As a general rule, Minor League teams don't build marketing campaigns around specific players.
The reason is simple: In Minor League baseball, the only constant is change. Promotions, demotions, trades and injuries make it impossible to guarantee that a player will be in one place very long. But there are exceptions to every rule and it would be hard to find a more dramatic example than the case of Jake Peavy and the Mobile BayBears.
Peavy made 19 starts for the BayBears in 2001-02, marking his final stop in the Minor Leagues before landing in San Diego. His time with the Double-A ballclub created a tremendous buzz in the baseball-mad city, as Peavy was a hometown boy. The 20-year-old phenom had grown up in the nearby town of Semmes, Ala., and later enrolled at St. Paul's Episcopal High School in Mobile (where he compiled a 44-1 record).
When Peavy was selected by the Padres in the 15th round of the 1999 Draft, the BayBears immediately took notice.
"We started letting our fans know right away that if Jake made it to Double-A, then he'd be playing for us," said BayBears president Bill Shanahan. "And when he did get promoted [in 2001], it was a huge event for Mobile. There were big crowds every time he pitched and everyone from Semmes would be there."
Peavy made his debut for the BayBears on Aug. 8, 2001, but it wasn't the first time he'd pitched at Mobile's Hank Aaron Stadium. In February 1999, while attending St. Paul's, he participated in the annual BayBears High School Classic tournament (the MVP award is now named after him).
"I remember I was up in the press box before the first game of the tournament and this little boy came up to me and said, 'Sir, Mr. Peavy game me this cassette for you to play when he comes in to pitch,'" Shanahan recalled. "I said, 'You tell Mr. Peavy that when he's playing professionally at this stadium, then I'll play his cassette for him.'"
The song on the cassette was fitting: "My Home's in Alabama" by -- who else? -- Alabama. That tune indeed was played for him when he returned to Mobile in 2001. And when the season concluded, Peavy remained with the club in a professional, albeit far different, capacity.
"Jake wanted an offseason job and he told me, 'I know everyone around here, I'll be able to sell a bunch of tickets," Shanahan said. "So we gave him a desk and he started making phone calls. It seemed like every time he came to me with a sales report, he'd say, 'This guy wants to play golf and while we're out there I'll get him to buy tickets.' Well, eventually we came to the conclusion that while Jake was great at going out and playing golf, he was perhaps not so great at selling a lot of tickets."
While Peavy was out selling (or not selling) BayBears ducats, the team was selling him. The club launched a billboard campaign featuring Jake and his wife, Katie, holding newborn Jake Jr. while standing on the pitcher's mound. Meanwhile, Shanahan convinced a local Pepsi distributor to produce cans with Peavy's picture on them.
"Jake is the only player in the history of Minor League Baseball to be featured on a Pepsi can," Shanahan noted proudly.
Peavy ended up making 14 starts for the BayBears in 2002, compiling a modest 4-5 record despite a 2.80 ERA and 89 strikeouts over 80 innings. The injury-depleted Padres called him up to the big club in late June and he remained a key member of the Friars' rotation until being traded to the White Sox last season.
The sudden promotion marked the culmination of a remarkably successful Minor League career in which Peavy went 36-21 with a 2.58 ERA over five seasons. Not only did the young hurler have the benefit of pitching in his hometown, he benefited from a remarkably consistent coaching staff. Manager Craig Colbert and pitching coach Darren Balsley mirrored Peavy's Minor League ascent, from Class A Fort Wayne in 2000 to Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore in 2001 to Mobile in 2002. Both men later joined Peavy in San Diego, with Colbert serving as bench coach and Balsley as pitching coach (a position he still holds).
"Jake was always a kid that was ahead of his age, in terms of how he conducted himself. He was a very mature kid and very, very competitive. That was obvious from the first time I met him," said Colbert, who now works as an advance scout for the Philadelphia Phillies.
That competitive streak made removing him from the game an unenviable task.
"In the Minors, after you hit 90 or 100 pitches, that's the end of the line. But Jake always wanted to stay out there," Colbert said. "There would be times when Jake would have a no-hitter going and I'd look at [Balsley] like, 'Oh, no. Pretty soon I've got to go out there and get him.'"
Peavy likely will have a longer leash with the White Sox this season, giving him a chance to again put up dominant numbers after an injury-plagued 2009. His success already has solidified him as a Mobile baseball legend, but he still has a ways to go before reaching the upper echelon of the city's baseball elite.
"Five Hall of Fame players were born in Mobile: Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ozzie Smith," said Shanahan, reeling off the names in rapid succession. "If Jake stays healthy and continues to pitch, then there's a chance that he could make it, too. We'd all just love to see his name added to that list."
Minor League career breakdown
1999: Peavy made his professional debut in the Rookie-level Arizona League at the age of 18, going 7-1 with a 1.34 ERA in 13 games (11 starts). He also made two starts with Idaho Falls of the Rookie-level Pioneer League, hurling 11 shutout frames. |
2000: Spent the season with Class A Fort Wayne, where he went 13-8 with a 2.90 ERA over 133 2/3 innings pitched. His 164 strikeouts led the Midwest League.|
2001: Began the year with the Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore Storm, and went 7-5 with a 3.08 ERA over 19 starts. Then promoted to Mobile, compiling a 2.57 ERA over five late-season starts.|
2002: Made 14 starts with the BayBears, where he went 4-5 with a 2.80 ERA. Promoted to San Diego in June, his first of eight seasons with the Padres.|