Former all-star Danny Graves rediscovered his spark and is working his way up through the Twins' system.
By Kelsie Smith
Article Last Updated: 06/07/2008 11:53:26 PM CDT
In the Rochester Red Wings' clubhouse, manager Stan Cliburn's team gathers for a meeting. Things haven't been going so well for the Class AAA squad, and there are issues, Cliburn says, that need "to be ironed out." He takes his turn, then opens the floor to his players.
The first to speak up in a room peppered with young men dreaming of their first big league call-up is a 34-year-old pitcher looking for one more shot.
Danny Graves knows what these kids want. Once a premier major league closer, he's been there, done that. And then, one season removed from an all-star year, Graves lost his job.
More than two years since his last major league appearance, Graves signed with the Twins late in spring training and has worked his way up from Class A in an attempt to resurrect his big-league career.
And so, when Graves tells his teammates to have fun, that the respect you have for the game will come back to you, that you must play each game as though you'll never play another, it's not just overused hyperbole — it's what he knows.
"The game," Cliburn says, "has humbled this man."
LOSSES PILE UP
Perhaps you remember Danny Graves, the former Cincinnati Reds closer who in 2004 compiled 33 saves by midseason, who was a two-time all-star and was the first Vietnamese player in major league baseball.
Or perhaps you just remember that moment in 2005 that garnered so much national attention, when a fan allegedly hollered a racial slur at Graves, who was struggling mightily for Cincinnati, and Graves responded with an obscene gesture. Two days later, the Reds telephoned the pitcher who had saved a franchise-record 182 games in nine seasons and told him he'd been cut.
The year before, Graves had recorded 41 saves, but the year before that, the Reds had asked the right-hander to move to the starting rotation, a failed experiment that left him with decreased velocity and a loss of sharpness on his pitches. When he was cut, Graves' earned-run average had swollen to 7.36.
Graves finished the season with the Mets, and in 2006 he signed with Cleveland, but the Indians designated him for assignment in May. He signed with Colorado before the 2007 season, but the Rockies released him during spring training.
Amid his baseball troubles, Graves was working through a divorce from his now ex-wife, Andrea, the mother of his four children (three sons and one adopted daughter). The grief of separating from his wife caused him to wish away his days at the ballpark, looking forward instead to his postgame social life.
"At the time, you really don't think that once you step between the lines it's going to bother you, but obviously that's a lot of wear and tear mentally," Graves says in a telephone interview. "We have children together. It just beat me up. I just kept going out there trying to play, thinking I was OK, but now I know deep down that there was no way."
Somewhere, though, between losing his job with the Reds, losing his wife, being cut by the Rockies, and accepting that after establishing himself as one of baseball's top closers he had to start over, Graves fell in love with baseball again.
PEACE AT HOME
The awakening of Danny Graves started in the 2005 offseason, the very same time Graves and Andrea decided to split up, when he found himself going out most nights and one or two drinks turned into a few or more, when he was through with the Mets and didn't know where he'd end up once pitchers and catchers reported in February.
That same offseason, Graves, with his mother, Thao, and Andrea by his side, traveled to Vietnam.
The son of an American serviceman and a Vietnamese mother, Graves left the country when he was 14 months old, shortly before Saigon fell during the Vietnam War. He had never been back, and his mother, scared that talking about her life there would lead to trouble for the family she left behind, didn't tell her children about her homeland.
Walking across fields dotted with land mines, looking to give his birthplace a piece of himself, marked the beginning of Graves' renewed love for the game and simple appreciation for his everyday life.
He went to Vietnam to build baseball fields, and he left with perspective.
"You see these people that live over there, and the way that they live," Graves says, "it's like these people have absolutely nothing, and they're absolutely the happiest people ever and the nicest people ever.
"They don't care about materialistic things, they don't care about money, they're just happy to be living and happy to be a family, happy with what they have. It goes to show that sometimes we can get so spoiled over here and think that we need everything, but we don't. That's why going into this year playing baseball, if it wasn't going to happen, then it wasn't going to happen. I wasn't going to lose sleep over it."
A FRESH START
After spending 2007 in the Independent League, Graves e-mailed about 20 general managers in January. He asked for a last chance, said his drinking was under control and he had found peace after his divorce. He was ready, mentally and physically, he wrote, to pitch again. Graves got three or four thanks-but-no-thanks responses and, from Twins GM Bill Smith, one maybe.
"Over the course of a year, we get a ton of e-mail," Smith says. "Once in a while, something just strikes you. It was a heartfelt letter that said "I've made a lot of changes in my life, and I'm looking for one last chance." Once in a while, you see that and you think, "well, what the heck." It didn't cost us anything to bring him down (to throw for scouts in Fort Myers). You might get lucky on the field, and maybe something benefits him off the field."
Throwing in front of senior adviser Terry Ryan, minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp and vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff, Graves "made enough of an impression for us to sign him and give him that chance," Smith says.
Graves began in extended spring training, the first time he'd been there in his career. He moved to Class A Fort Myers, then to AA New Britain and finally to Rochester.
"The timing of everything," Graves says, "was almost like it was on time for Danny Graves."
When he arrived in Rochester, Cliburn had a question for the reliever — would he start?
Starting baseball games does not bring back good memories for Graves, who went 4-15 with a 5.33 ERA during his season as a Reds starter and who says he "always told myself that if I ever had to start again I would probably retire." But throughout his evolution as a person, Graves has evolved as a pitcher. Unable to throw in the mid-90s as he did during his closer days, Graves says, he has finally learned how to pitch, throwing four pitches for strikes with a hard-sinking fastball that induces ground outs.
So when Cliburn asked about starting, Graves said yes. He's now 2-1 with a 3.99 ERA in six starts for the Red Wings and, to his own surprise, "it turns out that this is the most fun I've had. I love starting now."
There isn't much about baseball Graves doesn't love, and he is quick to let his young teammates know how lucky they should feel. Cliburn says the veteran has brought a new chemistry to the clubhouse, that he offers advice to anyone who wants it and that he immediately became a team leader. Graves enjoys sharing his experience with his team, but he still hopes that sometime this season he will find himself with a new one.
"I saw Tom Kelly when he came in the other day, and he was kind of joking with me, saying, 'Wow, you're making every stop, huh?' " Graves says of the Twins' special assistant and former manager. "I said yeah, and we both simultaneously said, 'We have one more to go.' "