Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Sinclair gets another crack at Major League dream

By Tom Hawthorn
The Times Colonist

September 28, 1997

Not so long ago, Steve Sinclair had called it quits, had hung 'em up, had stepped down from the pitcher's mound for good, had seen his childhood dream go to that big bullpen in the sky. He had languished in the Toronto Blue Jays system for five yearsand the closest he got to the bigs was listening to Buck Martinez on TSN. He had had enough and came home to Victoria at age 24 to go to school, to get a job, to become a grownup.
He worked as a doorman at a fancy hotel and, on some summer eves, threw bullets and hit taters against amateurs at the same parks in which he had played as a kid. He decided he still had a love for the game. He also decided his left arm was meant for better things than holding open doors.
So, this spring he returned to the same small Florida town where he had toiled for so long for so little reward, and once again began the climb up baseball's ladder. He ended the season in Syracuse, New York, just one level below the parent club.
Along the way, his fastball picked up some zip. He had been throwing in the 88 to 89 m.p.h. range for years. After taking up weight training, Sinclair was throwing in the 92 to 93 m.p.h. range. It is the difference between a fastball that is ho-hum and one that is a hummer. As they age, ballplayers are expected to add heat to aching muscles, not to their pitches.
"Maybe I'm just a late bloomer," Sinclair says with a laugh.
Sinclair leaves today for Toronto to join Canada's Olympic team, for whom he will pitch in a qualifying tournament in Mexico City. He will then become one of the Boys of Winter, playing for Lara in Venezuela at the suggestion of the Blue Jays.
At spring training, he expects to be battling for a spot in Toronto's bullpen.
At 26, Sinclair is closer than he ever has been to earning the baseball immortality that goes to those who play in the major leagues. "Once you're in Triple A, you're just one phone call away," Sinclair says. "One injury away. One little break."
He got one of those little breaks this summer when the Jays traded relief pitchers Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric to Seattle. The Jays have yet to post a Help Wanted sign for their bullpen, but every vacancy helps. Sinclair is a left-handed relief pitcher, a baseball commodity for which demand never lessens.
First, though, he will get an education in beisbol. He knows little of Venezuela, speaks only "pequito" Spanish - not yet even enough to get himself a cold cerveca after a game - and truly hopes the fans do not carry the same passion for ball that they do for soccer. "All I know is that we're not going out on New Year's Eve," he said. "They shoot their guns off in the air to celebrate, so I guess we'll be staying in and having a party of our own."
Venezuela is a long road trip for someone who first fell in love with ball watching his father, Scott, play for the Seaboard fastpitch team in the 1970s.
"I would go on all their trips with him," he recalled. "I'd have a ball and bat in my hands when I got up from bed and I'd have a ball and bat in my hands when I went back to bed at night."
His first big break came in the minors when Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick came to take a look. Gillick, a former minor leaguer himself, hunched down behind the catcher to get a better look at Sinclair's stuff. Another prospect would have been intimidated by having his future depend on a few tosses. Not Sinclair.
"I was just up there letting loose," he recalls, "letting him know what I had."
His arsenal has improved over the years. Bull sessions in the bullpen with the likes of Frank Viola have taught him that pitching is far more than just rearing back and throwing.
"I've learned that to be successful you have to pitch inside and change your speeds. Once you pitch inside, you widen the plate both inside and outside.
"Most of the time, I lived outside. I had a good sinker and threw outside, outside, outside. At Triple A, you face much better hitters. They can take that pitch the opposite way. But if you can throw consistent strikes inside, then that's going to keep the hitters off balance."
Sinclair's repertoire includes a fastball, a changeup, a curve, and a split-finger fastball that he has yet to refine.
He was 2-5 in Dunedin, allowing 63 hits in 68 1/3 innings, showing good control with 66 strikeouts to go with just 26 walks, three of those intentional.
At Syracuse, he pitched just nine innings over six games, recording a 6.00 earned-run average with no decisions. He had nine strikeouts and three walks.
"I look at my numbers and I go, wow, 6-something, that's not so good. But you only need three or four good innings and that comes way down."
On a recent hot afternoon, Sinclair limbered up on a mound at Lambrick Park, tossing big looping curveballs to a friend, Todd McLaughlin. Sinclair wore a Blue Jays cap and a team windbreaker. In a year's time he could well be throwing curves from the mound at SkyDome.
If so, his name and statistics will be included in the Baseball Encyclopedia, the registrar of baseball immortality that shows that in a century and a half of organized ball, only a single Vancouver Islander, Steve Wilson, a left-handed pitcher, ever made the bigs.
Still, Sinclair's friend had a better reason to cheer for his friend's success. "I want him to make the big bucks," McLoughlin said, "so he can come back home and buy the beer."

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