Buchholz's dad helps during highs, lows
Father rejuvenated struggling pitcher during '08 travails
CLEVELAND -- With Clay Buchholz enjoying a dominant stretch of pitching -- one that could land him a spot on the All-Star team come July -- the righty can't help but remember when things were at their worst. And he doesn't have to search deep into his memory bank to remember the person who played the biggest role in getting him back on his feet.
Long before Buchholz joined the Boston Red Sox, his father, Skip, had a big impact on his life, and his baseball career. Skip coached Clay, nurtured Clay, mentored Clay, and told him things he didn't always want to hear.
On Aug. 10, 2008, when Buchholz was going through the most miserable stretch of pitching in his life, his father surprised him by flying to Chicago and attending his start that day. Buchholz gave up seven hits and five runs, to fall to 2-8 on the season.
At that time, Buchholz admitted to his dad that he wished the season was over. Two starts later, he was demoted all the way back down to Double-A.
"I was ready for the season to be over," said Buchholz. "I'd work, there wasn't a lack in the work. I just felt like nothing would go right, and [my] confidence level was way down. I didn't believe I could throw certain pitches to guys, and I was eliminating certain pitches before they stepped in the box. It was a tough time, but I got better from it and grew from it, and [I] learned from it."
When the season ended and Buchholz retreated home to Lumberton, Texas, the first thing his father did was give him some time to get away from it all.
"When he came home after that year, he was as low as you could get," recalled Skip. "He was lower than low. We didn't even talk baseball. All we did was play golf, did a little hunting and didn't do anything to do with baseball."
And then Clay was ready to start throwing again. And his dad played a key role in helping him piece it all back together.
"I told him, 'We're going to do it my way again, we're going to start from scratch,'" said Skip.
Skip remembers Clay being at a crossroads following that '08 season.
"That '08 season was tough for him," said Skip. "I told him, 'You can make up your mind whether you want to be a career Minor Leaguer, or make up your mind if you want to be a Major Leaguer.' I said, 'That's an easy question for you to answer. I know what it is. But if you want to be a Major Leaguer, you're going to have to toe the line and do what you need to do, and forget about what everybody's saying.'
"I've always told him, 'You're never as good as they say you are, and you're never as bad as they say you are.' I said, 'Don't read the paper, don't listen to sports talk. Stay off the Internet. You're only as good as your last start.' I think he's done a little bit of that."
Things did turn around, and Clay dominated at Triple-A for the first half of last season. Down the stretch in '09, he emerged as Boston's No. 3 starter in the heart of a pennant race. He has since risen to the point where he is one of the best pitchers in the American League.
Skip, who works at an oil refinery, would never take credit for Clay's resurgence -- he knows his son deserves the credit for that -- but he's happy he was able to be there for him.
"I made the comment to somebody the other day, and I said, 'It's like a dream.' You still can't hardly believe that you're watching your son on TV or that he's pitching in the big leagues," said Skip. "It's still hard to believe sometimes, even though it's been since 2007, really.
"But Clay is a good kid, and he had some success early, and then he kind of hit a brick wall. And after the no-hitter [Sept. 1, 2007], I think it kind of came a little easy for him, because he had never really faced any adversity on the field, and then when he hit it, he hit it full bore. It was great for him to have to go down to Triple-A, and then have to go all the way down to Double-A and figure out what it's all about. Clay and I are close."
In essence, father and son have been joined at the hip since Clay first picked up a baseball.
"He coached me from when I was 6 years old until I got to high school," Clay said. "He takes a lot of pride as far as knowing the game, and giving me some tools to play the game. To end up where I am right now, he basically taught me everything as far as mechanics and pitches, and everything that I threw to get to college and to get drafted. He was definitely probably the key source and the reason why I'm here right now."
Skip acknowledges that he pushed his son, and still does at times.
"We had a good relationship, but I was hard on Clay," said Skip. "There was a lot of hollering and cussing and crying going on in our house about baseball."
But Clay realizes that his father was only trying to help him. Perhaps he was the type of individual who needed that little extra push.
"He still criticizes," said Clay. "I could go out and throw a good game, and he can see things I still might not be doing as far as mechanically and stuff, falling off the mound. But it's constructive criticism. He's not hollering or degrading me. He makes it a point to tell me that he thought I did really good, or I didn't do good, or what he thinks I can work on to go out there the next outing."
One thing Clay has always known is that his father's heart is in the right place.
"He's always been there for me," Clay said. "Sometimes I hate to talk to him because I know what he's going to say. Sometimes I don't really want to hear it. And he'll tell that to my face, 'I know you don't want to hear this, but I'm going to tell you anyway.' It makes the relationship better anyway."
The father-son relationship is something even more relevant to Clay these days. His wife, Lindsay, is scheduled to deliver the couple's first child in mid-August. So this should be Clay's last Father's Day as just a son and a husband.
He will be raising a young son, or daughter, by this time next year.
One thing Clay's father always taught him was respect, and he plans on passing that down.
"Even now, when I talk to him on the phone -- I'm married and almost 26 -- he'll say something, and I'll say, 'Yeah,' and he'll say, 'What did you say?' He'll make me say, 'Yes sir.' He was pretty strict growing up about that," said Clay. "It was never 'Huh?' or 'What?', it was always 'Ma'am,' or 'Sir.' I still do it to people I've just met, that was how I was raised. That's definitely a good thing, the respect he's made us have for people."
Clay clearly has excitement in his eyes when the topic of his approaching parenthood comes up.
"Just the guys that have kids here, they say your life changes for the better," said Clay. "You view things a lot different. I think it will be pretty neat. My sister just had a baby in January. It's pretty cool to see a miracle like that happen and see her grow up. It's neat. I'm looking forward to that."
Meanwhile, when this Father's Day takes place, Skip will beam with pride about his son.
But just as Skip didn't let Clay get too low during the '08 struggles, he will try to keep him equally balanced during this high point.
"He called me the other night, after he pitched against Baltimore," said Skip. "We were talking, and I said, 'Listen, the worm can turn quick. It can turn south again. But it will turn back.' So I said, 'Just take the good with the bad. If you have a bad outing, put it in your pocket and go on. Don't worry about it.' I said, 'Your mechanics right now are flawless. Your mindset is great.' I said, 'Just run with it right now. Run as long as it goes. You're going to hit a down period, Clay.' I said, 'Just don't stay down there long.'
"I always told him, 'It's not how fast you're out of the gate. It's where you are at the finish, and that's what means the most.' He's gonna be fine. As long as he stays healthy and doesn't hurt his arm, he's going to be OK. I think he'll pitch a long time in the Major Leagues if he can just stay healthy."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.