LOS ANGELES — The story is one Mike Sheppard Jr. has told before, and it is one he will tell again, because it is as relevant now as it was then, as true now as it was then, and from the perspective of a high school baseball coach 33 years into his tenure at a New Jersey powerhouse, as revealing as any story can be about the core of a player willing to put his team above himself.
All you have to do is ask Sheppard if he remembers an example of a time his program’s best-ever player, a senior pitcher with a minuscule ERA and near-perfect record on the cusp of the Gatorade national player of the year award, a teenager just days away from the Major League Baseball draft where everyone knew he was a lock to go in the first round, was willing to put all of it at risk for the sake of his team. Just ask him, and the details of a June 2007 game at Seton Hall Prep pour out.
“Can I remember?” Sheppard says over the phone from New Jersey, his voice thick with incredulity this would even be a question. “I could pick several incidents in high school that really project that, but the one I remember most came in a state tournament game, the No. 1 team versus the No. 2 team [Don Bosco Prep], playing here at Seton Hall Prep. There had to be 2,500 to 3,000 people watching. It was wall-to-wall people.
“The game begins and we get behind, Rick’s pitching and we’re behind by a few runs. It starts to rain, there’s a rain delay. We go back in the locker room and come back out after 20 minutes. Rick was also one of our better hitters, so he’s up, we have a man on first and second or something like that, and he hits a ground ball in the hole at shortstop. The shortstop felt he didn’t have a force out at either base, so he decides to go across the diamond and throw to first. This was the first week of June, and not too far after the game he was going to be in the draft. We knew he was going to be a No. 1 draft pick, we weren’t sure who, but he was four or five days from that game he was going to be drafted.
“He ended up running down the first-base line, beat the ball, and proceeds to dive head first into first base. The umpire says safe, we go on to score a few runs, and win the state championship. I said, ‘Rick what the hell are you doing? The draft is next week? Why would you chance the money? Why would you ever do that?’ He looks at me straight in face, and says, ‘Coach I want to win a state championship.’
“Even the guys on the team looked at him like he was crazy. But he just lived in the moment. There was so much attention toward him. At games, we’d have 40 scouts, cross-checkers, GMs fly in to see him pitch. That was all great. But he was living in the moment. He was a high school senior and he wanted to do everything he could to be a good high school teammate.”
It’s a trait Rick Porcello has never lost.
Sure, it’s a testament to the wisdom of those countless scouts who did indeed watch him become a first-round pick of the Tigers 11 years ago that Porcello is preparing to start his first career World Series game here in Los Angeles on Friday. It’s a credit to his skill that he’s followed a solid professional start to his career in Detroit with a better second act in Boston, getting traded to the Sox in the 2014 offseason, signing a lucrative contract extension and winning the Cy Young in 2016 with a 22-4 record and 3.15 ERA.
But the actions that speak even more to the kind of teammate Porcello is have been on display this postseason, where he has expanded his role to include lock-down eighth-inning reliever to go along with top-of-the-rotation starter. Two crucial eighth-inning outs against the Yankees in Game 1 of the AL Division Series before starting the Game 4 clincher in the Bronx. Another critical clean eighth inning against the Astros in Game 2 of the ALCS before starting Game 4, which the Red Sox would win without him getting a decision. Just like high school — whatever the team needs, Porcello will raise his hand to do it.
“Yeah, it was a high throw and I thought I could get under the tag by sliding,” he recalled, veering from his high school coach’s recollection by insisting he was out by at least three feet. Either way, Prep won that title. And either way, the 29-year-old is here to try and win his first title since. Though he reached the World Series in 2012, his Tigers were swept by the Giants and his only appearances came out of the pen. With another shot at a ring, he’s all in.
“It’s why you play the game,” he said. “It’s all about winning. Especially this time of year, when you’ll make any sacrifice you can to help the ballclub win. It’s sounds clichéd but that’s what this is all about — get some Ws and wear a ring.”
Porcello has made his money — he still owns a home in New Jersey, he has another in Vermont where he can spend countless hours at his second favorite pastime, fly-fishing. He gets the most out of life, recently adopting a puppy from the litter of Drago, the German Shepherd owned by the Red Sox groundskeeper, and is a family guy through and through, still loving the company of his parents and two brothers. He is grounded — which is one of the characteristics Sheppard loves most.
The coach was driving home a few years back from his own son’s game at St. John’s University in New York, stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge, when the phone rang. It was Porcello, who wanted to know what he could do for the baseball program at Seton Hall, what the kids needed to really succeed. When Sheppard told him of a piece of land they were hoping to develop with a stadium equipped with a year-round turf field, Porcello had a quick response.
“I think we can make that happen,” he said.
A year ago, Porcello Field was dedicated on campus, built in part with a $1 million donation from the pitcher. He didn’t want it named after him, but school officials insisted. Porcello finally gave in. All they had to tell him? That’s what was best for the school. For the team.
He couldn’t say no. He never can.