The Yankees selected Fresno State righthander Doug Fister in the sixth round of the 2005 amateur draft and expected to sign him.
College juniors taken in the first 10 rounds almost always sign, knowing that any negotiating leverage disappears once they become seniors.
But after sitting down with his father, Larry, and Bulldogs coach Mike Batesole, Fister turned down the Yankees.
“I wasn’t ready for professional baseball physically or from a maturity standpoint,” Fister said. “I liked school. At the time, I wanted to be a teacher and was working toward that.”
Fister was drafted again in 2006, falling into the seventh round. When he signed with the Seattle Mariners, it was for roughly $50,000 less than what he would have received from the Yankees.
But there were no regrets. Fister made his major league debut with the Mariners in 2009, moving quickly through the minor leagues.
“It turned out to be a terrific decision for him,” said Batesole, who still coaches Fresno State and remains close to Fister. “His first win was against the Yankees when he was a rookie. Doug has always done things his own way.”
It was a similar streak of independent thinking that led Fister to the Red Sox this season. Now he’s one of the most important players on the roster as the postseason approaches.
When Fister became a free agent last November, teams regarded him as a fallback option. He had been part of Houston’s rotation throughout the 2016 season but was 0-4 with an 11.74 earned run average in September.
“That was held against me,” he said. “Teams focused on that, and it was something I couldn’t really escape. But I knew I was better than how I pitched that month.”
By January, Fister was showcasing himself for teams with bullpen sessions and simulated games at Fresno State. It continued through February and March.
“Teams would send decision-makers to watch Doug and tell us, ‘He looks great,’ ” Batesole said. “Then nothing would happen.”
Several teams, the Red Sox among them, were willing to sign Fister to a minor league deal. But at 33, with a wife and young daughter, he wasn’t willing to go back to the minors.
Prior to that wretched September, Fister had a 3.45 career ERA and a history of success in the postseason. He didn’t consider himself a minor league pitcher even if others did.
“I was willing to wait,” Fister said. “If no team wanted to sign me, so be it. That wouldn’t have been the end of my life.”
It wasn’t until May that Fister was offered a major league contract. The Los Angeles Angels signed him for $1.75 million with the proviso that he would pitch in Triple A for a limited time to prepare. Fister was willing to do that.
After three starts in the minors, the Angels had to make a decision on Fister and they placed him on waivers rather than add him to their roster. The Red Sox, at the time desperate for a starter, claimed him.
Fister had several rocky outings early on. But since replacing the injured David Price in the rotation in late July, Fister is 5-2 with a 2.79 ERA in seven starts. He has worked seven or more innings in five of those games.
When the Sox set their rotation for the postseason, Fister deserves to follow Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz. He has outpitched Rick Porcello to this point.
“He pitches with such conviction,” manager John Farrell said. “You see in his body language; you see it in his attack plan. He’s got a clear understanding of what he’s trying to do on the mound. That’s a testament to the work he puts in, the preparation he goes through.”
Fister only occasionally breaks 90 with his fastball but uses a curveball, splitter, and sinker effectively. At 6 feet 8 inches, he creates angles that make it difficult for batters to pick up the ball.
“Athletically, he’s a Gumby,” assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister said. “Very flexible.”
The Red Sox have had Fister start his delivery from the far edge of the pitching rubber to the first base side. His front leg swings to the middle and aligns his arm to the plate. That stride was an adjustment made in July.
“The coaches here have really helped,” Fister said. “It’s been a process, but we’re seeing the results.”
For Fister, such adjustments have tended to come easily. He was a first baseman in junior college before going to Fresno State and showed enough for the San Francisco Giants to draft him in 2003, albeit not until the 49th round.
“We saw him hit and made him a pitcher,” Batesole said. “But he was a defensive replacement at first base and a pinch runner, too. Doug is a tremendous athlete. But it was clear his future was on the mound.”
Fister is 4-2 with a 2.60 ERA in nine postseason games. One of his victories came for the Detroit Tigers against the Red Sox in Game 4 of the 2013 ALCS. Fister allowed one run over six innings and struck out seven. But the Red Sox won the pennant and then the World Series.
“I don’t have that ring yet,” Fister said. “That was one of the reasons I was glad to come to Boston. This team has a chance to do great things. The guys on this team, we pick each other up.”
Fister still lives in the California town where he grew up, not far from Fresno State. When he’s done playing, he has a few classes remaining to finish his degree in elementary education and plans to do that.
He still wants to be a teacher, turns out.
“There were teachers in my family and that was my goal,” Fister said. “Maybe someday I’ll do something in that. Baseball wasn’t something I planned on.”
It helps explain that willingness to do what he felt was right, even if it wasn’t the conventional path.