Spoone, Erbe: brothers in arms

Even a baseball novice could've told you which high school pitcher would make the majors.

At a lean 6 feet 4 with a fastball that crossed 95 mph and uncommon poise for a teenager, McDonogh's Brandon Erbe could have been cast by Hollywood as a young Jim Palmer.


Chorye Spoone? Well, the player from Northeast High was a chunky kid with an unruly temper whose fastball topped out at 87 mph.

But a funny thing has happened since the two local pitchers were picked by their hometown Orioles in the 2005 draft.


Erbe, 20, pitched better at first, creeping onto lists of the best prospects. But when he reached Single-A Frederick last year, his mechanics went haywire and his ERA soared.

Spoone, 22, struggled initially with his control and demeanor. But by the end of last season, with a sinker added to his arsenal and fat chiseled from his frame, he was Frederick's best pitcher.

Now, Spoone is the guy on the prospect lists with a chance to pitch in Camden Yards later this summer. Erbe is the kid who needs to get back on track.

This would all be compelling enough if the two weren't close friends.

But the brash kid from Pasadena and the calm one from Pikesville shared an apartment in Frederick last year. Spoone has passed his love of deer hunting to Erbe. When Erbe's girlfriend is in town, the couple double-dates with Spoone and his fiancee.

"Brandon is so hot," said Spoone's younger sister, Jordan Patton.

Said Erbe's mother, Patty: "They are not just baseball friends. They're really tight."

Though Spoone is at Double-A Bowie while Erbe remains at Single-A Frederick, the pitchers call each other after every start. They realize they might have to fight for the same spot with the Orioles someday, but that has never led to unfriendly competition, Spoone said.


"It's more like if he strikes out 10 and walks one, I want to strike out 11 and walk none," he said. "But then I want him to come back and be even better the next time. You push each other."

Erbe said: "I think it's awesome to watch Chorye get everything he worked for."

Spoone first told his mother and stepfather he would play in the big leagues when he was 5. Sure, they said, and patted him on the head.

He had talent. That much was clear when he frightened fellow Pasadena Little Leaguers with his hard curveball (high school teammates christened the pitch "the dirty").

But coaches couldn't believe the kid's attitude.

If a teammate made a mistake behind him, he cursed into his glove or threw his arms out in exasperation.


"They all wrote him off," recalled his stepfather, Mitch Patton. "Said he was uncoachable."

His pitching drew scouts to Northeast, but a few things scared them.

For one, his fastball lacked major league sizzle. Then there was his weight -- 250 pounds on a 6-1 frame.

"He was fat," said his little sister, Jordan. "It looked like he had a package of hot dogs shoved in the back of his neck."

"Usually, when you go to a game, you can pick out the one you're there to see pretty quickly," said Dean Albany, who scouted both pitchers for the Orioles. "With that team, you could look at all the players and have no idea which one was Chorye Spoone."

Spoone was named to the All-Anne Arundel County team as a senior but wasn't drafted. He moved on to junior college at CCBC-Catonsville.


There, you didn't play for coach Dan Blue unless you could run two miles in less than 15 minutes. It took Spoone 21 minutes when he arrived. This brought him to a reckoning.

He could waste all the scraping that his parents, Mitch, a forklift operator, and Tammy, a bartender and office clerk, had done to support his dreams. Or he could haul himself out of bed for a swimming class every morning and run at least two miles every day.

"I just put in my head," he said, "that if this is what I want to do, this is what must be done."

As the pounds melted away, his pitching velocity rose.

The Orioles took notice, grabbing the local boy in the eighth round, 150 spots behind his future buddy, Erbe.

His Rookie-level debut in Bluefield did not go smoothly. He couldn't find the plate enough and couldn't stay calm when a bad bounce went against him.


After that season, he met Jennifer Kunze, a Pasadena girl who would become his fiancee. She and his agent urged him to think about what his temper might cost him.

Spoone's performance improved at Single-A Delmarva. He remained intense on the mound, pumping his fist and yelping after big outs, but he shelved the negativity.

When he reached Frederick, he discovered a new weapon. His thumb hurt one day, so he started messing with a two-seam fastball grip instead of a four-seamer. Manager Tommy Thompson's eyes grew wide as batters helplessly pounded Spoone's sinkers into the dirt.

He dominated down the stretch. This spring, ESPN's Keith Law listed him the 96th-best prospect in the minors. Baseball America ranked him eighth in the Orioles' system, two spots ahead of Erbe.

Only the majors could be better for Spoone, who commutes to Bowie from his parents' house. When he starts home games, 20 or more relatives and friends pack Section 101 behind the plate.

"That a baby, Chorye," his mother screams, louder than anyone else in the crowd.


In his second start of this season against the Reading Phillies, Spoone looked like a major leaguer. When defensive miscues put runners on base in the first two innings, he ended each threat with a strikeout, pumping 94 mph fastballs past overmatched farmhands. He didn't have ideal control of his curve, but batters flinched and froze at the knees when he tossed the breaking ball after one of his killer fastballs. Spoone has since gone on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis but is expected back shortly.

"There's no question he has the ability and the pitches to start in the big leagues," Bowie pitching coach Mike Griffin said. "Now, it's just about refining everything."

Spoone's pal, Erbe, was a more highly touted prospect.

He caught baseball fever from his father, Brent, an Arbutus entrepreneur who loved watching the Orioles at newly opened Camden Yards.

He was so calm his mother dubbed him "Ice-man." Certainly, no one questioned his gifts.

"He was a kid who had a great arm ever since he was 12 years old," Albany said.


After Erbe's fastball hit 95 mph at summer showcases before his senior year at McDonogh, college recruiters and major league scouts swarmed his house. The Orioles had seen enough to believe he was a steal in the third round of the 2005 draft.

The local kid made them look like geniuses, striking out 48 batters in 23 1/3 innings at Bluefield. "He was just so much more mature than me," said Spoone, who was two years older than his new teammate.

Said Erbe of his fast start: "It surprised me. These guys I was facing looked like men. But I came out throwing real hard. My arm felt great."

Erbe's success continued the next season at Delmarva. Prospect hounds began calling him a future ace. His fastball was so good he barely needed a curve or changeup.

Then, the hop got him.

Erbe had always jumped forward on the mound after lifting his left leg to begin his delivery. He had never noticed, and coaches had always let the mechanical flaw go because the results were so good. But at Frederick, Erbe was unable to repeat his delivery consistently, and Carolina League hitters were good enough to take advantage.


"When you have that kind of wild delivery," he said, "if something is a little bit off, it throws your pitches way off."

After an ugly 16-4 loss in May, he told himself just to forget it. But he couldn't.

As his outings got worse and worse, Erbe tried to fix his mechanics mid-game.

"I just didn't know what to do," Erbe remembered. "I tried everything, but I just couldn't figure it out."

As Erbe's season collapsed, Spoone entered such a groove that he seemed apt to throw a no-hitter every time out. When the two sat in their apartment after one of Erbe's bad starts, Spoone gave his friend space, then offered tips or tried to cheer him up over games of Guitar Hero.

The Orioles asked the right-hander to go to Florida for Instructional League in October to get back on track. There, pitching supervisor Dave Schmidt spent weeks smoothing out his delivery. Erbe watched the hop disappear gradually on video.


When he returned to Frederick for the winter, he worried his gains would somehow vanish as he waited three months to pitch. He woke at 8 a.m. every day to run and lift weights with fellow pitcher Jason Berken. It was too cold to throw, but he practiced his motion over and over in front of a mirror. He reported to spring training almost a month early.

His dad hadn't seen him throw since the previous summer and saw "an entirely different pitcher."

"Wow, what a change," Keys pitching coach Blaine Beatty said. "It's night and day. He's been lights out, controlling three pitches in the [strike] zone."

Erbe has gone 3-2 in his first six starts with a 3.82 ERA, and just six walks against 34 strikeouts in 35 1/3 innings.

"I'm where I wanted to be," he said. "That's a huge relief."

With one eye on his friend's results, Spoone hopes for a Bowie reunion.


"He's got a great arm," he said. "There's no reason he can't be here."

Chorye Spoone

Age: 22

Hometown: Riviera Beach

High school: Northeast


Current team: Bowie Baysox

The skinny: Hard-throwing sinkerballer who bloomed late but moved to Double-A Bowie this year after a dominant 2007. Rated eighth-best prospect in the Orioles' system by Baseball America.

Brandon Erbe

Age: 20

Hometown: Pikesville

High school: McDonogh


Current team: Frederick Keys

The skinny: Orioles thought they got a steal when they picked the hard-throwing right-hander in the third round in 2005. He lived up to expectations in his first two seasons but struggled in 2007. He's trying to pull it back together for Single-A Frederick and is ranked 10th-best prospect in the system by Baseball America.