fast," said Julie, who gave birth to Kam at a hospital in Wolf Point, Mont., the hometown of former Oriole John Lowenstein. "He always had these aches and pains, [and] I think it affected him. His body was changing all the time."
Various injuries persuaded Mickolio to abandon football and focus on baseball. While Montana isn't saturated with major league scouts, Mickolio got exposure while with a traveling team that played in tournaments in Arizona.
Madsen was the head coach at Eastern Utah, a small junior college, when one of his former players told him about this big kid with a powerful right arm and plenty of raw ability. Mickolio had planned to attend Walla Walla University in Washington, but Madsen's scholarship offer changed his mind.
"He was kind of a young colt, a little gangly," Madsen said. "He had to grow into himself. He had a good arm, but he really struggled to repeat his delivery. He was making steady progress all the time. The kid worked a lot."
Mickolio, who eventually followed Madsen to Utah Valley after two seasons at Eastern Utah, described his college pitching style as "crazy," acknowledging that he struggled to slow himself on the mound. That didn't stop several big league teams from sending questionnaires to Mickolio. The Orioles sent one, as did the Mariners, Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies.
"That's when it starts settling in, like, 'Wow, this could really happen,' " Mickolio said.
Madsen always told Mickolio that if he made it to the big leagues, they would buy a ranch together in Montana. Now that Mickolio has made it, his next goal is to stay.
He moved to Virginia Beach, Va., this offseason to work with a physical trainer, and the results, according to Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz, have been noticeable.
"I was 270 [pounds] coming out of college and I felt like I would blow out toward the end of the year, so I started to throttle it down, and it almost went to the other extreme," said Mickolio, who is down to 240 pounds. "I just focused on running, and it felt like my body was out of whack. I feel like I'm finding my balance now. It's exciting. It's definitely good to see results for the effort you put in."