Before Kevin Gausman was a key member of the Orioles rotation, before he was a top prospect and a top-five draft pick, he struggled to find his way off the bench as a kid. Before an adolescent growth spurt gave him the long frame he owns today, Gausman was undersized, and often forgotten.
That would sometimes mean some frustrating rides home from games for Gausman when his father, Clair, would encourage him that if he continued to work hard, he could be successful. Clair’s aspirations for his son didn’t include the major leagues at the time. Instead, he stressed that baseball could one day help him get an education.
Kevin’s brother, Brian – seven years his elder – pitched collegiately at New Mexico State and in the Kansas City Royals minor league system. The family would make a regular summer pilgrimage from their suburban Denver home to Omaha, Neb., to watch the College World Series so Gausman could see it in person.
At the core of a year of development — one that featured countless modern baseball and fitness axioms coming together to improve 18-year-old pitcher Grayson Rodriguez — was a high school senior who knew good wasn't good enough.
“I think it was a little tough, looking back on it, it definitely was,” Clair said. “We’d have some rides home after games and he didn’t feel good about baseball. When he was younger, he was in tears and he’d say, ‘I’m not getting to play.’ It was tough. I think one of the difficult things to do as a parent is to judge how good your son is as a player or even as a student sometimes.
“We really pushed playing in college,” Clair said of Kevin, the youngest of his three children. “We went to the College World Series most years and we said to him, ‘You know college baseball is a realistic goal. If you work hard, you’ll find a place that will want you.’ And I’ll be honest, we never really thought about MLB until his senior year when a rival coach said, ‘You know, he’s going to pitch in the majors someday.’ ”
On Father’s Day, Gausman credits his father — a retired science teacher who was also a college football official for 25 years — for pushing him beyond those modest goals and into the major leagues. Gausman, 27, was drafted in the sixth round out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010, but instead went to LSU — one of the top college baseball programs in the country — and was drafted fourth overall by the Orioles in 2012.
“I think he saw that I loved it and had a passion for it and he really pushed me,” Gausman said. “I kind of contribute all the arm strength I’ve had my whole life to him. We have a big baseball field two blocks from my house, so we would just go out there. I wanted to be an outfielder growing up, so he would just hit me pop flies for what seemed like hours.
“I would just try to see how far I could throw it and get further back and by the end of the day my arm is hanging and I’m complaining about it. But looking back, I think he definitely pushed me. I mean, he caught so many bullpens in my backyard. He had multiple bruises on his shins. He definitely had some scars from catching me and my brother.”
Gausman grew up idolizing Randy Johnson and while Clair told his son he wouldn’t have the benefit of being left-handed or being 6 feet 10, they could work on his arm strength. When Gausman and his father came back from a game, they’d throw long toss until the sun went down.
“Kevin wasn’t big as a kid, and I think that fueled how hard he worked,” Clair said. “He wanted to throw a baseball so hard that the other dugout got quiet. … But he was really dedicated to that, and I think the fact that he didn’t play that much when he was younger really motivated him. He’d be playing with his friends and he’d get one at-bat or he’d throw a couple innings in a tournament and that didn’t sit well with him. It wasn’t until he was about 14 or 15 when he started stretching out and everything started to come together.
“That’s why I think he worked so hard then and why he still does. I remember his last game as a senior when they lost in the state tournament. He came home and went out for a couple-mile run not knowing when his next game would be. He still continued to put in work.”
Gausman said he learned that work ethic from taking note of his father’s passion — being a college football official. He remembers watching Clair practice perfecting his signs in the mirror, he’d watch his father’s games during the football season, and because his birthday is in January, Kevin’s present was often accompanying his dad on his bowl trip. In his 25 years as an official, Clair was selected for 17 bowl games.
“He saw that I was very committed to rule study and staying in shape, and being a college football official, that led right into it,” Clair said. “It’s a reason to stay in shape, it’s a reason to know the rules, and the reward was a bowl game.”
Clair worked his way up from officiating youth games to high school and small college games until becoming a Division I official, working in the Big 12 and Mountain West conferences.
When college football first enacted instant replay in 2006, Gausman found himself working the replay booth headset during the MPC Computers Bowl (now the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl) in Boise because they were understaffed.
“I look over before the game and there’s Kevin with the headset on, and then about the second quarter, it starts raining so he takes it off and the headset’s sitting on the ground,” Clair said. “I think we had one replay in the game.”
Said Gausman: “They had a replay in the third quarter, and my dad comes running over to me and I’m on the sideline and I had the headset and everything and I [gave it to him] and I’m on the field and I’m on the scoreboard. All my buddies back home were like, ‘Dude, I saw you on TV.’ That was pretty cool.”
Clair now gets to see his son pitch at the major league level, something he never imagined when Gausman was that undersized kid. Clair’s still in officiating, working as an officials scout on behalf of the NFL, helping evaluate officials at different levels.
“He dedicated a lot of time to being good at what he did, which was reffing,” Gausman said. “He had something that he was really passionate about and he put a lot of time and effort into being really good at it. I think that’s where I learned that from.”