March 25, 2014
By Loran Smith
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Baseball is peculiarly different from other professional sports in that everybody spends time in the minor leagues. If you are good enough in football and basketball, you can leave the campus and play immediately in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association.
While that is another story, it confirms why most minority athletes choose football or basketball over the game which has long been referred to as the national pastime. If you warrant a sizeable bonus for signing with a big league team, you must, nonetheless, ride the busses in the bushes and work for a minor league salary. When your name is affixed to a big league roster, you make the minimum salary ($500,000 in 2014) until you become eligible for arbitration after three years. Most players, however, are signed to big bucks contracts before entering into arbitration.
While Alex Wood was not a celebrated prospect when he signed with the Braves after being drafted in the second round of the 2012 Major League Draft, there was one Braves' official who was keen and with respect for the former Georgia pitcher. That was one-time Braves scouting director, Paul Snyder. "If you sign him, don't change him," the sagacious Snyder advised the Braves. Snyder was referring to Wood's unorthodox pitching motion which has a lot of arm and leg action.
"It is so unusual," says Braves announcer Joe Simpson, "that he confuses the hitters. He hides the ball so well." It is a natural pitching motion that Alex developed as a kid growing up in Charlotte where his father Richard spent countless hours with Alex, teaching him fundamentals of the game, and encouraging him to take time to practice every day--even when he didn't feel like it or when the weather was nasty. "He really pushed me, and it paid off," Alex said this past weekend as he was preparing for his last start of the spring, a spring of overachievement.
Following a recent outing against the Red Sox, in which he got the win, Wood won for the second time this spring without a loss. He pitched in three games in which there were "no-decisions," having given up only one earned run for the spring. That's heady stuff, but it has been a heady start for the precocious left hander who was walking the campus of the University of Georgia two years ago dreaming about a future in the Big Leagues, never thinking that it would be so sudden.
Alex played for the Class A Rome Braves in 2012 where he posted a 4-3 record and a sparkling 2.22 earned run average with 52 strikeouts. He began the 2013 season with the AA Mississippi Braves. Conventional thinking would suggest that a good year there would likely get him to AAA Gwinnett to bide his time until he got the call from the Braves.
A funny thing happened in Jackson Mississippi, however. After pitching in ten games in the first couple of months, the Braves took note of his 1.26 ERA and sent for him on May 29, 2013. "Pack your bags and head to the airport the first thing tomorrow morning," he was advised. With very little sleep, he flew to Atlanta the next day. Almost as quick as you could snap your fingers, he was working out with players he had followed in the sports pages but had never met.
That was not the end of it. That night, he was called in from the bullpen in the ninth inning. He gave up one hit, but retired the side. The Braves won 11-3. Serendipity reigned. He wasn't even sure of the names of some of his teammates who were offering congratulations.
He was briefly sent down to Gwinnett last summer but had the distinction of posting the third lowest earned run average in the month of August of any rookie since 1955. More heady stuff for a young pitcher who seems built to manage whatever comes his way. Except that he has never experienced any bad news.