“I let life and baseball intertwine and almost choke me..."

...he rediscovered his love for baseball over whiffle ball with his childhood friends...

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Andrés Hax dijo...

May 12, 2007
Studying the Majors, With 200 Books to Go
SEATTLE, May 11 — Matt DeSalvo sat in silence at his Yankee Stadium locker before his major league debut on Monday, buried in the written word. It is his most comfortable position.

In his hands, he held a small book with gilded edges. It was not a scouting report, and it was not a Bible, either. It was Confucius, DeSalvo said later, and the pages were covered with circled passages and notes he had made in the margins.

“It’s just what I’m reading right now,” DeSalvo said. “I like to read different philosophies, just anything, the way I see this world. We spend a whole lifetime trying to figure ourselves out. Like I’ll read a book and try to think, what’s this mean to me? And I’ll apply it to myself.”

When he finishes Confucius, DeSalvo will cross another title off his list of the 400 books he wants to read before he dies. He is halfway through the list already, having devoured 17 books during spring training alone. Teammates marvel at this.

“For me to read a 200-page book,” said the reserve catcher Wil Nieves, who caught DeSalvo in the minors, “it would probably take two years.”

When he finishes the list, DeSalvo said, he will write another novel. His first, called “Love’s Travels,” was written three or four years ago and has been seen only by himself and an editor. Its topic, he said, is the way a person’s concept of love changes over time.

“He’s bright, there’s no question about that,” said Mark Newman, who oversees the Yankees’ farm system. “But he’s also exceptionally curious, which I think, for a person’s life, is maybe more significant. I mean, he really wants to know things, and not just the way to throw a changeup.”

DeSalvo, a boyish-looking 26 years old, could pass for Ferris Bueller but probably never cut school. The world is a classroom for DeSalvo, who pitches on Saturday at Safeco Field against the Seattle Mariners, the team he held to one run and three hits over seven innings in his debut.

DeSalvo was the Yankees’ 10th different starter in their first 30 games, a major league record for such an early point in a season, and he was surely the most unlikely.

A graduate of Marietta College in Ohio with a degree in environmental science, DeSalvo was never drafted. The Yankees signed him as a free agent in 2003 when he was a fifth-year senior still refining the circle changeup that has become his best pitch.

The first time DeSalvo threw it, he said, in the Division III College World Series, he hit a batter. On Monday, he made the two-time batting champion Ichiro Suzuki look foolish while flailing at it.

DeSalvo has a wide repertory that also includes a slider, a curveball and a splitter. A right-hander with the sensibilities of a lefty, DeSalvo said he had no problem with off-speed pitches but admitted to feeling vulnerable about a more elementary pitch, the fastball. It is akin to an English major mastering Salinger but stressing over Seuss.

“It’s a constant struggle to have the feel for it,” DeSalvo said. “It’s just weird, because you throw the fastball so much you figure it’s burned in your muscle memory, but it’s the complete opposite. It’s almost like I wake up in the morning thinking, how do I throw a fastball?”

DeSalvo said he knew that sounded strange, but it was the truth. He is the kind of person who handles things directly, a lesson he learned from his disastrous 2006 season. A personal issue sidetracked DeSalvo so badly that the Yankees dropped him from their 40-man roster in January.

DeSalvo will not say what the issue was, except that it was not related to a woman. Newman said it was not a substance-abuse problem or anything related to DeSalvo’s health. Whatever it was, it was traumatic enough to send him spiraling from Class AAA Columbus to Class AA Trenton.

He was terrible at both levels, with a combined 6-10 record 6.40 earned run average and more walks than strikeouts.

“I let life and baseball intertwine and almost choke me,” DeSalvo said. “When I was on the mound, I was thinking about life stuff, and when I was in life, I was thinking about baseball. So I was constantly mad about everything, and I couldn’t let myself figure it out because I was so consumed with anger and all the other dark emotions.”

As it turned out, DeSalvo said, he just needed some distance from the game. At home in western Pennsylvania after the season, he rediscovered his love for baseball over whiffle ball with his childhood friends. When he started pitching again, the lessons he had ignored from his coaches suddenly made sense.

After a few adjustments in his delivery, in which he creates deception by turning his back to the hitter, DeSalvo regained his confidence. Then came a call from his agent telling him the Yankees had cut him to clear space for the free-agent infielder Miguel Cairo.

DeSalvo hung up and called Newman, who explained that the team was gambling he could get through waivers coming off such a poor season.

“I’m not sure he felt good when we were finished, but at least he knew the rules and the facts,” Newman said. “Typically, guys will have an agent call for them, but I really appreciate it when a player calls, because then we can communicate without a third party.”

No team took a chance on DeSalvo, who had won the organization’s pitcher of the year award for Trenton in 2005. The Yankees invited him to spring training, where his stuff looked sharp and so did his mind.

DeSalvo passed the mornings reading quietly by his locker. For a while, he was consumed with “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus. He found the central fable applicable to his life.

“I took a lot out of it, like the struggle of humanity, how Sisyphus rolls a boulder up a hill and he finally reaches where he wants to be, and the boulder rolls down the hill,” DeSalvo said.

“Most people in that situation, what do they do? They’re like, ‘Aw, man, I got to go get this.’ But what he says is, why not see that boulder as your ultimate goal? It’s almost as if you’re proud to be pushing that boulder, that boulder’s giving you meaning.

“And even though the boulder rolls back down, you dwell on how you succeeded in pushing it up and dwell on life — Hey, I have something to do still. So it’s almost like giving meaning to your life.”

DeSalvo considered the obvious analogy to his career. By 2005, he had nudged the boulder to the top. In 2006, when it tumbled back down, he cursed the boulder instead of enjoying the pushing. Now he is a Yankee with his boulder on the peak.

“And you know what?” DeSalvo said. “In Seattle, it might roll back down. But that’s all right. I’ll still have a smile on my face.”

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