The 2008 season has been a rollercoaster ride for Stephen Fife, and right now the 21-year-old righthander is on a high. After seeing his draft status both rise and fall at the University of Utah, Fife was ultimately taken in the third round by the Red Sox, and on Saturday he took the mound for the short-season Lowell Spinners at Fenway Park. An infielder when he helped lead Boise (Utah) to the 1999 Little League World Series, Fife is 1-1, 1.64 for the Spinners in 22 innings and has allowed only 11 hits while striking out 24.
David Laurila: Has it hit you yet that you’re playing professional baseball?
Stephen Fife: Yeah, definitely, but it took a solid couple of weeks to figure out where I was at and what I was doing. When I flew into Boston it was immediate Red Sox everywhere, and that was pretty cool. Then I had to sit out a few games waiting for an MLB drug test to come back before I could play. But getting on the bump for the first time here (in Lowell) was a little taste of it, and then you kind of get the road perspective where you’re traveling and playing every day. That’s definitely a different feeling than anything I’ve ever done, especially in terms of getting out there with a group of guys and competing, flat out, every day.
DL: How would you describe Stephen Fife the baseball player?
SF: I pride myself on my work ethic and try to come to the park ready every day. Coach (Gary) DiSarcina does a fantastic job of explaining how the pro approach works, which is that you’re not going to be 100 percent every day, but if you’re 80 percent you give 100 percent of that 80 percent.
DL: More specifically, what do you take out to the mound with you?
SF: I go out there with two- and four-seam fastballs. In college I threw mostly two-seams, trying to get run and sink to try to get guys to ground out. What I prided myself on in college was getting a lot of groundball outs by keeping the ball down. I also throw a curveball, which is my out pitch, and I developed a slider this season which is kind of a show-me, early-in-the-count slider. It also helps in a game when I’m not feeling my curveball early; it’s a good pitch to go to because it doesn’t take as much feel. It’s more of a power pitch where I can just get into it and throw it hard. I also throw a changeup. So in terms of me on the mound, I feel like I have four solid pitches, and sometimes five, so I can get through the lineup a couple of times and get deep into games. Of course, this summer I’m piggybacking, so I only get two, three, four innings at a time and will only go through a lineup once or twice. What I bring to the lineup is a competitive attitude with some pretty solid pitches.
DL: Most pitchers don’t throw both a curveball and slider. Do you typically throw both in the same game?
SF: When I was starting in college I’d use both in the same game. I’d usually try to work through the first two or three innings using just a fastball, maybe a curveball, and then around three or four innings in I’d start busting up a changeup. Later in games, when guys have seen nothing but the curveball, if you throw a firm slider you can get some bad swings. It’s hard to throw all of my pitches with the innings I’m getting here, but I do like to try to use them all to keep them sharp.
DL: Outside of throwing both a curveball and slider, your repertoire and velocity are fairly standard. What differentiates you from other righthanded pitchers?
SF: I think it’s the way I command my fastball, mostly my two-seam, which at times—hopefully most times—has good run and sink. I bring that along with what is a pretty sharp curveball when it’s on. I spot up well and keep the ball down, and I think I compete as well as anyone in the league. When guys get on and I get in jams, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of working myself out of them with limited damage.
DL: Coming into pro ball, you’re adjusting to hitters using wood bats. Are the baseballs any different?
SF: The ball in college is different; the seams in college are higher. I don’t know if they use a different kind of leather, but the movement on the baseball here is much different than it is in college. I don’t really know how to explain it, but you get more action with lower seams, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. You get more action on each pitch with the pro-style baseball.
DL: What adjustments have you made as a result of that?
SF: The first couple of weeks I struggled to locate my fastball because the run on it was much different than I was used to. I guess it took me two outings, and the work I did between those outings, to figure out where to adjust the release points to keep the ball on the outer third rather than running into the middle. That was a challenge to me.
DL: What were your expectations going into the draft, keeping in mind that you seemingly both rose and fell in scouts’ eyes over the course of the season?
SF: It was quite a whirlwind for me. I threw well against San Diego State with about six or seven weeks left in the season; I faced Stephen Strasberg who punched out 23, and I was decent in that game. They scored one unearned run and we ended up losing 1-0. It built really fast. Early in the season they were saying maybe anywhere from six to 20 (round range)—somewhere in that region, kind of later in the draft. Then, after I threw well against San Diego State, with a lot of guys there to see Strasberg, it bumped up really fast. After Strasberg they were saying maybe 10 to six. The next week I threw really well at New Mexico and it started gaining up from 10 to six to eight to four, or maybe even as high as three. By the end of the year there was talk of supplemental all the way to the third round. I was performing for my team and teammates, but also for the guys in the stands writing the reports that influenced my draft status.
DL: Given the belief that you shouldn’t put too much weight on a small sample size, do you find it somewhat ironic that you dropped and fell as much as you did based on a limited number of outings?
SF: I do, because you obviously can’t perform the same way every time you go out there. I think that’s where the scouts that saw me did a good job. There were times, like the game against San Diego State, where I was good; I had all of my pitches working and I worked the zone. But there were other times where that wasn’t the case. When I faced TCU, I had a rough first inning, a good second, third and fourth inning, and then another rough one in the fifth before I finished in the sixth. Those guys were there to evaluate how I did throughout the game, and I showed glimpses of what I had, and that’s kind of what they were there to see.
DL: Were you pretty cognizant of the round projections or did you try to avoid the speculation as much as you could?
SF: It’s hard to not notice it at all, because throughout the week you’re getting calls from all kinds of organizations and scouts, and all kinds of guys who say they want to help you and whatnot. But during the games I tried to keep my head out of the stands and just play for my team. That’s what was most important to me, winning games for Utah and helping us build up our record to compete in our conference and get to a regional. That kind of made it tunnel vision for me, focusing on the team rather than what I was hearing.
DL: Scouts pay a lot of attention to character. Do players pay attention to scouts, trying to assess how much they can trust what they’re hearing from them?
SF: Yeah, I think a little bit, but I don’t think anyone is out there with bad intentions, really. I mean, there are guys out there advising the agents who are there to make money, but the scouts, at least the ones I dealt with, were pretty straightforward. None of them tried to take advantage of anything for the most part, so it wasn’t like I had to limit myself to talking to just a few teams, or a few scouts, that I thought were worth talking to. Most of the guys I dealt with were solid guys.
DL: Most players say they don’t care who drafts them, that they just want a chance to play pro ball. Do you think that’s really true?
SF: That’s kind of a tough question, because coming out of amateur baseball you don’t really have any exposure to how organizations work. Myself, I was one of the guys who wanted to go as high in the draft as I could, and then just go play. There were teams I knew were interested; the White Sox scout was a solid guy, and there were teams that were stronger on me toward the end—I knew the Red Sox were there. But when it comes right down to it, I think that I’m probably in one of the best organizations, if not the best organization. I haven’t felt out of place here, and they make each one of their players feel like they belong where they’re at. I obviously haven’t been a part of any other organizations, but I feel like I’m in a fantastic one right now.
DL: The Little League World Series is going on right now. Having once played in it, do you think that it gets too much attention, or not enough?
SF: I think they do it well. Of course, there are a lot of others, like Cal Ripken Baseball and the pony leagues, that I’d like to see get a little more exposure. But Little League is kind of a special thing because it’s been around the longest, and I had a fantastic experience with it that I wouldn’t trade for anything. When I went there, there were only eight teams, and I think there was less coverage, but baseball has obviously blown up since 1999 in terms of record attendance. There are a lot more people getting interested in baseball, so it’s a lot bigger now than it was then. I think ESPN and ABC do a real good job of covering the kids. They’re also making sure that the kids are having fun as opposed to making it too serious where they think they’re going to make or break their careers.
DL: When did baseball become a priority in your life?
SF: I actually thought that I was going to play college football. I was a quarterback in high school and didn’t actually pick up a baseball to pitch until I was almost 17 years old. In Idaho there’s not a whole lot of exposure for baseball, and I’d say that it was my senior year, after my football season had kind of gone sour for me, when I got my first real glimpse that I was going to be a pitcher instead of a quarterback. Baseball and football were the two sports I geared toward my whole life, and the emphasis was on football until about my junior year when I started pitching. So, I’d have to say that it was my junior summer into my senior year when I realized that I could probably go and play college baseball. Now here I am in pro ball.
Editor’s note: David talked to Fife again shortly after he threw three scoreless innings against Hudson Valley in the Futures at Fenway minor league doubleheader.
DL: You just pitched in Fenway Park. What was that experience like?
SF: It was phenomenal. I didn’t have my best stuff today, but shoot—after the outing I kind took a look around and saw that it was a pretty full house, and I enjoyed it. I felt like I threw a lot of ground balls, because I pitched to contact and did the job I was supposed to do today.
DL: What were you thinking as you stood on the mound getting ready to throw your first pitch?
SF: I tried to keep my head down and not take into account how many people were here, who was here, and all that stuff. I stepped on the mound and told myself to just go after it—just go get it and attack hitters. That’s what I did.
DL: The game ended with a walk-off hit by Will Middlebrooks in extra innings. What did that feel like?
SF: That was a special feeling. There were over 30,000 fans here, on their feet clapping on a 3-2 count with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 12th. To be here and scratch out a run out like that was an unbelievable feeling like I’ve never had before.
DL: Can you picture yourself being here to experience a similar moment in a Red Sox uniform?
SF: Absolutely. I can definitely see myself here. I just need to keep working on my stuff and getting better, and hopefully I’ll be here doing that before too long.