Sterling Performance

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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 couldn’t run fast enough to play soccer. He couldn’t shoot hoops well enough to play basketball. He couldn’t throw hard enough to make the Little League All-Star team—but he wanted to.

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 that’s where he focused his efforts. It didn’t 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 team—one made up of the best senior baseball players in the area. It was then that he first realized he might get drafted. Hitchcock thought he’d be taken somewhere between the 25th and 30th round, but he was mistaken. After breaking his alma mater’s 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 1989 draft.

This forced Sterling to make a difficult decision—would 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.

He signed.

The rest is in the record books. They chart a rapid rise through the Yankee’s 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 in Columbus.

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 couple’s 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 do—so we went. We didn’t 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 weren’t 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 sacrifice—His life—so that they, as sinners, could have a relationship with a holy God. Then they began to attend Bible studies. Everything was great.

In 1995, all of Sterling Hitchcock’s 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 gone—in a trade that sent him to the Mariners and brought Tino Martinez to the Yankees.

"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 game—pitching 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 didn’t really get time to get settled in Seattle, but anytime I can get traded to a contender I’m fine with that," he said at the time.

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 I’m pitching against myself, I’m 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 wasn’t crazy about it, but it made sense. I knew San Diego was a good team that could go far, and I didn’t want to disrupt or detract from where the team could go."

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 what’s between your ears, what you’re thinking about when you’re 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, it’s 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 didn’t 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. I’ve never been that relaxed, that calm and focused in my life."

A relaxed Sterling Hitchcock proved to be dominating on the mound in Game 4. He battled Houston’s 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.

Sterling’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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, it’s 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 league career.

Along with him went a very special memento. The youth group at Hitchcock’s 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.

"I’m 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 I’ve dreamed about." Hitchcock’s 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 lead.

Unfortunately he couldn’t 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 pitcher—one the Padres plan to keep for a while.

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 all—his faith.

Taken from Sports Spectrum, a Christian sports magazine. Used by permission. For subscription information call 1-800-283-8333.