Once obstinate and uncoachable, Homer Bailey has seen the error of his early ways…and now vows to help other young pitchers living through their own tough times through his experience.
There are people, and we all know them, who are so obnoxious and overbearing that when one sees them coming the other way, we look for a door to duck into or a hole in which to fall and hide.
That was the case when I first met Homer Bailey. The Cincinnati Reds drafted him No. 1 off his father’s chicken farm in LaGrange, Tex. in 2004.
When he reported to spring training he was an arrogant know-it-all. He considered it demeaning to answer questions from writers. His answers were short, caustic and flippant. If you walked past him in the clubhouse he didn’t have the social skills to nod his head, let alone say hello.
So for two years I pretty much ignored him. Who needed some brash young kid to make your day miserable? I could make myself miserable.
What we all forgot was that he was 18 years old and didn’t stray far off the farm in his youth. In high school he was 41-4 with 536 strikeouts in 298 innings. He pitched LaGrange High School to a Texas state championship in 2001.
So who needed advice from a manager, coaches and fellow pitchers? He knew how to pitch, he knew how to get batters out. Just cock your wrist and throw hard.
Well, no he didn’t. Professional hitters are not riding school buses and eating lunch in a school cafeteria.
Bailey had to learn the hard way, the School of Hard-hit Knocks. And he did.
It was Bailey’s fourth year in camp and he had advanced to Class AA Chattanooga. On the first day of camp in Sarasota, Fla., I was walking toward the front door of the clubhouse when somebody behind me yelled, “Hey, Hal. How was your winter?”
I turned around and the only person I saw was Homer Bailey, scrambling down from a black pick-up truck jacked high on tractor-sized tires. I looked around. It couldn’t be Bailey.
But it was. And he caught up with me, shook hands, asked about my family and walked into the clubhouse with me. He was changed, a mature man instead of an immature kid.
I never asked what happened to him. Was it natural maturity or did somebody get to him and straighten him out. And that spring he listened to his manager, his coaches and veteran pitchers.
Now Homer Bailey is my favorite Reds player. He is cooperative, effervescent, always ready with a smile, always ready to chat.
While he’ll talk baseball and pitching all you want, he’ll also talk politics, bow-hunting, horse-riding (he has two roping horses) and books. He loves Larry McMurtry novels and has read ‘Lonesome Dove’ several times.
Why not? For a while he was a lonesome dove.
And he is ready to pay-it-forward for all the young pitchers on the Reds staff.
“If they’ll listen, like I didn’t early in my career, I can help them,” he says. “They can learn from my mistakes. I’ve lived it.”
When Cody Reed began his major league career this year 0-and-6, Bailey felt empathy. After all, Bailey was 0-and-6 in his eight starts with the 2006 Reds with a 7.93 earned run average.
On the night Reed lost his sixth straight, Bailey grabbed him after the game and said, “C’mon, you’re going home with me tonight.” And Bailey took him home and said, “We’ll drink a few beers to loosen him up and I’ll give him all the encouragement he needs. The kid has good stuff and is going to be a good pitcher for a long time. He just needs a little support and maybe some tough love.”
And Bailey understands what No. 1 draft pick Robert Stephenson is going through. Bailey sees a lot of his old self in what he has seen and heard about Stephenson, especially after Stephenson’s Louisville manager Delino DeShields went off on him publicly a couple of weeks ago.
After a miserable Stephenson performance, a bunch of walks and lack of command, DeShields said, “This is what we’ve been going through with this kid for the last three or four years. Until he makes an adjustment, it’s going to continue. It’s not going to get better. It’s on him. He’s been told what he needs to do and what he needs to work on by numerous coaches and staff members. It’s up to him to make those adjustments. If I was him, I’d be embarrassed.”
Those words sounded familiar to Bailey. He heard them, too, when he was young, vulnerable and stubborn.
So Bailey has a plan for the winter.
“I’m going to invite all our young pitchers to join me in Austin and we’ll work out together,” he said. “I’ll show them what it takes, how to work out the right way. And I’ll talk to them about demeanor and attitude and how to be successful. I’ll do that for anybody who agrees to join me.”
Bailey hopes Stephenson does it. Bailey lived it and learned it, as two no-hitters attest. Injuries, of course, have interrupted Bailey’s career, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a Big Brother, a mentor, a psychological and physical advisor toward paving the path to success.
Bailey became a good listener and now is a good talker.