By John Manuel
January 14, 2002
It only took two bullpen sessions in the dead of Arizona’s winter to convince the Chicago White Sox to take a chance on Brian Sager.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound righthander, twice destined to be a first-round pick, was a 13th-round pick in the 2001 draft after an injury-plagued season at Georgia Tech. Negotiations went nowhere until Sager had surgery Oct. 1 to repair a decompression of the radial nerve in his pitching arm.
After two months of rehab, Sager impressed the White Sox enough in a pair of 40-pitch bullpen sessions to sign his first pro contract. He was flying to Chicago on Monday to take his physical and, if he passes, will receive a $385,000 bonus.
That’s more than round money, certainly, but Sager turned down predraft offers of $1 million out of Branford (Conn.) High in 1998. Sager then embarked on a three-year college career that included plenty of highs–12-1 in two years at Stanford and two College World Series starts–and a year full of lows after he transferred to Georgia Tech.
“If you look at it and think $385,000 isn’t close to a million dollars, you’ll drive yourself crazy,” Sager said from his family’s home in Connecticut, the night before he flew to Chicago. “But six months ago I didn’t have any hope for a baseball career, before the surgery.
“And going to college really, really helped me. You can’t put a value on those years. It’s three years experiencing life away from home, taking care of yourself and dealing with adversity, dealing with coaches and scouts and agents. It’s really helped me mature.”
Sager’s adversity started at Stanford, where says he didn’t mesh with pitching coach Tom Kunes as a sophomore. He moved on to Georgia Tech, where nothing went right. What he had considered normal stiffness in his forearm became constant pain, and he wasn’t much help to the Yellow Jackets, who had a lost year as a preseason No. 1 team that finished out of the final Top 25.
After the draft, Sager was diagnosed with the nerve problem, similar to one experienced by Brewers righthander Jeff D’Amico. Dr. Gordon Brody performed the surgery, and Sager got started on a rehabilitation program in Arizona in sessions arranged by agents Alan Nero and Terry Bross.
“A lot of credit belongs to Alan and Terry, who were great in this whole process at keeping us informed of what was happening and really supporting their client,” said White Sox senior director of scouting Duane Shaffer. “We wouldn’t have signed him if we didn’t think he could be the pitcher we thought he could be coming out of high school.”
Shaffer and the Sox became convinced Sager was worth the gamble when he threw two 40-pitch bullpens within three days in Phoenix and Tucson in front of Sox personnel.
“I think he actually threw better the second day than he did the first,” Shaffer said. “Throwing twice in three days is the best way to see if he was healthy, and he’s had no reoccurrence of his ailments, which is probably a first for him.”
Sager said he would be heading back to Arizona by Feb. 1 to get acclimated and ready for spring training, and was set to report with pitchers and catchers Feb. 15.