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Eyes on the Prize

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

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.

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.

Wayne Savery's dad played college football but never liked the over-organized world of youth sports. That spirit's been passed down. "A kid won't be good at something unless he falls in love with it, and you fall in love with it by playing it on your own and not by being told by your dad to go out there and throw and do this or that," Wayne says.

"Joe wasn't one of those who go to a bunch of clinics, he didn't need to do that," his mom says. "It's pretty intense [in Little League], and it's the parents more than it is the kids."

In fact, Savery's first love wasn't even baseball; it was football. That's why he stepped off the traditional path that mandated that rising Houston baseball stars go to Bellaire High, with its formidable program. "It was considered the great opportunity to go there and play, and it was," Joe says. "But very, very few of their athletes ever played more than one sport; they kind of dedicated all their time to baseball. I wasn't prepared to do that yet."

It was a decision that, like many, he largely made on his own. (Being the child of divorced parents, he says, "makes you pretty independent.")

So Savery became a prolific quarterback for Lamar's football team and an overpowering pitcher and first baseman in baseball. And all the while, he retained the remarkable self-possession, confidence and leadership that he seems to exude so easily.

He was a 15-year-old sophomore when Lamar had a playoff game against Elkins, a team that was 290 and ranked first in the nation. The entire lower bowl of the Astrodome was filled as Savery took his final warm-up pitches in the bullpen before what was only his eighth time as a starting high school pitcher. His coach, Jorge Garza, was standing next to him.

"He threw his last fastball, which was probably 9092 miles an hour," says Garza, "turned right around, walked off the mound and says, 'Let's go win us a playoff game.' And two hours later he had done it."

Garza, now an assistant coach at UH, says Savery is one player he'll never forget. "I don't think I've ever come across a player with more heart," he says, noting that Savery was always the first on the field for practice and the last off it. "You never have to motivate him."

"What's even more incredible about him is, as good a baseball player as he is on the field, he's an even better person off it," Garza says. "He's a great friend and a gentle, caring person. I don't say this lightly, but I have a three-year-old son and if I wanted him to be like someone it would be Joe Savery, and I'm not talking about his on-the-field accomplishments."

Wayne Savery, acknowledging he's biased, says that -- somehow -- that's always been the case with his son. "He's kind of always been like that, sensitive, cooperative," he says.

A Lamar parent approached Wayne once and said she had a kid on the team who never started. "I'm kind of wondering where this is going," Wayne says, "like if she's trying to get me to build support for him to be a starter. But she said, 'I just want you to know he comes home every night and says, "Joe said this" or "Joe did that"...He makes my son feel just as important as anyone else on the team.' I said that makes me feel really good."

It all sounds a bit too good to be true, but current and former teammates and coaches say it's so: Savery is the real deal. Intensely competitive on the field, he becomes a different person off it: laid-back, a star without an ego and someone who keeps his tremendous success in perspective.

"I think it's a reflection on his parents," says Garza, his high school coach. "They're a very humble family, and he's a humble young man. But when he's on the field, it's different -- he changes."

 

Savery has embraced religion in recent years, getting heavily involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and working with youth groups. He says it helped him through his sophomore slump and is preparing him for whatever may happen in the pros. "I'm a lot more at peace with it," he says. "Whatever God wants to do with my life is fine with me."

If he does have a fault, it might be horrendous musical taste: His Facebook page lists such favorites as Hootie & the Blowfish, and at practice, when an Elton John song comes out over the loudspeaker, he actually confesses to liking him.

Cutting-edge he ain't. "He's just the kind of kid who's always been extremely mature, to the point of being downright old for his age even when he was young," his father says. He and other Lamar stars "were nice to everybody, never mistreated anybody or mouthed off or picked on anybody. That's what I'm most proud of, not wins and records and all that foolishness."

Savery's nice-guy, hardworking, book-hitting personality may have set him apart from a lot of potential college baseball teams, but he chose to go to Rice. And there he met a bunch of like-minded guys, a unique coach and a program that quietly had become a dominating giant of the college baseball scene.


College baseball can be a quirky little universe. The sport gets only a fraction of the obsessed attention that NCAA football and basketball do. One day you can play in front of 10,000 screaming fans at the University of Texas; the next week you can travel to Marshall and there may be 25 people in the stands.

There's a certain homogeneity to the players because of the rules of major league baseball. Teams can draft players who graduate from high school and sign them to contracts that, while not eye-popping, usually offer a lot more than 18-year-olds make; if a player chooses instead to go to college, he's not eligible for the draft for another three years, after his junior season.

"You don't see a lot of poor kids playing college baseball, frankly," says Aaron Fitt, lead college writer for Baseball America magazine.

Instead you tend to see white kids from well-off families. And for those families, a private school like Rice, with its emphasis on academics, is an alluring brand.

"We've kind of seen the rise of these private schools -- Rice, Baylor's another one, Vanderbilt, all these academic schools," Fitt says. "This is the result of the economic background of the college baseball player...[Rice] has a niche in the market, being a private school with excellent academics in Texas."

The small school on South Main has ridden that trend for all it's worth. National champions in 2003, the Owls have made it to Omaha, where the College World Series is annually staged, five of the last nine years.

They've done it under Graham, a crusty old-timer. (How old? He played under the legendary Casey Stengel, who first hit the big leagues in 1912. ) Graham is known for developing players, but he does it without micromanaging. Catcher Danny Lehmann, for instance, is a rare college catcher who actually is free to call the pitches during a game.

"What I've enjoyed so much is the freedom they've given us," Savery says of the Rice staff. "We know what their expectations are, and we know if we don't do it we're going to hear about it."

Graham's methods are tailor-made for self-motivated kids like Savery. "We're going to win and be successful, and that's going to happen whether you play or the next guy plays," Savery says. "This is a place with a lot of great guys and if you're not here to win, the next guy's going to pass you up."

The rise of Rice has coincided with the explosion in elite youth baseball locally. "Houston is an outstanding recruiting base; there's a lot of talent in the high school ranks and Rice really has kind of a stranglehold on that," Fitt says.

Not necessarily a stranglehold, Graham says. "Everybody knows about Houston now, so everybody comes in here and tries to get [local players] -- Miami comes in, LSU comes in big-time. Particularly a school like Stanford is going to do it because the players are here. Houston is as good a recruiting area in the country, if not better. Some people think Orange County [California] is the best, but I think the Houston area is as good as it gets."

Graham, who came to Rice in 1992, has built the program step-by-step. "My philosophy when I came here was to use what you could control, not let it bother you what you couldn't, and keep building. We went to Omaha twice before we ever got Reckling Park," he says.

 

Reckling Park is the jewel of a stadium that's been wowing potential Rice recruits since 2000. With comfortable seating, fancy offices and a big-city atmosphere from the nearby skyscrapers of the Medical Center, it's a far cry from the metal-bleachered, rickety facilities that most NCAA teams play in.

The fans at Reckling have come to expect success, and never more so than this year. Rice is a consensus No. 1 pick among the preseason polls. "They're going to score a lot of runs and have, I think, as much pitching depth as anyone in the country," Fitt says.

This is a do-or-die year for a core of Owl players. Savery and four teammates began their careers as freshmen who cracked the starting lineup in the youth-laden team of 2005; after this season, most of them will be drafted and leave the team. (Almost all will likely come back for their degrees; Rice's graduation rate for baseball players, according to an NCAA study, dwarfs that of, say, Texas.)

That core of veterans -- close friends both on and off the field -- know full well what expectations they face, but they insist they're not daunted. "Personally, I like it," Lehmann, the catcher, says. "Of course there's going to be bull's-eyes on our backs, but I don't think you play any different whether you're ranked first or 121st. Pressure is only when you've not come prepared."

"It's a nice honor, but fortunately we've got a good junior-laden team and we don't let it get to us," says shortstop Brian Friday. "We know what it takes to get to Omaha."

If there's any question about this year's Rice team, it is, oddly enough, Savery. While his batting returned to form last year after the homer at Tulane, his arm never did. After the season he had shoulder surgery and has been rehabbing his way back to health ever since.

"It scares you," he says. "I had a lot of time this summer sitting at home -- all my buddies are playing ball or going to summer school, vacation -- and it was a lot of time to think about things."

Sitting in Reckling Park with an icepack on his shoulder a week before Rice's season opener, he says the rehabbing has gone about as well as can be expected so far. "It's definitely been a process," he says. "I've only thrown curveballs on three different occasions, but I'm slowly bringing it back. And I'm missing, and the reason is you're guarding your arm. You have to tell yourself -- and I heard this from the doctor a couple of weeks ago -- 'Whatever needed to heal in there has healed'...It's not an exact science, and you have to be patient and trust that it will come back, but it's not flipping a switch."


A few days later Rice opens its season on an overcast, chilly day at Reckling Park. For anyone who's experienced the raucous baseball crowds at LSU, the 3,300 or so Rice fans can seem a bit sedate, upscale and studious. But getting that many people into the stands for a February game against unknown Central Missouri is an accomplishment in itself.

There was some thought before the game of keeping Savery off the mound to protect his arm, but everyone decides he's good to go. To be safe, he'll throw no more than two innings.

A half-dozen or so scouts are sitting behind home plate aiming radar guns and taking copious notes. Savery doesn't let them down -- he gets his fastball over the 90-mph mark a number of times, enough to show that the rehab is going well. He throws two scoreless innings and later, as he and his teammates engage in their traditional post-game rite of standing by the fence and signing autographs for dozens of kids, he says his arm felt fine.

"I was a little nervous, but once the first pitch goes you feel better," he says.

Batting, however, was another matter. He struck out twice and was badly fooled on a number of pitches. He got on base twice -- via an error and being hit by a pitch -- scoring both times in a 50 Rice win, but it was a disappointing start at the plate.

That won't matter in the long run, though. Rice has plenty of bats in the line-up, and odds are Savery will come around. (Although that can still be a head game; Savery realizes opponents' scouts say he's weak on inside fastballs, so he's constantly battling to both be aware of that and not overcompensate for it.)

 

More importantly, in terms of his potential professional future, batting is irrelevant. If Savery makes it in the pros, as everybody fully expects he will, it will be as a pitcher, not a hitter. Pro teams will give left-handed power pitchers every chance to succeed because they are rare and precious things. And if hard work makes any difference, Savery seems almost destined to fulfill his potential.

"With his work ethic, with his athleticism, I believe he will be playing on TV one day, there's not a doubt in my mind," says his former high school coach Garza. "If he can stay healthy he will be on TV and I will be able to watch him and say I had the honor of coaching that guy."

"There's no question that if he's healthy he is one of the best pitchers in the country," says Baseball America's Fitt.

Savery, the All-American guy as always, insists he's not focusing on making the pros right now so much as he is on bringing another championship to Rice. "I feel as if we don't get to Omaha it will be a disappointing year, simply because we have so much returning and we have that experience," he says. "Given the talent we have, the coaches we have and now the experience we have -- and once you get to Omaha, some teams are hot, some are not -- I don't see any reason we couldn't contend for a national championship."

That understated but evident confidence is what he's shown throughout the years -- as he consistently jumped ahead of his age group as a youth and teen; as he broke into the starting lineup as a Lamar freshman on a team that featured seven players who went on to play major college ball; as he toured Japan and Taiwan on a college All-Star team; as he's faced ever-rising expectations, more and more scouts' radar guns, more and more cover stories and scrutiny he'd just as soon do without.

Winning in Omaha would be yet another crowning moment in the extremely charmed baseball life of Joe Savery. It's safe to say it likely won't be the last.


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