by Gwen Dia
The sparkling pitching that made Sterling
Hitchcock MVP of the NLCS proves that perseverance pays off
Not too many
years ago he was just another overweight, unathletic little kid. He couldnt run fast
enough to play soccer. He couldnt shoot hoops well enough to play basketball. He
couldnt throw hard enough to make the Little League All-Star teambut he wanted
Sterling Alex Hitchcock had dreams. Big dreams. Dreams that he refused
to let die. He dreamed that one day he would play a sport professionally. The more people
tried to squash his dreams or steer his life around them, the more determined he became to
make them come true.
Hitchcock worked hard to reshape his physique and increase his
strength. Speed was another story. No amount of effort seemed to push him past the
category of "slow." His uncooperative feet kept him from excelling in sports
such as soccer and basketball, and they limited him pretty much to the mound in baseball.
So thats where he focused his efforts. It didnt hurt that he was left-handed.
Just before his senior year in high school, all his hard work and
determination began to pay off. He began attracting more than just the players
parents at the summer American Legion games in which he pitched. Taking their seats on the
hot metal bleachers and shading their eyes from the relentless Florida sun, college and
major league scouts began taking notice of the kid from Seffner.
Following a good fall baseball season at Armwood High School, Hitchcock
finally made an All-Star teamone made up of the best senior baseball players in the
area. It was then that he first realized he might get drafted. Hitchcock thought hed
be taken somewhere between the 25th and 30th round, but he was mistaken. After breaking
his alma maters records for ERA (1.32 in 3 high school seasons) and fanning a record
number of batters (209 in 143 innings), the Yankees selected him in the ninth round of the
This forced Sterling to make a difficult decisionwould he go to
the University of South Florida and pitch with a buddy of his as they had planed, or would
he sign to play professional ball right out of high school? The dreams, and all the hard
work that had gone into making them a possibility, tipped the scale.
The rest is in the record books. They chart a rapid rise through the
Yankees farm system and his donning of the major league pinstripes in 1992 at the
age of 21. They show that Sterling Hitchcock made his way back to the Bronx again in 1993
and joined the bullpen in 1994. They record that in 1995 he made 27 starts (11-10 with a
4.70 ERA) and clinched a wild-card playoff spot for the Yankees, giving them their first
postseason berth in more than a decade, by defeating Toronto 6-1.
There was a lot of pressure in New York. Hitchcock felt that he had to
throw every pitch as if it was his last, hoping not to be sent down to the Triple A team
During spring training of 1994, he had found a new source of strength
and peace in his life. It allowed him to cope with the tension and anxiety. Sterling and
his wife, Carrey, had been invited to a couples house. "There was supposed to
be music and food and some guy making clay pots." He explains. "I figured it was
Tuesday night during spring training, and there was nothing else to doso we went. We
didnt know it was a Bible study. We had been searching and searching for something
in our lives. We were 22 or 23 years old, making over $100,000 a year. I had achieved some
degree of fame, and we still werent happy. That night we found out what it was we
were searching for. It was Jesus Christ."
Both Sterling and Carrey invited Christ to take over their lives.
They asked Him to give them the peace and joy they had been searching
for. They thanked Him for coming to earth to provide a way for them to know God and for
making the ultimate sacrificeHis lifeso that they, as sinners, could have a
relationship with a holy God. Then they began to attend Bible studies. Everything was
In 1995, all of Sterling Hitchcocks childhood dreams were a
reality. He had just been told how much confidence the Yankees had in him; how he would
factor into the postseason play; how much they believed in him. Then suddenly he was
gonein a trade that sent him to the Mariners and brought Tino Martinez to the
"I learned a lot," Hitchcock said, on a radio interview,
about his one full year in a Yankee uniform. "I learned how to be counted on every
fifth day; how to go out and get some innings; and how to keep us in the game. All of a
sudden I was thrown into the ace of the staff role due to injuries . . . . It
was the biggest learning year of my career." He expressed no hard feelings after the
trade. He was just thankful for the opportunities he had been given.
The lefty took everything he learned in New York with him to Seattle.
There he was forced to master another aspect of the gamepitching with pain. Quietly
and dependably, he continued to do his job. Chuck Snyder, the chapel leader for the
Mariners, used the word consistent to describe Hitchcock both personally and
professionally. But by the end of the 1996 season, shoulder and elbow injuries forced him
to sit out. Then, after a single season with the Mariners. Hitchcock found himself dealt
to the Padres in exchange for some right-handed help for their bullpen. He later admitted
that this second trade was hard to take, but without grumbling he headed to San Diego, his
third team in 3 years.
"I didnt really get time to get settled in Seattle, but
anytime I can get traded to a contender Im fine with that," he said at the
It was also his first year swinging the bat. "He was even more
awful than anyone could have expected," one scouting report stated, adding, "but
he did prove to be an adequate bunter."
"Hey, anytime Im pitching against myself, Im liking
those odds as a pitcher," he says with a chuckle.
Nineteen ninety-seven was a difficult year. A cranky elbow caused him
to use his signature split-finger pitch less, forcing him to throw more sinkers and
sliders. Hitchcock chalked up only 10 wins in 28 starts while posting a 5.20 ERA.
Heading into 1998, the Padres desperately needed a lefty in the pen.
Hitchcock, despite having been a starter for 3 years, was handed the job.
Once again, he did not criticize or complain. "It was clear from
the beginning that being put in the pen was not a demotion or the result of anything I had
done," Hitchcock explains. "It was because they had confidence that I could do
the job. I wasnt crazy about it, but it made sense. I knew San Diego was a good team
that could go far, and I didnt want to disrupt or detract from where the team could
Looking back, Hitchcock feels that "going out there (to the pen)
was probably the best thing for me." It allowed him to learn to come back; to be
aggressive and go after people. Dave Stewart, then the Padres pitching coach, helped
him learn to prepare mentally as well as physically, training him to focus between
innings. Hitchcock explained that any pitcher in the big leagues has the ability to get
people out. "The main difference is whats between your ears, what youre
thinking about when youre on the mound or sitting in the dugout between
innings." Sterling learned to attack batters instead of letting them attack him.
His confidence grew as he rejoined the rotation in early May. Once
again, its all in the record books: 27 starts; a 9-7 record; with a 3.90 ERA. By the
end of the season, Hitchcock was being considered for the third spot in the rotation on a
team headed into postseason play.
Generally a very laid-back individual, Hitchcock was anything but laid
back as the Padres entered the Division Series. He was uptight and ornery.
"In Houston, I didnt know whether I was going to start Game
3 or Game 4. I had my game face on for 4 or 5 days," he remembers. "I was not a
nice person to be around. It drove my wife nuts!"
A friend happened to call on the day of his first start.
He suggested that they pray together. "In the middle of the
prayer, I felt myself starting to relax," Sterling explains. "I felt all the
tension leaving. Ive never been that relaxed, that calm and focused in my
A relaxed Sterling Hitchcock proved to be dominating on the mound in
Game 4. He battled Houstons Randy Johnson and won convincingly, allowing three hits,
no walks, and only a single run while striking out eleven in six innings. The victory sent
the Padres into the National League Championship Series against Atlanta.
Sterlings phone friend continued to come through. He called
before each start after that. The southpaw was superb in his two starts against the
heavily favored Braves and the two Cy Young Award winners he faced. He out-pitched future
Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddox in Game 3, and he beat Tom Glavine (also destined for
Cooperstown) in the clincher on just 3 days rest.
"I remember the night before Game 6 of the NLCS," he recalls.
"I wasnt able to sleep, so I picked up my Bible and started to read from the
Psalms. Again, I was able to relax and go to bed and fall asleep."
Sterling Hitchcock was the unanimous pick for the MVP of the NLCS,
pitching ten innings, giving up only five hits, one run, and striking out fourteen. He
even swung the bat well, scoring after a single in Game 3 and driving in two runs with a
line drive that Danny Bautista bobbled in Game 6.
"I was on cloud nine. It was incredible. Never in my wildest
dreams did I think this would happen to me. I was thrilled to death!" The awe and the
excitement are still fresh as he recounts the feelings several months later.
"But," he adds with genuine humility, "I didnt feel I necessarily
deserved it. When you have to win four games, there are a lot of people involved in
winning. I just did the best I could do to help my team." He pauses thoughtfully and
adds, "Had it not been for God and the peace He gave me, its hard to know what
the outcome of those games would have been."
The World Series took him back to New York, where he had started his major
Along with him went a very special memento. The youth group at
Hitchcocks San Diego church put together a large card made of construction paper. It
was eight to ten pages of personal notes and Bible verses. In his hotel room, Sterling
looked up the verses and read the notes. "It was great to know during the Series that
so many people were praying for me," he acknowledges gratefully.
"Im enjoying this," Hitchcock told reporters who asked
about the pressure of pitching against his former team. "This is a lot of fun. This
is what Ive dreamed about." Hitchcocks opportunity to pitch in the World
Series came in front of the Padres home crowd at Qualcomm Stadium during the third
game. Although he was still recuperating from a bout with respiratory flu, he did his
part, pitching into the seventh inning and handing over the ball with his team in the
Unfortunately he couldnt keep the Padres from losing that game by
a run and from experiencing an embarrassing four-game sweep. But Sterling Alex Hitchcock
had established himself as a dominating pitcherone the Padres plan to keep for a
The little boy with big dreams had come a long way from the playgrounds
and Little League fields of Seffner, Florida.
How did he do it? How did an unlikely, unathletic little kid toting
nothing but great big dreams end up as the MVP of the NLCS? Dogged persistence, a quiet
consistency, and most of allhis faith.
Taken from Sports Spectrum, a Christian sports magazine. Used by permission. For
subscription information call 1-800-283-8333.