Purpose pitcher

The Baltimore Sun

Jeremy Guthrie's story is of a former first-round draft pick and top prospect who struggled to meet hefty - and perhaps unfair - expectations that were placed on him. Ultimately, he was forced to go elsewhere to get an opportunity, and when he did, his powerful right arm reminded everyone what the hype was all about.

It is certainly a feel-good story, especially for Orioles fans who have waited patiently for the organization to develop top-flight young pitchers, only to watch one drop in its lap on a $20,000 waiver claim. However, in the cutthroat, produce-or-else world of professional sports, this type of redemption story is not especially unusual.

But other things beyond his vast talent make Guthrie, 28, unique in the clubhouse he inhabits. He's an avid collector of sneakers who harbors dreams of working for Nike. He turned down a major league contract from the New York Mets to serve a Mormon mission in Spain. He didn't pick up a baseball for two years in the prime of prospect development, but when he finally did again, he was better than he had been.

"His mission was like everything else in life," said Bryan Smith, his roommate for a year at Brigham Young University and one of Guthrie's closest friends. "He took it very, very seriously. He pushed everything to the side - baseball; his girlfriend Jenny, who is now his wife; his family. It was the hardest thing that I've ever done and I didn't have to walk away from a contract from the New York Mets or a professional career."

Guthrie, who went on the mission in 1999 after his freshman year at BYU, called the two years he spent in Spain the best time of his life. He learned to speak Spanish fluently, spending 15-hour days studying and teaching and spreading his religion. Not once did he pick up a baseball.

"Really, everything I do from then on was influenced and based on what I learned and experienced during those two years," Guthrie said. "Sometimes people question if baseball is important. Of course it is, but it's not more important than my faith."

Smith wondered what would become of his friend's baseball career. "He told me that if he came back and threw a fastball at 75 mph, he'd have no regrets," he said.

When Guthrie enrolled at Stanford in fall 2000, he had gained 20 pounds and his fastball was being clocked at 92 mph, harder than he had thrown before. It was quite the revelation for Guthrie.

"I was in better shape for whatever reason after not training for two years than I was before I left," he said. "It was a great blessing. It was one of the things that helped me realize I was blessed with the health and strength that I was given. Before I didn't have it and then I didn't do anything for two years, and all of a sudden I had more of it."

After picking him in the first round of the 2002 draft, the Cleveland Indians signed Guthrie to a four-year, $4 million big league contract. The Indians had high hopes for him.

Though Guthrie expresses no ill will toward the Indians, he said: "I continually heard people tell me how I struggled to meet expectations when the expectations were theirs, never mine. On top of that, they were measuring it by the way I pitched out of the bullpen, and I never did that in the minor leagues. I didn't understand how they could judge me based on a position that I wasn't comfortable with."

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said the organization thought Guthrie was further advanced when it drafted him out of college, where he was the only Stanford pitcher to have two 13-win seasons and once pitched a 13-inning complete game to beat Cal State-Fullerton in an NCAA tournament regional contest.

"I do think that the pressure that came with the contract and the No. 1 pick didn't help the situation," Shapiro said. "He didn't execute his pitches constantly like he's doing now for a variety of reasons. Anytime you see a guy like that succeed, you wish it could be in your uniform, but if you're in this game long enough, you're going to have decisions where the timing doesn't work in your favor."

Coming to Orioles

The Orioles claimed Guthrie off waivers in late January from the Indians. The Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Devil Rays had the first crack at him, but both passed. Meanwhile, the Orioles got glowing reports from scout Dave Hollins and current interim manager Dave Trembley.

"I felt that he was a major league pitcher pitching in the minor leagues," said Trembley, whose teams faced Guthrie several times in the minors.

So the Orioles claimed him, feeling he had a chance to make the team in spring training as a reliever. He did and then stepped into the rotation full time in May, when injuries hit Jaret Wright and Adam Loewen, and he has became one of the American League's best starters.

Guthrie, relying primarily on his fastball, threw seven shutout innings of two-hit ball against the Oakland Athletics on Sunday, improving his record to 6-3 with a 2.88 ERA, the fourth best in the AL. He has given up two earned runs or fewer in 12 of 16 starts.

"I didn't know who he was, to be honest with you, but I never would've imagined that he'd have this kind of arm strength, consistently throwing 93 to 97 miles an hour," Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar said. "He's been unbelievable."

His success has not surprised his former teammates in Cleveland, for whom Guthrie made one major league start and 16 appearances in parts of three seasons.

"He has got tremendous stuff, and you always knew he was going to put it together," said Indians All-Star center fielder Grady Sizemore, who came up through the minors with Guthrie. "It was just a matter of when."

Guthrie has benefited from working with pitching coach Leo Mazzone, but more than anything else, he has enjoyed starting every five days, knowing he is not auditioning for a role on the team. The common criticism of Guthrie had been that he overanalyzed everything, affecting his game plan and execution on the mound. He disagrees with that perception.

"I feel like the confidence has grown more," Guthrie said. "Right now, I'm just very comfortable with the idea that I can attack guys and my team is going to make good plays behind me. I don't think the change of scenery has necessarily helped me pitch better, but it's given me an opportunity. I had no opportunity had I gone with Cleveland to spring training. It would have taken two or three [injuries] for me to even have a chance."

Shapiro and his assistant GM, Chris Antonetti, called Guthrie during the All-Star break to congratulate him on his first half.

"No one felt good about taking him off the roster," Shapiro said. "He's definitely a guy where every single person in this organization is happy for his success."

A perfectionist

Shapiro said Guthrie was the only player who has ever sent him and the Indians owner a thank-you note after he signed a contract.

Tammy Anderson, one of his teachers at Ashland High School in Oregon, said she recently was approached by a current student who was holding a copy of a newspaper article about Guthrie. When Guthrie heard of the student's interest, he asked Anderson to give the student his e-mail address and encourage him to write.

Anderson was one of about 40 family and friends who attended last week's game in Seattle, each coming to Safeco Field wearing a No. 46 Orioles T-shirt. Guthrie said he had been expecting maybe four or five people to show.

Those who know him well describe Guthrie as a perfectionist who doesn't like to deviate from his routine. Every time Guthrie is set to pitch on the road, he sizes up the mound a couple of days earlier and practices his delivery while using a towel to mimic the ball. Several times, grounds crew members, intent on getting the mound ready for the first pitch, have tried to hustle him off.

But as his close friend Smith learned long ago, Guthrie sees things to the end. The night before Guthrie's wedding, the two stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to settle a score in the video game Crossfire.

"He hates to lose," said Smith, a Southern California-based attorney. "We'd argue about who would win at basketball and it would be midnight and he'd want to go outside and settle it right there. I think he could have played QB at BYU. He's one of those guys that everybody hates because he's good at everything he does."

In his senior year at Ashland High, Guthrie was the Most Valuable Player for the football, basketball and baseball teams. He put up staggering numbers as a high school quarterback but was overshadowed by another quarterback in the state, Joey Harrington, who would go on to star at the University of Oregon on his way to an NFL career.

It is Guthrie's position as class valedictorian that makes him a target in the Orioles' clubhouse.

"Borderline nerdy," cracked Millar when asked to describe Guthrie. "He's a Stanford boy, probably the highest SAT scorer on the team. We were at L.A. City Junior College, where we could get in with a 700 SAT score. I was trying to write my name correctly, and this guy was doing trigonometry."

Guthrie is one class away from earning a sociology degree from Stanford. Ultimately, his goal is to get a job possibly designing sneakers for shoe giant Nike, which is headquartered in Oregon.

Guthrie has collected basketball shoes since he was in seventh grade and boasts of having 60 pairs of Air Jordans, about 45 of which are unworn. He even keeps the shoes that he had when he was younger, cleaning them regularly. In Seattle last week, Guthrie proudly walked around the clubhouse, showing off to teammates a new pair of sneakers he had just gotten.

"That's my passion," said Guthrie, an outdoorsman who goes biking daily and rides to Camden Yards from his place in the Inner Harbor and back on most game days. "I get excited about new shoes and stuff like that."

Balancing act

As his pitching profile rises, Guthrie, the father of two young children, continues to work hard to maintain a balance among his family, faith and job. But it has been difficult on occasion. As a junior at Stanford in 2002, Guthrie was scheduled to face Texas in a College World Series bracket final in Omaha, Neb. But the game also fell on his first wedding anniversary.

Determined to celebrate it while also being ready later in the day to face the Longhorns, he wrangled Kyle McRae, an assistant media relations director at Stanford, to drive him and wife Jenny to the water early in the morning to board a riverboat cruise.

During the past weekend's series in Oakland, Guthrie spent significant time talking with Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who came to Saturday's game with his family. Young, whose great-great-great- grandfather was Mormon church founder Brigham Young, has been a mentor for the Orioles pitcher for the past few years.

"There are a lot of Mormons that have had a lot of success in sports, but Steve is at the pinnacle," Smith said. "He was able to balance having a good family life, staying involved in the church and still be at the top of the game. I know that's something that Jeremy respects."

That sense of balance very much defines Guthrie's outlook on life.

"Everything I do, I enjoy," he said. "When I'm at the baseball field, I enjoy that. When I'm riding my bike, I enjoy that. When I'm with my family, I enjoy that."

NOTE -- Guthrie will be at ESPN Zone in the Inner Harbor today at noon for a question-and-answer session with fans and to sign autographs.jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.

Guthrie's five

Five facts about Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie:

Speaks fluent Spanish.

Was class valedictorian at Ashland (Ore.) High.

Is one class shy of a sociology degree from Stanford.

Owns 60 pairs of Air Jordans.

Rides a bicycle to and from Camden Yards.

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