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For a high school pitcher hoping to get a chance at the big leagues, throwing a no-hitter is a good way to catch a scout’s eye.
But that wasn’t good enough for Jay Baller. He threw six.
From the time he first stepped onto the pitcher’s mound at what we now call Wayne Oliver Field, Baller had his heart set on one thing: making it to the big leagues. His father built him a practice mound in the front yard of their home on North Birch Street, where he was often seen practicing for hours.
The couple who lives there now, and especially, the husband who mows the grass, confirms that the hump is still there.
“The fastball is the most effective pitch in baseball. That is the first thing I look for in a pitcher,” said Bill Harper, the Philadelphia Phillies scout who scouted Baller at Canby High. “In professional baseball, if you can throw hard, you can make it.”
Baller could throw hard. In high school, his fastball was clocked at 90 mph, and a few years later, he’d be up to 95. This was at a time when the average major league heater was 86.
“I was a freshman catcher when Jay was a senior, and I caught a couple pitches of his,” a former teammate of his recalled. “My hand was stinging for a week. He could definitely bring the heat.”
A cannon for an arm wasn’t Baller’s only physical gift. He was also unusually tall, at 6-foot-6 (at Canby High, he had also been a star on the varsity basketball team). His size helped him get extra velocity on his fastball, in much the same way Hall of Famer Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson’s 6-foot-10 frame enabled him to throw in excess of 100 mph.
“He is big, strong and has some meanness,” a minor league baseball exec would later say. “He has a chance to be a good power pitcher with his fastball and good, hard slider.”
The Phillies, led enthusiastically by Harper, took Baller with their third pick in the 1979 MLB draft (98th overall).
He started at rookie-league Helena, moving to single-A Spartanburg for 1980. Baller played well in the Phillies’ farm system, even earning himself a spring training camp invite in 1981 after leading his league in strikeouts in AA ball.
But he didn’t make it to the big club until the following year, and not until after Phillies’ management took an unusual approach to his development: they moved him to the bullpen.
Baller had always been a starting pitcher, but the Philadelphia bullpen desperately needed help, and the front office said becoming a reliever would be his fastest ticket to the major leagues.
It worked. He made his Major League debut with the Phillies as a reliever on Sept. 19, 1982, throwing a scoreless, hitless inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Baller got into four games for the Phillies that September, starting one and relieving in three. He gave up three earned runs in seven innings of work.
Baller, though, didn’t return to the majors until 1985. He also didn’t return to Philadelphia for a decade. He was traded from the Phillies in 1983 to the Indians in the famous “five-for-one” deal that sent All-Star Von Hayes the other way.
Baller spent 1983 and 1984 between AA and AAA with the Indians. For 1985, he was traded to the Cubs in a two-player deal. It was with the Cubs that Baller would have his longest stint in the majors. He returned in August, getting into 20 games on the year.
In September 1985, Baller went 3.1 innings against the Cardinals in relief, without giving up a run. Baller returned to the Cubs for 36 outings in 1986, all in relief. In 1987, it was 23 relief outings.
Then came a mysterious episode, one that would cast a dark cloud over what remained of Baller’s professional career. While out shopping for Christmas in Reading, Pa., Baller collapsed.
He was hospitalized with a 107-degree fever and spent three days in a coma. To say he “almost died” would be a bit of an understatement. His heart literally stopped — twice.
The episode was quietly, but rather widely, believed to have been a drug overdose. And Baller’s reputation as a “free spirit” and an “enigma” didn’t help.
Baller walked out of the hospital after two weeks, and he would later even tell The Chicago Tribune that he understands people who thought he O.D.’d. But, he maintained, that’s not what happened.
“I didn’t do drugs,” he told the paper in February 1988. “It was some kind of toxic poisoning I picked up from something I ate or drank or absorbed through my skin or something.”
He said his doctors tested him for “everything under the sun,” and they found “toxic poison damage” to his liver and kidney.
“There’s a lot of things that were unanswered,” he said. “Some questions don’t get answered.”
Whatever the reason for the episode, Baller would never be the same, though he would bounce back and forth between the majors and the minors over the next five years, spending time with the Cubs and Royals before returning to Philly.
He would compile 117 strikeouts over 156 innings pitched, with six saves, but never stuck in a big league bullpen for a full season.
But the big leagues isn’t everything. During winter ball, he would play professionally in Venezuela, where he earned three Closer of the Year awards while setting an all-time league record with 56 saves that still remains intact.
Today, Baller lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and four children.
On Thursday, we’ll be continuing our look at Canby’s sports heroes, as we bring you our long-awaited profile of a rodeo cowboy. That’s next time, on Canby Then.
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