BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Two opposing relief pitchers from Game 4 of the 2021 American League Championship Series are in full uniform, playing catch in a grassy parking lot 1,000 miles from Fenway Park in the middle of an owner-imposed Major League Baseball lockout.
Red Sox pitcher Garrett Whitlock, all 6 feet 5 inches of him, is in his gray road uniform, long-tossing with Kendall Graveman, in his Houston Astros uniform, outside Rickwood Field, the oldest professional ballpark in America. There are big grins on both their faces. Their shadows dance in the warm sunlight, and the pop of the ball into the glove is like a harbinger for spring.
Is this heaven?
No, it’s Alabama.
Both big leaguers have devoted their lives to Jesus. They are warming up to make surprise relief appearances in the fourth inning of a game between teams of campus pastors for their Church of the Highlands, which has 23 campuses.
In the offseason, Whitlock and Graveman live in the Birmingham area. For the last several years, they have become training partners and good friends, except during the ALCS. Graveman, the veteran, wouldn’t even talk to the rookie then.
“He had to wear his World Series championship hat?” says Whitlock, laughing off the sting of being eliminated last season by the Astros.
“Is my ball moving?” he asks Graveman, who recently signed with the Chicago White Sox.
“Oh, yeah,” is the response.
When Whitlock takes the mound, the score is tied at 2-2. His control is great. He throws strictly fastballs and dominates. But when the pastor from Whitlock’s own church muffs an easy pop fly, and another pastor who played Division 1 college ball gets a cheapie double, the 25-year-old righthander is faced with runners on second and third.
Lord knows he isn’t going to give up a run. He throws a late-breaking, jaw-dropping third-strike changeup that leaves the batter yelling toward the mound.
“He was just like, ‘Oh that’s not fair,’ ” says Whitlock.
“I mean, they’re not big-league hitters, but for me, that was a good day to get some work in,” he says after cheerfully posing for God knows how many selfies.
Whitlock went from being a Yankees Double A starting pitcher needing elbow surgery in 2019 to one of baseball’s top relievers. In his rookie season, he posted an 8-3 record and a 1.96 ERA in 73⅓ innings. He struck out 27.2 percent of the hitters he faced, making the Yankees pay for leaving him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft.
He would love to be a starter again.
“I enjoy starting,” he said. “I love the routine behind it and everything, but at the same time, I’m a competitor. So whenever you tell me to go out there and get outs, I’m going to treat it as if it’s a 0-0 ballgame and I’ve got to bury you and I’ve got to put you away.
“So it doesn’t matter to me whether that’s the first pitch of the game or the ninth inning or anywhere in between.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora hasn’t asked him to start.
“I’m a Year 2 guy now,” Whitlock said. “I haven’t earned that.”
Before the lockout, the Sox gave him some advice.
“They told me to come in prepared to be, like, fighting for a starting job, and they’ll reevaluate it from there,” he said. “So I’m going to build up and I’m going to go in and be as prepared as I can be.”
‘Just a country boy’
Whitlock loves the passion of Fenway fans, even though early in the season he had trouble understanding their Boston accents. He says he has never been recognized on the streets of Boston.
“I’m just a country boy from Georgia,” he says.
Whitlock grew up in Snellville, Ga., with his mother. On weekends and during the summer, he stayed at his father’s 50-acre goat farm.
When he was 7, he discovered a newborn baby goat, abandoned by its mother in the field. Whitlock named the kid Sneakers. They put him in a bathroom with towels and a heat lamp, and Whitlock bottle-fed him with a mixture of colostrum and powdered milk.
Whitlock went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he pitched two seasons and met his future wife, Jordan, in a laundry room. He ran his wash twice just so he could continue to talk to her.
After his freshman year in 2016, he pitched in the Cape Cod League for Chatham, and loved the experience. He learned that if he saw small planes flying low over the water not to go in the water.
“They were probably tracking sharks,” he says.
Whitlock was drafted in the 18th round by the Yankees in 2017. By 2019, he was at Double A Trenton and in a bad space mentally.
“I was very arrogant, very prideful, and cranky,” he said. “My best friend called me up one day after visiting me in Trenton. He literally straight-up told me, ‘Dude, you’re kind of a jerk. Like, this isn’t you.’ And that hit me square [in] the nose.”
Weeks later, his arm ached, and he had Tommy John surgery performed by Dr. Jeffrey Dugas at the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham on July 25, 2019.
His surgery was unusual because he had bone where there should have been ligament. Dugas told him he would have to meet the hurdles of recovery one by one.
“He was very humble and willing to take the necessary steps,” Dugas said. “As a person and as an athlete, I think he’s the whole package. He’s an incredibly well-adjusted, very mature athlete, and he’s a fighter. There aren’t too many athletes that have his potential that aren’t blinded by that big stage.”
It also gave him time to reflect.
“Tommy John [surgery] saved my life,” says Whitlock.
Whitlock married Jordan in November of 2019. She is working on her PhD in genetics at UAB.
He went to train at Tinsley Performance in Pelham, Ala., with Cal Tinsley, a former Atlanta Braves strength and conditioning coach who believes in physical, mental, and spiritual training. Tinsley remembers Whitlock as physically imposing but structurally weak when he arrived four years ago.
“Let’s just say that there’s a few things that he could improve on,” said Tinsley. “He just didn’t understand just the nuances of what it looked like to move well.”
In 2020, when COVID had shut down the minor leagues and Whitlock was stressed about money, he got a job with a landscape company and also helped coach at a local baseball academy.
Tinsley remembers Whitlock coming in with dirt caked all over him.
“He’s blue collar,” said Tinsley. “There were many days he would come in after working 8-10 hours digging ditches, planting plants, and training for an hour and a half.”
He also had a side job with a car dealership. If somebody wanted to test drive a car, he’d run to the next parking lot and fetch it.
“They’d be like, ‘Hey, can you go get this little Beetle?’ ” said Whitlock. “They thought that was so funny. And I’m like, ‘You got to be kidding me. Y’all doing this just because I’m tall? That’s messed up.’ ”
Competitiveness and compassion
On the day he was left unprotected by the Yankees, he was walking the dog. He came home, checked his computer, and found out he wasn’t on the 40-man roster.
“I wouldn’t say I was pissed,” he said. “There’s a little bit of disappointment and everything. Like, dang, that would have been nice. But at the same time, I also understood I was coming off Tommy John. I didn’t take it personally or anything.”
The Red Sox saw him pitch on an Instagram post and drafted him.
He would never say bleep about the Yankees because he doesn’t swear. His Red Sox teammates are amused by his clean language.
In the Wild Card Game against the Yankees to open last season’s playoffs, he was on the mound when the Sox defeated the Evil Empire. While his teammates went crazy, he responded like a casual fan who had won a free taco for somebody stealing second base in the World Series. He also recorded the last six outs to beat Tampa Bay in the ALCS and just smiled.
Why no jubilation?
“I had more joy taking in the moment,” he said. “Even my wife asked me that. She was like, ‘I feel like you didn’t care. You weren’t enjoying it.’ And that’s not true.
“But it brought more joy to me to look in my teammates’ eyes and see joy in their eyes, to see the fans’ joy, seeing my coaches. That brought more joy to me than me expressing my joy outwards.”
Graveman says Whitlock is “calm, cool and collected,” no matter what happens.
“I tell Garrett, ‘We’re going to be remembered for the people we’ve impacted over our careers, not the ERA,’ ” said Graveman.
Whitlock has a message for fans who worry that he will be afraid to go up and in or have the killer instinct.
“My true message is like, hey, when I step on the mound, I’m competing my tail off. You step in that box, it’s game on. It’s like, hey, it’s you vs. me and I’m a perfectionist in my craft. But as soon as that game ends, I want to be able to serve people. I want to be able to love people.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.