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September 7, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Coming soon to a theatre near you: the Steve Delabar story

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Joe Newton has been around baseball long enough to know a good story when he sees it. Newton runs The Players’ Dugout, a private baseball instructional facility in Elizabethtown, Ky. One of his regular instructors was buddy Steve Delabar, now known as a Mariners relief pitcher.
And Newton just can’t believe this is all happening to Delabar in real life.
“This is a great story,” Newton said last night. “Stevie’s probably not going to toot his own horn but this is great stuff. This is probably the first time in the history of major league baseball that this has happened.”
What happened is that a substitute teacher and baseball coach who’d given up on his playing career because of a shattered elbow found new life in a training regimen he was trying out in advance for his players. Delabar, 28, was a 29th round draft pick of the Padres in 2003 who’d played five seasons of pro ball and topped out at Class A.
He then pitched in the independent leagues in 2008 and 2009. His arm was tiring in 2009, but his coach, despite Delabar’s protests, insisted he was needed to finish off a game. He heard his elbow pop while throwing a pitch, then saw the bone jutting out from his skin as he stared at the painful fracture.
Surgeons had to wire the elbow back together, inserting a steel plate with nine screws in it that Delabar still shows to anyone brave enough to look via photo on his iPhone. His career was pretty much done in 2010, when he converted to Friday night softball player and began taking courses at the University of Louisville to finish his teaching degree.
Delabar had already amassed enough credits to begin a career as a substitute teacher. His wife was teaching full-time at John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown, so it made sense Delabar would go there for his primary work.
Oh yeah. He also helped out with coaching baseball there.
“He was like a big kid that had great workout habits,” said Adam Lindsey, head coach of the school’s baseball team at the time. “He would take kids to work out with him three or four times a week in the winter. Having a guy around with the kind of knowledge he brought was just tremendous.”
Lindsey used to teach a physical conditioning class at the high school and didn’t hesitate to have Delabar be his substitute when needed.
“I knew he would actually do something to work them out,” Lindsey said. “It wouldn’t be a vacation for the students like it is for some other guys.”
Delabar being 6-foot-5, 220 pounds carried some weight with the students he taught. So did his pedigree as a onetime pro ballplayer and one of the school’s coaches.
“I get a little loud because I’m bigger than most of them,” Delabar said. “So, I just get a little loud and they quiet down.”
A couple of his high school players were in some of his classes and Delabar had to bring the hammer down.
“They’d kind of kid a little bit,” he said.
But he learned to be flexible as a teacher.
“As a sub, you just go in, pick up the lesson plans and just go with it,” Delabar said. “Some days, I’m a second-grade teacher. Other days, I’m 10th-grade biology.”
And that’s where Delabar was headed in his life. His independent league team released him from his contract when he told them he’d be unable to play in 2010.
“At that point, I’m thinking, ‘This is probably where I fade out’,” Delabar said.
He was coaching the kids at John Hardin, teaching them everything from how many pitches to throw in an off-season bullpen session to how to survive a “superset” leg workout their head coach had devised.
But then, it all changed.
Photo Credit: AP


His buddy, Newton, over at the indoor baseball facility, decided to import a “velocity improvement program” from one of his pals, a onetime baseball coach named Jamie Evans, working out of Maryland.
“It was meant to be a pre-hab program to cut down on arm injuries,” Newton said. “Instead, we started seeing everyone’s velocity go up. I’ve never seen anything like it in my 30 years of coaching.”
The program has simply been dubbed Velocity for now.
“It’s about arm strength and arm speed,” Newton said. “Some kids have a lot of arm speed but no velocity. And some have a lot of velocity, but their arm speed isn’t all that great. This program brings the two things in-line with each other.
“It’s about underloading and overloading,” he added. “So, we go from throwing heavy balls, to light balls to no balls. Then we’ll have them hold on to the balls (not releasing them when they pitch) for the resistence part of it.”
Evans was an advisory board member of the National Pitching Association. He’d phoned Newton to tell him about the results he’d gotten and Newton decided to bring the program in to his Kentucky facility. Delabar was interested in how it could help his high school players.
“They’re good friends, they talk all the time and they’ve got this new program,” Delabar said. “And originally, I said ‘Well, I want to know how the program works. Because if I teach it, I want to know how the kids are going to react and stuff like that.’ So, I want to do the program just to tell them what they’re going to go through. So, I did it and it worked out for me.”
That was back in November.
As Delabar progressed with the program through the winter, he began throwing in the mid-90s again. He’d topped out at 94 mph with the Padres in 2004 but now could range anywhere from 92 mph to 97 mph. Newton couldn’t believe the progress he saw in Delabar, who told him he “still had plenty left in the tank.”
At that point, Newton contacted Mariners scout Brian Williams, who he’d met over the years while the latter was helping the M’s recruit high school players in the area. Williams came to see Delabar pitch while armed with a radar gun and video camera. The high school’s catcher had to be pulled out of class to catch Delabar during the quick audition.
Willimas told Delabar he’d be in touch.
In the meantime, Delabar left on April 1 with the high school team for a 7 1/2-hour ride to central Alabama on a school bus.
“The whole ride there, he was back and forth on the phone with the Mariners scout,” head high school coach Lindsey said. “They were setting the whole thing up.”
The Mariners arranged for another tryout in front of bigger brass. Lindsey completed the tournament in Alabama a few days later, rode the school bus back to Kentucky with the team, then began preparing for another tournament and the pro audition.
The Mariners liked what they eventually saw. They inked Delabar to a minor league deal and sent him to minor league spring training, where he eventually wound up with the Class A High Desert Mavericks.
There was a game in which Delabar got hit hard.
“There was a point when I first went to the High A team…I’d given up a couple of runs in a game and I’m pretty much the oldest guy in the league and I’m thinking ‘What am I really doing? Am I wasting my time?’,” Delabar said. “And then, I had a few good outings in a row and then I got promoted. I said ‘Let’s go with this.’ I’d never played in AA before, so it was ‘Let’s see what happens. I had a couple of good outings and then you start rolling from there. A couple of good months and you get promoted again.”
The M’s promoted him to AAA, liked what Delabar did in 10 outings, posting a 0.69 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings, then shocked him with the ultimate promotion.
“It’s wild, the ride,” he said. “I mean, sometimes I sit back and go ‘Is it me?’ Because really, it’s crazy.”
To the point where he couldn’t break the good news on Monday.
“It was tough, I mean, I called my wife and I couldn’t talk,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you always hear people talk about it and you go ‘Oh, I’ll be able to get it’ and ‘Uh-uh’ I broke down immediately. Then, I was like, ‘I’ve got to call my dad’ and I called my dad and I couldn’t even put words together.”
His fellow high school baseball coach, Lindsey, put it all in perspective.
“When you think about it, he was riding a school bus with us on April 1,” Lindsey said. “Now, he doesn’t have to ride a school bus. He can buy it.”
Not quite yet, but close. He gets a pro-rated share of the MLB minimum of $414,500. In other words, roughly $65,000. The whole lifetime of dreams fulfilled thing as well.
Lindsey said the news spread “like wildfire” throughout Elizabethtown on Monday night.
By Tuesday, Delabar was in a major league clubhouse, still pinching himself.
“Timing is everything,” he said.
Yes, indeed.

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