Eyes on the Prize

Everyone's All-American Joe Savery and the top-ranked Rice Owls fight for college baseball glory

The extremely charmed baseball life of Bellaire's Joe Savery crashed headfirst into reality last April 2. Sitting in a dugout on the New Orleans campus of Tulane University, the Rice sophomore experienced something completely new and utterly strange, something that had never happened from his tee-ball days in Bellaire until the time the country's two premier college-baseball publications named him National Freshman of the Year in 2005: He was sucking.

He couldn't hit. For Savery, hitting was as natural as eating. Every hitter goes through a drought or two -- baseball, after all, is a sport where a 40 percent success rate at the plate makes you a superstar -- but for the first months of his sophomore season, Savery had simply been unable to connect. He wasn't getting the good bounces, he couldn't see the pitches, and he was hitting maybe .260 or so: good enough for some people, but mediocre to him.

Far worse, he couldn't pitch. The year before, he had been named All-Conference in two positions -- first base and pitcher -- and even in the midst of a batting slump, he always had the knowledge that he was what pro scouts drooled over and, more importantly, what his teammates needed: a quality power-pitching left-hander.

Everyone's All-American Joe Savery and the top-ranked Rice Owls fight for college baseball glory
Daniel Kramer
Everyone's All-American Joe Savery and the top-ranked Rice Owls fight for college baseball glory
Baseball's top team plays in one of the sport's best facilities -- Reckling Park.
Daniel Kramer
Baseball's top team plays in one of the sport's best facilities -- Reckling Park.

As he sat in the dugout at the Tulane game, already 0 for 2 at the plate that day, "that was what I'd been holding on to -- I'm pitching well, that's my contribution to the team," Savery said. "I don't know what's going on with my hitting. And then I get to Tulane and my arm is just killing me."

A few days before, his arm torturing him for no good reason he could determine, he had told coach Wayne Graham he couldn't pitch. Savery, a sturdy 6-3, 220-pounder, was not only despondent, he was, simply, "scared...It was a very, very difficult time in my life."

"My shoulder had never bothered me in all my career," he says. "If I threw 120 pitches my shoulder wasn't even sore...So it was very shocking to wake up and have your shoulder hurt."

Sitting in the dugout, not able to contribute on the mound or at the plate, his mind was aswirl. "I mean, if you had rewound one year, even less from that, from that point and you go from just everything going right to everything like it's just going wrong, I didn't know where to turn. I was frustrated. I just wanted to run out on that main street and run in front of traffic."

Back home, his mother -- who as a single, divorced mom had put her tomboy youth to great use by spending countless hours playing catch in the street with Joe -- was just as anxious, grumbling every time the Rice radio announcers would mention Savery's slump, praying and wishing it would end.

Savery got up to bat for the third time. Later, he would tell his church that he put his career in Christ's hands; later, his coach would say they'd simply told him to relax.

Whatever the reason, when the Tulane pitcher tried a fastball that was a bit too high, Savery launched it over the fence. "I just went ahhh," he said, showing how the tension drained out of him that moment. Back in Houston, mom Pam Aderholt was "in the backyard screaming and jumping up and down -- I was like, 'I wonder what our neighbors think we're doing back here?'"

Her son would go on to get two more hits that day, and bat around .400 for the rest of the year.

The extremely charmed baseball life of Joe Savery, it seems, was not destined to end anytime soon.

That charmed life did indeed begin back in the tee-ball days, the time when clumsy four- and five-year-olds ineptly chase after weakly hit ground balls whenever they're not chattering away about that pile of dog poop one of them almost stepped on in the outfield.

Even then it was different for Savery. A few weeks ago, Aderholt says, she and Joe attended the baseball banquet of his alma mater, Lamar High. A woman approached them with a team picture of that first tee-ball squad, wanting an autograph. "She said her kid had played on that team, and she said they knew from even back then that Joe was a natural," she says.

He was a natural playing catch with his Mom, or when he'd go a short distance away to stay with his dad. Wayne Savery was an impresario of street ball, constantly urging his kids and their neighbors to get outside to play football, baseball, basketball, anything.

"You went out and winning or losing didn't matter because you were going to play again that afternoon or the next day, and you learned on your own by your own failures. You didn't have someone hanging over you going, 'You did this wrong, you did that wrong,'" says Wayne.

Both parents have a real-world, hype-free philosophy about sports that has had a palpable effect on their son. In the last ten or 15 years, youth baseball in the Houston area has become a high-pressure, intense and financially expensive slog through year-round seasons, elite camps and traveling all-star teams. It can mess with kids' minds, but perhaps not as much as it does to their parents -- the backroom politics of Little-League and Pony-League baseball can get ugly.

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