Witasick on deck for fresh start with Padres


Jay Witasick describes his baseball career as a roller coaster ride.

Some ride. The 1990 C. Milton Wright graduate is coming off two consecutive trips to the World Series, and he recently signed a two-year contract with the San Diego Padres valued at an estimated $2.75 million.

The average baseball fan would consider those appearances as career high points, but not Witasick. He says that just being in the major leagues is a great experience. "There are no bad days in the majors," he said a few days before reporting to the Padres' spring training base in Arizona.

Not even the dreadful inning in the 2001 World Series when New York Yankees manager Joe Torre allowed him to be hammered for 10 hits and nine runs by the Arizona Diamondbacks?

"No. I understood why [Torre] kept me in the game. That one inning doesn't accurately reflect my career," he said.

Before his trade to the Yankees, Witasick had posted outstanding statistics while being used as the setup man for San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman. He said that is when his emotional roller coaster leveled off.

San Diego was the fourth organization that he played for since being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in June 1993. He was later dealt to the Oakland A's as part of the trade that sent Todd Stottlemyre to the Cardinals. His third stop was Kansas City.

The first three organizations projected him as an eventual major league starter. Because of his outstanding fastball and excellent control, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander posted creditable stats in the minors.

Once on the major league scene, it became obvious that to become a consistent winner he needed a third pitch. The Royals had him work with a changeup, but he soon found that trying to learn another pitch while in the majors is not easy.

He never became part of the starting rotation, and his role with the Royals became even more muddled when they sometimes used him as a "long reliever."

"Physically I felt fine, but emotionally I was in turmoil," he said. "I found it difficult trying to prepare myself properly." Then came the break he had hoped for.

Once he reported to the Padres, he was given a definitive role. "Kevin Tower, the general manager, said the club thought I could easily fill the role as setup man out of the bullpen. I felt extremely comfortable in that capacity and spending time talking to coaches and other member of the bullpen only reinforced my confidence."

When the Yankees acquired him to bolster their bullpen for the 2001 stretch run, Witasick received assurances from San Diego that if he ever became available they would do all within their power to bring him back. It took a little more than a year but they eventually made good on their promise.

After the 2001 season, the Yankees dealt Witasick to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder John Vander Wal. He signed a one-year contract valued at $1.25 million and earned another visit to the World Series, thus becoming the first player from Harford County to participate in back-to-back Fall Classics.

"It was a fun season just watching Barry Bonds shatter the single-season home run record," Witasick said, "and, of course, making the World Series was a bonus." This time his club lost to the Anaheim Angels.

Once again, the business of baseball pushed his career in another direction. The Giants felt a need to sign free agent replacements for the departed Jeff Kent and Russ Ortiz, making Witasick expendable.

Within days of being released by the San Francisco Giants, offers were coming his way. Several clubs made substantial bids, but Witasick signed with the Padres. The deal (two years guaranteed with a club option for a third season) has given him financial security for the first time in his career.

"Now I have the opportunity to give back to the community as well as living the good life," the 30-year-old bachelor said.

A recent national publication rated Witasick among the top 10 relief pitchers who could become a club's No. 1 closer. Witasick feels he has the talent, character and mental toughness to succeed in that role.

The opportunity could come sooner than he expected because the Padres have announced that pitcher Trevor Hoffman might require further surgery, which probably would sideline him for more than two months.

Witasick's talent, character and mental toughness were obvious during in his first start as a JV player at C. Milton Wright. His coach recalls that with the Mustangs leading 9-0 going into the final inning and Witasick tossing a perfect game, he made wholesale substitutions.

Witasick struck out the first two batters and got the third player to hit a lazy fly ball to left field. The left fielder, one of the late substitutes, camped under the ball only to have it carom off his glove for an error. The coach called time and made a visit to the mound and told his pitcher not to blame the fielder - blame the coach.

Witasick took the baseball and fired three fastballs past the next batter.

At least he had his no-hitter.

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