Leake's path conjures memories of Abbott

Leake's path conjures memories of Abbott

MIAMI -- Pitcher Mike Leake wasn't just admitted through the velvet ropes of a Major League clubhouse on Sunday when he debuted for the Reds. Leake was ushered straight into an even more exclusive group.

Call it the "21 club," for the number of drafted players that skipped the Minor Leagues since the First-Year Player Draft began in 1965. If anyone could best relate to what Leake is experiencing in these very early days of his pro career, it's Jim Abbott.

No drafted player had debuted in the Majors since outfielder Xavier Nady with the Padres in 2000, and no American-born pitcher skipped the Minors for the Majors since Darren Dreifort with the Dodgers in 1994. But no starting pitcher made such a jump since Abbott did it with the Angels in 1989.

"People have sent me articles," said Abbott from his home in Southern California, before Leake's debut. "I think it's great if you're ready and the opportunity is there. Pitching is 60 feet, six inches -- it doesn't matter where or who is batting. It's about locating pitches. I could do that well."

Since Leake was born in 1987, he wasn't even 2 years old when Abbott debuted in the Majors.

"I watched him a little being that I grew up in Southern California," Leake said. "I was still pretty young. It was remarkable what he did, not only for not playing in the Minors but that he did it with one hand. To be put into a category with him is pretty cool."

That category isn't the sum of what the two pitchers of different generations have in common.

Leake and Abbott were both successful college pitchers -- Leake with Arizona State and Abbott with Michigan -- but they weren't the most heralded of their class. Coincidentally, both were the eighth overall selections in their respective Drafts. Abbott's selection came in 1988, but he did not pitch professionally because he participated with the U.S. Olympic Team, which won the gold medal in Seoul.

During the early days of Spring Training, Leake seemed to have a distant chance, at best, among the wide array of contenders for the fifth spot in the Reds' rotation. The presence of fellow candidate, and Cuban defector, Aroldis Chapman also kept the spotlight squarely away from Leake.

Leake performed well in camp and steadily put himself into the forefront of the conversation. Chapman might have won the job, but was briefly sidelined by back spasms, which was enough to prevent him from making the team. It came down to Leake and lefty prospect Travis Wood for the final rotation spot, and Leake won it.

When told how Leake made the Reds, those circumstances seemed rather familiar to Abbott.

Spring of Leake
After being named the Reds' fifth starter, Mike Leake became the 13th pitcher and 21st player overall to be selected in the First-Year Player Draft and skip the Minor Leagues completely.
Draft Player School MLB team
Spring 2009 Mike Leake* Arizona St. Reds
Spring 2000 Xavier Nady Cal-Berkeley Padres
Spring 1995 Ariel Prieto* Fajardo University (Cuba) A's
Spring 1993 Darren Dreifort* Wichita State Dodgers
Spring 1989 John Olerud Washington St. Blue Jays
Spring 1988 Jim Abbott* Michigan Angels
Spring 1985 Pete Incaviglia Oklahoma St. Expos
Spring 1978 Tim Conroy* Gateway H.S. (PA) A's
Spring 1978 Bob Horner Arizona St. Braves
Spring 1978 Brian Milner Southwest H.S. (TX) Blue Jays
Spring 1978 Mike Morgan* Valley H.S. (NV) A's
Spring 1973 David Clyde* Westchester H.S. (TX) Rangers
Spring 1973 Dave Winfield Minnesota Padres
Spring 1973 Eddie Bane* Arizona St. Twins
Winter 1973 Dick Ruthven* Fresno St. Phillies
Spring 1972 Dave Roberts Oregon Padres
Spring 1971 Pete Broberg* Dartmouth Senators
Spring 1971 Rob Ellis Michigan St. Brewers
Spring 1971 Burt Hooton* Texas Cubs
Spring 1969 Steve Dunning* Stanford Indians
Spring 1967 Mike Adamson* South Carolina Orioles
*Denotes pitcher

"When I got to big league camp, I don't think it was expected that I'd make the team," Abbott said. "But there was an injury in the rotation and it created an opportunity. I was in the right place at the right time."

Abbott, who also was unique in the game because he was born without a right hand, debuted for the Angels on April 8, 1989, vs. the Mariners, and he gave up three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in a 7-0 loss. He finished the season 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA.

Leake made his big league debut on Sunday vs. the Cubs, and he was by all accounts, a success, despite his getting a no-decision in a 3-1 Reds win. The 5-foot-10 right-hander gave up one earned run and four hits with five strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings. The only downside was the seven walks he allowed. At the plate, he was the first Reds pitcher to collect two hits in his debut since 1929.

Major League start No. 2 for Leake comes on Friday vs. the Pirates.

The move from college to the Majors is profound, especially for pitchers. Most NCAA games are played over three-day weekends from February to May. Of course, the Major League season spans 162 games, plus Spring Training and the postseason.

"There was definitely a transition because there was a lot of attention, publicity and there was also the rigor of travel. It's definitely a big jump," Abbott said. "Being 21, I remember that I had to buy a coat and tie to travel. It was the little things that I think back to. At the end of the season, I was very tired.

"On the mound, I was pleasantly surprised after moving away from aluminum bats because my cutter was more effective. That helped me."

Like Abbott, Leake appears to have been spared endless hours on a Minor League bus riding from town to town for games. He never had to spend time in cramped Minor League clubhouses or get that tingle that comes with being called into the manager's office after a strong stint in Triple-A and being told he was going to the Majors for the first time.

However, thousands of ballplayers have paid those dues, and it's certainly not every day they are side by side in the big league clubhouse with someone who hasn't.

"There were definitely guys that gave me a hard time, but in a fun way," Abbott said. "They'd say, 'You don't know about bus rides,' etc. It was a very veteran team. Doug Rader was the manager, and it was a very interesting team to be called up to. Bert Blyleven and Bob McClure took me under their wings. They bought me dinner a lot."

Abbott's best season came in 1991, when he was 18-11 with a 2.89 ERA, and although he improved his ERA to 2.77 the following season, he finished a mind-boggling 7-15.

With the exception of a 1993 no-hitter for the Yankees against the Indians, Abbott did not reclaim the form of his early seasons in the Majors. He finished his career with an 87-108 record and 4.25 ERA.

And the bus trips Abbott missed on the way up, he got to experience in his final seasons of pro baseball as a 30-year-old.

"I don't have any regrets," Abbott said. "The opportunity was there and it wasn't my decision. I was happy to go right into the Majors. I ended up going to the Minors later in my career, so I kind of did it backwards. Finishing like that had nothing to do with how I started. I had a lot of good memories."

Now 42 and working as a motivational speaker, Abbott still keeps an eye on baseball and was at the Angels' home opener last week. He doesn't normally follow the Reds, but at least every fifth day, he plans on checking in to see how the 22-year-old Leake fares this season as a rookie.

"I'll absolutely be paying attention," Abbott said. "Wish him luck from me."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.