Jake Peavy was 44-1 in four seasons at St. Paul’s Episcopal High in Mobile, Ala. He led the Saints to a state championship as a senior, winning 13 games on the mound and hitting .443.
His middle-class parents — Danny built cabinets and Debbie helped deliver the mail in the small town of Semmes — sacrificed so Jake could attend the private school. His goal was to pay them back by earning a college scholarship.
“My parents took out loans for me to go to that high school,” said Peavy. “They wanted me to go to college and better myself, to get a better life. I wanted to take that burden of paying for college off them.”
The University of Alabama was his first, last, and only choice.
“My family loves Alabama football,” Peavy said. “Alabama was a very big deal in my house. I had gotten my love of Alabama from my grandfather [Blanche] Peavy, who had passed away. That was where I wanted to go,”
It is here where a simple story takes a sharp turn and reveals much about the pitcher the Red Sox obtained from the Chicago White Sox on July 30.
After visiting several other Southeastern Conference schools, Peavy took a recruiting visit to Alabama expecting a hero’s welcome, given his accomplishments in high school.
What he got from coach Jim Wells was an offer to pay for his books. No scholarship, just books.
“Alabama broke my heart,” Peavy said.
Peavy’s competitive edge kicked in, and he signed with Auburn, Alabama’s bitter rival.
“Auburn treated me like gold and [coach] Hal Baird made a great impression on my family,” Peavy said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll show Alabama what they missed out on.’ Man, I had a chip on my shoulder.”
What Peavy calls “an inner fire” has always burned intensely. He laughs about his college choice now, saying it was a great day in the Peavy household when he decided to bypass college and sign with the San Diego Padres after they drafted him.
But even now, all these years later, what was a cordial conversation took on a harder edge when Peavy described how he felt about the snub.
“I love a challenge,” he said. “Every game I pitch is something special for me. I don’t back down.”
New teammate John Lackey has a unique view of Peavy. Lackey made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Angels on June 24, 2002, two days after Peavy pitched his first game with the Padres.
Peavy was 21 and Lackey 23, and from a short distance apart in southern California, they followed each other’s careers.
“Jake was a pitcher everybody knew about coming up,” Lackey said. “We both did pretty well right away. It was a fun time. You could see how good he was.”
It was Lackey who had the more immediate success, helping the Angels win the World Series as a rookie. But by 2004, Peavy led the National League with a 2.27 earned run average.
The advantage Peavy had was in mentors. From San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman, he learned the value of sticking to a conditioning routine every day. Then in 2007, when the Padres signed Greg Maddux, Peavy met the pitcher who continues to influence him to this day.
“Trevor taught me how to be a professional, how to go about your business and get ready for a game,” Peavy said. “Maddux came along a little later and it wasn’t a coincidence that season that I won the Cy Young. He pushed me in ways I didn’t realize I could be pushed.
“Both of those guys were instrumental in such huge ways for me. I was incredibly fortunate to be in that place at that time”
With Maddux offering pitching advice at the park or on the golf course, Peavy went 19-6 with a 2.54 ERA and 240 strikeouts in 2007. He was a unanimous choice for the Cy Young and finished seventh in the MVP voting.
The lessons Maddux taught have helped Peavy age gracefully as a pitcher. Now, at 32, he considers himself a pitcher who can succeed even without the velocity he once had.
“I enjoy getting prepared for games,” said Peavy. “It’s even more of a joy when you go out and pitch well. I may be mixing and matching and pitching to contact these days but I get as much satisfaction out of it.”
Joining the first-place Red Sox was the right match. Peavy is the kind of experienced starter the Sox need to survive the pennant race.
“There’s nothing hidden about Jake Peavy,” manager John Farrell said. “His genuineness and competitiveness is on display with every pitch he throws. You have to respect somebody who gives you everything he has on that given day.”
It hasn’t even been two weeks yet, but Peavy feels comfortable with the Sox. That pitching coach Juan Nieves was once on the White Sox staff helps. Peavy also has asked Roger Clemens, a friend from their time playing together in the World Baseball Classic, for advice about playing in Boston.
But more than anything, it’s a shared sense of purpose.
“I’m like a lot of the guys in here,” said Peavy. “We’ve accomplished things individually that are great, but the focus is to win the World Series. For me, that’s really all there is.”
Peavy was 0-2 in two postseason starts with the Padres, giving up 13 earned runs over 9⅔ innings against the Cardinals. In 2005, he pitched with broken ribs and didn’t get though five innings. In ’06, a two-run homer by Albert Pujols led to a loss.
“The opportunity to get back there, to pitch in another postseason game, would be something I’d be very grateful for,” Peavy said.
Unless there’s a parade to attend, Peavy won’t stick around Boston for long once the season ends. He still lives in Semmes, raising three sons with his wife, Katie. The family lives on land Jake once played on as a child.
“I’m a country boy,” he said. “But the idea of pitching in the World Series in a place like Boston, what could be better than that?”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.