Williams seeks second chance with A's
Former rising star eager to restart big league career
PHOENIX -- If you're a big fan of redemption stories, there's a pretty sweet one to follow in A's camp this spring.
Right-hander Jerome Williams, who thought he had the world by the tail when he reached the big leagues at age 21, is trying to take the difficult final steps toward resurrecting his once-promising career at the ripe old age of 27.
"I gave into the lifestyle," he said. "Young and dumb."
It's not all that uncommon, really. Williams is far from alone in having neglected his talent in favor of fully partaking in the trappings of stardom. In particular, it's a frequently found foible among athletes who've fast-tracked their way to the big stage.
It's a classic case of too much, too soon -- with too few paid dues. It fosters a sense of entitlement, and Williams is the first to admit that he felt it.
"I was in the big leagues at 21, so I felt like I was there for good," he said. "You're having everything catered to you, and you can get comfortable [in a hurry]."
Williams got way too comfortable, and it cost him dearly.
His meteoric rise began in 1999, when he threw a no-hitter and hit three home runs in the same game as a senior at Waipahu High in Oahu, Hawaii. Shortly thereafter, the Giants made him the 39th overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. Upon signing, he was sent to their Class A affiliate in Salem, Ore., and by August he'd already picked up a Northwest League Pitcher of the Week award.
Williams was off and running. High-A ball in 2000. Double-A in 2001. Triple-A in 2002. In April 2003, he arrived at The Show -- and put on a show.
Handed a spot in San Francisco's rotation, he went 7-5 with a 3.30 ERA in 21 starts. In 15 of those, he threw at least six innings. He allowed two runs or fewer 12 times. He became the fourth Giants rookie to start a playoff game since 1937.
It was more than enough to cement a spot on the roster for 2003, when Williams became the youngest Giants pitcher to reach double digits in victories since 1975, and he did it despite seeing his season all but end after leaving a game on June 30 with a right triceps strain.
Five days later he underwent surgery to remove loose bodies and shave down a bone spur in his elbow, and he didn't pitch again until Sept. 30, but he wasted no time in reminding the Giants what they'd been missing.
His team trailing the Astros by a game in the National League Wild Card race, Williams beat the host Padres that day for his 10th win of the year, helping San Francisco pull into a tie.
It was the biggest win of Williams' life, but it was followed by his fall from grace.
Without getting into the unsavory specifics, suffice it to say that if MLB Network ever decides to ape VHI's "Behind The Music" series, Williams would be a decent candidate for profiling.
"After my second year [in the big leagues]," he said, "I never really worked out."
The baseball establishment noticed. Williams reported to Spring Training in 2004 in less than stellar condition, struggled in his first three starts of the regular season and found himself working out of the bullpen by late April 16.
On April 25, he was sent back to Triple-A. On May 28, he was sent to the Cubs, who promptly sent him to their own Triple-A team.
He made it back to the bigs in June and beat the Brewers with seven innings of three-hit work in his Cubs debut, but, in a way, that performance underscored what was being wasted.
"I was getting by on talent there for a while," Williams admitted.
Not for long, though. He spent most of 2006 in the Minors before being waived in early September. The A's, ironically enough, picked him up, but he never pitched for them and became a free agent in December.
Williams' 2007 season was nothing short of a disaster. He signed with the Nationals in January and made the team out of camp but went 0-5 with a 7.20 ERA in six starts. Washington released him in August, so he signed with the Twins, but he never made it to the Majors with Minnesota, posting a 9.00 ERA in eight appearances at Triple-A Rochester.
A free agent again at the end of the season, he found zero interest in his services.
Woefully out of shape, lugging 270 pounds around on his 6-foot-3 frame, now he was out of baseball, too, wondering if he'd been blackballed in some way.
"I guess word was out," he said. "I think I made everybody in the game upset by not taking care of myself."
It was the proverbial fork in the road. Williams had two choices: head back to the paradise of his native Hawaii, where he joked that "even the people who aren't on vacation don't want to work," or hunker down on the mainland and take a shot at righting the ship.
He chose the latter, dropping anchor in unglamorous Fresno, Calif., where he'd played Triple-A ball for the Giants.
"I just started working my butt off," he said. "Like I should have when I was younger."
The only job he could find for 2008 was with the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden Baseball League, but by June he'd shown enough to prompt the nearby Dodgers to give him a chance. He was assigned to Class A ball, but finished the season with a flourish at Triple-A Las Vegas, where he posted a 2.08 ERA in 10 games.
The first eight of those appearances came in relief. The last two were starts, and he won them both with a combined 11 innings of four-hit work while striking out 11 without allowing a run.
A free agent yet again, Williams played winter ball in Puerto Rico, impressing A's scout Craig Weissmann enough to suggest he be signed.
He was. And here he is in Phoenix, down to his "comfortable" playing weight of 230 pounds, the product of perseverance and plenty of pavement pounding.
"A lot of running," Williams said. "The thing I hate to do the most."
What he loves doing most, at least on a baseball field, is starting big league games. The A's are giving him a chance to do just that.
"He's still young," Geren said. "He's at that point in his career where he could take off and get a good second shot. ... I really like him. I think he was a great signing."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.