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The Road Less Traveled
By Corey Brock
It's been a long, uphill struggle for Bobby Madritsch--both personally and professionally--to get to where he wants to be.
Madritsch certainly didn't have an easy time reaching the major leagues. But then nothing much has ever come easy to the 29-year-old lefthander.
"I shake my head all the time thinking of the way my career has gone," Madritsch said.
Yes, it's been quite a ride for Madritsch, who was one of the few bright spots during the Mariners’ 99-loss season of 2004.
Last season, Madritsch became the eighth American Indian--he's a Lakota Sioux--to play in the major leagues.
But it almost never happened.
A sixth-round pick of the Reds in 1998, Madritsch got off to a fast start at Rookie-level Billings, going a 7-3, 2.80 with 87 strikeouts in 80 innings in his pro debut. Baseball America ranked him as the Pioneer League’s No. 7 prospect.
Then disaster struck--Madritsch suffered a major injury to his left shoulder.
"I tore the rotator cuff, and kept pitching," Madritsch said. "Compensating for the pain, I changed my delivery and tore the labrum, then my biceps tendon."
In the spring of 2001, after missing one season and pitching 32 innings in 2000, Madritsch was released by the Reds. That's when he started out on the road less traveled to get to the major leagues.
Madritsch started his independent league circuit shortly after being released, pitching well in the Texas-Louisiana League for Rio Grande and San Angelo (3-6, 2.72 in 86 innings). He finished the year with five outings for Chico of the Western League. Madritsch’s 11.74 ERA there in eight innings didn't exactly open too many eyes or doors to get back with an affiliated organization.
But the biggest thing was that Madritsch's shoulder--and his ego--were healthy. He knew he could pitch. He put that shoulder to the test in 2002 while playing for Winnipeg in the Northern League, where he got a big break.
Madritsch went 11-4, 2.30 with the Goldeyes, allowing 94 hits in 125 innings, walking 36 and striking out 153. He was BA’s Independent Player of the Year, and scouts were back after him.
But the Mariners had an inside track. Then-Goldeyes owner Sam Katz was a good friend of former Mariners general manager Pat Gillick.
"He dominated the league," Gillick said at the time. "There was some tough competition to sign him, so we're happy we got him and hopeful he works out."
The signing has more than paid off for Seattle. In his first full season in the organization, Madritsch went 13-7, 3.63 in 158 innings for Double-A San Antonio. He started last season with Triple-A Tacoma, going 5-2, 3.75 with the Rainiers.
He didn't figure to get a chance to pitch for the Mariners, even though the team was essentially holding open auditions for 2005. Pitchers Clint Nageotte and Travis Blackley were considered the prized arms in Tacoma, not Madritsch.
But Nageotte (1-6, 7.36 with Seattle) and Blackley (1-3, 10.04) struggled in Seattle. Soon enough, Madritsch got his chance.
On July 21, Madritsch was recalled from Tacoma. His manager in Tacoma, Dan Rohn, broke the news to him.
"It's a neat story, how he told me about this promotion," Madritsch said. "I was thinking maybe I'd get suspended or something because I hit a guy at Fresno in a game the week before. Dan came to me in the lunchroom in Portland and said, 'I was talking to a guy from the commissioner's office, and you're not pitching Thursday.'
"I slammed down my fork. I wanted to pitch. Then Danny said, 'You're not pitching for us . . . because you'll be on a plane at 10 a.m. tomorrow morning, flying to Seattle. You're going up.' "
Madritsch immediately called his father, Ken, in Chicago.
"It was 2 in the morning there, and when he answered he was all grumpy,” he said. “But he got past that quick, and he was as excited as me. You have to be excited. This is it. There's no higher level."
Madritsch earned two victories in relief before he moved into the Mariners rotation for good on Aug. 5. He didn't disappoint, especially during a blissful two-start stretch in September.
On Sept. 9, Madritsch held the Red Sox scoreless for eight innings in a 7-1 victory. Madritsch, using a plus fastball and a changeup that's difficult to get a good read on, stymied a Red Sox offense that had averaged 6.7 runs in its previous 30 games. He gave up five hits, walked three and struck out five.
In his next start, on Sept. 14, Madritsch took a shutout into the ninth inning against Anaheim before Garret Anderson had an RBI single. All told, Madritsch allowed two runs and struck out seven and walked two before leaving in the ninth inning.
"He's got some kind of toughness," Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price said of Madritsch. "It hasn't been an easy road for Bobby. Every time he takes the ball his goal is to throw a complete game. He wanted that complete game in the worst way. He deserved to go out there in the ninth."
Madritsch, who finished his 15-game stint with the Mariners 6-3, 3.27, was a big hit with his coaches and teammates, who like his no-nonsense work ethic and bulldog attitude. They liked how he didn't take anything for granted. Given Madritsch's background, he was never afforded that chance.
Madritsch is proud of his Sioux heritage and openly talks about his tough upbringing in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, Ill.
"My family has a lot of alcoholism," Madritsch said. "I had to deal with alcoholism growing up. My dad drinks. All my three brothers drink.
"I just decided when I was young I wasn't going to let that happen to me. I've got relatives who drank themselves to death. I didn't want that, so I never have."
Madritsch said that he wants to be a role model to young Native American children.
"My older brother Ken got me into looking at our heritage," Madritsch said. "He was my best friend, and he'd bring me books. I read a lot. Growing up, I didn't know any Native Americans except my brother.
"I loved baseball as early as I can remember, and I looked up to big league players. And I hope kids with a background like mine can look to me someday."
Madritsch honors his Native American heritage with no fewer than 15 tattoos that cover parts of his body.
There's a "Chi Town" in italics on Madritsch's lower back, for the city where he was raised by his father. There's also a wolf's head on the biceps of his right arm, a wolf's paw print on his left shoulder, which he said is a tribute to his mother, Glenda, a Lakota Sioux.
Madritsch planned on establishing a relationship with his mother in the offseason. Glenda Madritsch left the family in 1976 when Madritsch was two months old.
That meeting didn't happen, but Madritsch plans on a reunion with his mother--who lives on a Sioux reservation in Oklahoma--at some point in the near future.
Given everything that's happened to Madritsch--on and off the field--the two figure to have a lot of catching up to do.