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Path of the Pros: Ted Lilly02/10/2010 10:00 AM ET
By Danny Wild / MLB.com
Ted Lilly may not be well known for his summer as the ace of the Yakima Bears' pitching staff in 1996. In fact, he's probably even lesser known for his other hidden talents.
"He was a Wiffle ball maniac," said Joe Vavra, a Twins coach who managed Lilly at Yakima.
Vavra said Lilly tried to pitch in on his days off too, helping his manager off the field.
"One day he offered to babysit my kids. He said, 'Hey, if you want to ever go out, let me know,'" Vavra said. "I took him up on the offer."
Yes, Ted Lilly, the Wiffle ball champion. Ted Lilly, babysitter. Even Ted Lilly, the former wrestler?
"He showed up and looked more like the grocery store bag boy than a professional pitcher," said former Bears general manager Bob Romero, who watched the young Dodgers prospect break into the Minors in '96.
"He looked like he was about 16 years old. And everyone was amazed when he told them he was a regional or state wrestling champion in high school."
Lilly could do it all back then, and in style. Fresh out of junior college and living the life of a Minor Leaguer with a host family in rural Washington, he wasted no time upgrading his status, Romero recalled.
"His bonus check came in the mail one day and he came to the ballpark driving a brand new car the next," Romero said. "It was bright red, but I don't remember what it was."
Lilly was, more importantly, a dominating figure when he took the mound. He climbed through the Minors, despite switching organizations, throwing a no-hitter in 1997 and reaching the Majors in the spring of 1999.
"Ted was wonderful, he really was," said Kansas City Royals skipper Trey Hillman, who managed Lilly from 2000-01 at Triple-A Columbus.
Lilly, born Theodore Roosevelt Lilly, was signed by scout Joe Ferrone after the Dodgers selected him in the 23rd round of the 1996 Draft out of Fresno City Junior College. He graduated from Yosemite (Calif.) High School in 1994, five years before making his Major League debut with Montreal.
His road to the Majors began in the summer of '96, when the Dodgers assigned him to the short-season Northwest League.
"He was all business on the mound," Vavra said. "He looked like a little kid out there, but he was all business."
It was in Yakima, a city of about 70,000, a little more than enough to fill up Dodger Stadium, where Lilly showed flashes of what was to come. The 20-year-old went 4-0 with a 0.84 ERA in 13 appearances, including eight starts, helping Vavra earn Manager of the Year honors as Yakima clinched a playoff spot on the season's final day and went on to the league championship.
"That was the guy we wanted to have the ball," Vavra said of Lilly, whose 0.84 ERA led all short-season pitchers that year. "He was the guy, no doubt."
Lilly was dominant in his first taste of pro ball, striking out 75 batters over 53 2/3 innings at Yakima.
"He was a good, hard worker, he knew what he wanted -- to pitch at the highest level," said Hillman. "He was always working on command of his changeup, his fastball and curve. And really, his curveball was about the same as it is now; it just keeps breaking and it's awfully difficult to track for the hitters."
Hillman never saw Lilly's Wiffle curve, though.
"I didn't know it until later in the season, but he stayed with a host family at Yakima and he had to play Wiffle ball every day, even the day he pitched," Vavra said. "He had jitters.
"I don't think he'd give those kids an inch, he was really competitive. He was no-nonsense, probably in their backyard and definitely on the mound. He was a control pitcher back then, and he still is. He was sneaky, just kind of a deceptive, easy delivery. He'd sneak that fastball by you."
The 6-foot-1 lefty made the jump from backyard Wiffle ball to the Class A Advanced California League in 1997 and continued to dazzle, posting seven wins and a 2.81 ERA for San Bernadino to earn Pitcher of the Year honors. Baseball America ranked him seventh among Dodgers prospects that season.
The California native gained further attention in his home state that summer when he led the league in ERA and threw a no-hitter on May 10 against Lake Elsinore -- after missing two weeks due to a back injury. He became the first player in Cal League history to earn Pitcher of the Week honors four times, including three times in a one-month span.
Lilly's impressive '97 campaign -- he struck out 158 over 134 2/3 innings -- earned him another promotion the following spring, although it came with an unexpected move. He began 1998 with Double-A San Antonio and moved up to Triple-A Albuquerque by midseason before the Dodgers traded him to Montreal in a seven-player deal involving infielder Mark Grudzielanek.
After five starts at Triple-A Ottawa, Lilly returned in 1999 with his eyes on reaching the Majors. He appeared in 15 games for the Lynx, making his Major League debut on May 14 with the Expos before returning to the Minors in August to finish out the season.
Lilly was involved in another trade on Dec. 22, 1999, when the Yankees acquired him and right-hander Jake Westbrook from Montreal for Hideki Irabu. The lefty spent nearly all of the following season with Hillman at Triple-A.
"I'm really proud of him," Hillman said. "Anytime you see guys that you had an opportunity to manage along the way ascend to the Major League level, it makes it all the better."
Lilly made 27 starts at Columbus from 2000-01, helping Hillman earn International League Manager of the Year honors in 2000 for the Clippers. Hillman said he knew the lefty was something special.
"He was a joy to be around," he added. "And he was pretty close [to the Majors]. I had Andy Pettitte for two years in A-ball, and Teddy was the only other left-hander I managed that I really believed had the opportunity to be a Major Leaguer. ... Teddy was extremely focused with what he wanted."
Vavra, currently the Twins' third base coach, remembered Lilly in a more unique way.
"My kids referred to him as 'The babysitter,'" he said. "Ted and Peter Bergeron, they'd offer to do that. I don't know how they were, but the kids survived. They were alive and well when I got home."
Lilly also left an impression on those who saw him during his six seasons in the Minors. Aside from stellar strikeout numbers and a 3.36 career Minor League ERA, he brought something else to the mound.
"I call him BTL -- Big Ted Lilly," Vavra said. "Big Ted, the way he carried himself on the mound, kinda proud out there. When he's taken the mound, he's had that presence about him, like, 'I'm not cocky, I'm just standing out here and I'm gonna beat you. Be ready to do battle.'"
When Lilly arrived at the All-Star Game in St. Louis as a Cub last summer, he finally had a chance to reconnect with an old friend.
"I hadn't seen him since 2001, so it had been a long time," Hillman said. "I was thrilled to see him. He came right over and sat down with my family. It was great to catch up with him."
"I coached a lot of good players over nine years and he was right there as the top five favorites I've had," Vavra added. "And I had Pedro [Martinez] and [Todd] Hollandsworth and [Raul] Mondesi and rookies of the year. I have a lot of fond memories of that kid."
Lilly began 2001 back in Columbus but was called up to the Bronx after only three starts. He made two more appearances in the Minors in late August but largely spent the year in New York, appearing in 26 games for the World Series-bound Yankees.
After stints with the Yankees, A's and Blue Jays, Lilly inked a four-year, $40 million deal with the Cubs in 2006.
"He had a great personality," Vavra said. "He was quiet but also a person you could talk to. He wasn't too shy around the managers, and a lot of kids were, although he kept the Wiffle ball thing away from me. That was probably best thing he could have done."
Minor League career breakdown