By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, July 15, 2014 — It was 11 years ago, right about now, when I drove up to the central Iowa town of Slater to watch my great-nephew Tony Watson pitch for the Dallas Center-Grimes High School Mustangs against the Ballard High School Bombers. Tony, then a senior, threw big heat and goose eggs, convincing me he had indeed become one of Iowa’s best high school pitchers ever. And I wrote a column that began, “When you have a 90 mile-an-hour fastball in the family, summer is a whole lot of fun.”
The fun has been building ever since.
Tonight it reaches a new high point when that same Tony Watson is suiting up as a left-handed relief pitcher for the National League team in the Major League All-Star Game that will be played at Target Field in Minneapolis.
She is like the Queen Mother of Baseball in the extended Offenburger family. She grew up in a family where we were all baseball nuts — girls as well as boys — and while all we boys were players, we were better at writing about it. When Beverly married Bob Watson, we found baseball’s genetic mainstream. He was a 6 ft. 5 in. catcher from Des Moines who played for old Iowa State Teachers College, for several semi-pro teams and then coached high school baseball for about 50 years (the field at Des Moines Hoover High School is named for him). The sons of Bob and Beverly were good players — including Tony’s dad Steve Watson — and they’ve gone on to become good coaches and athletic administrators. And their kids are good-to-great athletes.
Clint Hurdle, the veteran manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, knows all about the baseball lineage in the Watson family. And the first time Beverly attended one of Tony’s games in Pittsburgh, Hurdle invited her to sit in the dugout with him before the game and talk some baseball. Yes, she knows her stuff when it comes to the grand ol’ game.
Now, let me take something back here. The more I think about it, Tony Watson the All-Star is not at all the same Tony Watson I was telling you about at the top of this column.
We Offenburgers posing proudly in a “selfie” below the Tony Watson banner hanging outside PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
Of course, he is older now, at 29. He is bigger, having filled out to 6 ft. 4 in. tall and a rock-hard 225 pounds. The fastball is even faster, hitting 96 and 97 mph. He is now a deeply-experienced baseball player, having been an All-American and All-Big 12 Conference pitcher at Nebraska U., being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, spending parts of five seasons climbing in the minor leagues, now enjoying his fourth year with the big league Pirates — and he’s having a great year, as the All-Star selection attests.
There have been big changes for him, too, some professional and some personal.
In baseball, the pros eventually switched him from being a starting pitcher to being a reliever. In the first year of his college career, he underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder to repair a torn labrum, and obviously recovered well. But then five years later , he spent most of the 2009 minor league season rehabbing from a strained elbow. The pros knew what they were doing, when they switched him to the bullpen in 2010, because he’s become a whole lot better and hasn’t been injured since then.
There was crushing sadness in his early college years when his mother Angie Mellott Watson was diagnosed with cancer, was very ill for three years and then died in November of 2005. Tony and his younger sister Ashley Watson, now Nelson, grew up a lot when that happened.
There’s also been great joy. In November, 2012, he married his longtime girlfriend Cassie Kleinsmith, who had just graduated from the Creighton University Law School, and they are now expecting their first child.
The Watsons with us Offenburgers outside the ball park in Pittsburgh. (This photo and the rest of them in this column by Rev. Art Seaman)
As you probably are already thinking here, Tony Watson has a whole lot more on the line now when he’s summoned from the bullpen. That is usually in about the 7th or 8th inning, to pitch for about an inning and set things up for one of the Pirates’ “closers,” like Mark Melancon.
I know a little bit about baseball, too, and I’ll tell you that with his aging, experience, tragedy, new happiness and overall maturity, Watson is a much better pitcher now than he was in high school.
Of course, he’s throwing pitches to the best hitters in the game, so he’s not going to be as dominating as he was for Dallas Center-Grimes High School or the University of Nebraska. “Up here,” he told us after he’d been in the minor leagues for a couple of years, “just throwing hard isn’t enough. Here if you just throw it hard, they’re going to hit it a loooooong ways. You’ve really got to be a pitcher here, not just a thrower.”
In late May, as Carla and I were driving home from our son Andrew Offenburger’s graduation from Yale University in Connecticut, we spent three days going to Pittsburgh Pirates games with our friends and hosts, Rev. Art and Mary Seaman, who live in nearby Kittanning, Pa. The Seamans are real Pirates fans — Mary a life-longer — and we were all thrilled when Watson arranged for us to watch pre-game batting practice from the field.
Tony Watson welcomes us to the field at PNC Park, which has an absolutely stunning view of downtown Pittsburgh.
So there I was, having a chat with the skipper Clint Hurdle, behind the batting cage. “We think the world of Tony, and he is so valuable with what he’s doing for our ball club,” Hurdle told me. Then he said, “I know about the family. I remember sitting there in the dugout talking to his grandmother — your sister, right? That’s a real baseball family.”
Later that evening, in the clubhouse or dugout, Hurdle stopped Watson for some kidding. “Well, I talked to your uncle and he was all over me about how good you are,” Hurdle said with a big grin. “He really didn’t have to do that. I mean, I was already going to let you pitch.” Watson blushed later, telling us how his manager had poked fun at him. I loved it.
We saw Watson pitch in two of those three games, and he was “lights-out,” as they say.
I asked him how difficult it is, when he’s coming into a game, to be running in to a blast of music, other audio and video special effects, sometimes with the crowd roaring, or maybe in almost silence when they’re on the road.
“Pretty good story about that,” he said. “Do you remember Joel Hanrahan? He was from Norwalk (south of Des Moines), and he was our closer when I first came up with the Pirates. So he pulled me aside and said, ‘O.K., Watson, I’m going to do you a favor here — when they call you into the game, and they’re announcing your name, do NOT look up when you’re running in from the bullpen. Keep your eyes on the ground, get on the mound and do your warm-ups. Do NOT look up.’ So when that happened and I came into my first game, what was the first thing I did when I got on the mound? I looked up! It was awful — like a wall of bright lights — I couldn’t see a thing.”
The scoreboard says it’s Tony Watson time at PNC Park.
We had a great time catching-up on family and a lot of other matters when we got together with Tony and Cassie for a sandwich at a small restaurant bar across the street from beautiful PNC Park, where the Pirates play. They talked about what a crazy lifestyle Major League Baseball requires. They own a home in Florida, near the Pirates’ spring training base, and they rent an apartment in a high-rise in downtown Pittsburgh — you can see it from the stands at the ball park.
Something most of us don’t think of: If you add up the time they spend daily studying scouting reports, weightlifting, doing other workouts and then the games, big leaguers are generally putting in 10 to 12-hour workdays, almost seven days per week, and that pretty well stretches from February thru September, hopefully longer. Travel is constant. Hours are irregular. It can be really tough trying to maintain anything close to a normal family life, and Tony and Cassie know that it’s going to be more of a challenge when they start having children. But of course, he makes good money, and it’s probably going to be significantly more money soon. They’ve got their college degrees, and Cassie has her law degree, too, and they’re seemingly secure for whatever comes later in life.
Meantime, as Tony said to us, “It’s a dream come true, and when our schedule gets really crazy, I always remind myself that it sure beats me having to work in a cubicle every day.”
Our friends the Seamans were as impressed as Carla and I were.
“You know, we read and hear all those stories about how professional athletes make all this money while they’re playing, and so many of them just blow it,” said Art Seaman, a retired Presbyterian minister who has seen a lot in life. “When their playing careers are over, they’re worn out physically, they’re broke, many of them have very little education, and they really become sad cases.
“That said, I’m not a bit worried about Tony and Cassie Watson,” Art said. “That’s a young couple that really has it together. It’s going to be great following them the rest of the way.”
Tony Watson’s major league baseball career is now in full stride.
So tonight at the little farmhouse in west central Iowa, Carla and I will play the Major League All-Star Game about like we do most Pirates games. We’ll be listening to an audio stream on the Internet. About the fifth or sixth innings, we’ll start getting a little nervous, wondering if we’re going to hear Watson called from the bullpen. Of course, we know in an all-star game, he might not get called at all, but that sure doesn’t diminish the honor of having made the squad.
I’ll have on my Pirates ball cap. Carla and I may grab our Tony Watson-autographed baseball and flip it back and forth as we sit in front of our side-by-side computers. His signed baseball card is on the file cabinet. I’d be wearing an authentic Pittsburgh jersey with No. 44 and “Watson” on the back, if I’d had my way when we were at PNC Park. I thought I should get a jersey, but Carla talked me out of it when we saw that it was going to cost about $150 and have to be custom-made, to have his name and number on it. Remember, his fame is still growing in Pittsburgh and, at that point, he hadn’t yet been chosen an All-Star.
When we were having the sandwich with Tony and Cassie after the ball game, I told him how I was thinking of buying one of those jerseys, and that it was going to be $150. “That’s ridiculous!” he said. “I hope you didn’t do it.”
Uh, this week during the All-Star game, I see where the ball club’s “P Shop” is now offering an “Authentic Pittsburgh Pirates Tony Watson Road Jersey With 2014 All-Star Patch and Stars.” The price: $262.99. (You can see it by clicking here.)
Of course, I’m thinking about it. (The foreheads of Carla Offenburger and Tony Watson have just hit the table.)
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.