March 15, 2014

Loran Smith: Westbrook makes most of retired life

For the first time in almost 20 years, Jake Westbrook, the Danielsville sinker ball maestro, is not working out in the balmy temperatures of Florida and preparing for another season of professional baseball.

Instead of building toward opening day, he is building a house. Instead of checking what the team has scheduled for the week, he is making his own schedule. Instead of collecting a check for meal money, he is grocery shopping for the family.

It’s different — a new experience. He misses the Florida sunshine and an opportunity to compete at the ultimate level, but he doesn’t miss the travel. It’s nice to take the kids to school and be home with the family.

The former Madison County High School star is a family man to the core and relishes the evenings at the supper table and the carefree weekends when he can play catch in the backyard with Jacob, Parker and Keaton, his three sons, while allowing equal time for his daughter, Harper. Big league baseball was fun — he was with the St. Louis Cardinals as they won the World Series in 2011 — but family life is fun for Westbrook, too.

Last season was another pennant-winning year for the Cardinals, the final team Westbrook pitched for, but the Boston Red Sox were hot and disappointment prevailed in St. Louis when it came to the World Series as Boston won 4-2.

It was the Red Sox who denied Westbrook a trip to the World Series in 2007, when he was pitching for the Cleveland Indians. Westbrook pitched a gem in the third game of that year’s American League Championship Series, shutting Boston out for six innings of a 4-2 win by Cleveland, but he took the loss in the decisive seventh game.

Westbrook, who won 105 games in his MLB career with three teams — the Yankees, Indians and Cardinals — has good memories of his days in the big leagues.

First of all, it was important to get there. He had signed to play college baseball with his dad’s team, the Georgia Bulldogs, but a $750,000 signing bonus with the Colorado Rockies was too enticing to pass up. The Rockies then traded him to the Expos, who traded him to the Yankees, who traded him to the Indians in 2000.

He thought he had found a home in Cleveland. There are fond memories of his days with the Indians, a team that appreciated his sinker, which could be devastating. Early on, a cracked rib had him shuffling from the bullpen to starting roles until he became a regular in the rotation in 2002.

From that point, Westbrook was a successful starting pitcher, although he had several setbacks brought on by injuries. In April 2007, he signed a three-year, $33-million contract extension and the future was encouraging. Soreness at the start of the 2008 season didn’t bode well, however, and in June the Indians announced he would be undergoing Tommy John surgery. He spent the 2009 season on the disabled list.

He returned to action as the Indians’ opening day pitcher in 2010 but was traded to St. Louis in late July.

The best was yet to come.

He was rewarded with a two-year contract worth more than $16 million after winning 10 games during the 2010 season. In 2011, he hit a grand slam against the Milwaukee Brewers. He finished the season with a 12-9 record as the Cardinals moved into the playoffs. He pitched in two games in the World Series as St. Louis defeated the Rangers 4-3. An ultimate thrill would come Westbrook’s way when he was credited for victory in the pivotal sixth game of the World Series as the Cardinals, facing elimination, won in extra innings.

He had plenty of highlights in a career to savor. As he moves quietly into middle age, he does not want to watch TV and join coffee clubs, however. He would like to find some instructional opportunity with a local baseball program.

An avid Bulldogs sports fan, he will find a way to remain active.

It’s been a good life for the modest and egoless Jake Westbrook.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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