Correia riding a wave in Pittsburgh
After difficult year on and off field, Bucs righty has fresh view
PITTSBURGH -- The alarm clock was the conduit through which the ocean waves called out to Kevin Correia.
The routine -- from bed to city bus to beach -- was both predictable and daily. Corriea would leave his San Diego-area home before sunrise and get off the hour-long bus ride when he reached Pacific Beach or La Jolla.
There, Correia would surf.
Correia would battle the waves before heading to school, and then he would return to the coast immediately after. On summer days, Correia would stay for hours. Work -- conveniently inside a neighborhood surf shop -- and baseball were the only other lengthy interruptions.
Surfing became more than just a casual hobby. It very much became Correia's life. And he was good at it. Really good. Good enough that his place of employment sponsored him as a teenager. Good enough that those pre-sunrise beeps from the alarm clock continued for years.
Good enough, too, to satisfy even his sometimes too-high bar of success.
"Everything I do, I pretty much try to be the best that I can at it," Correia said. "I don't go out and do something just to do it for fun. I don't enjoy doing things and not succeeding at it."
Surfing eventually became merely a recreational escape, and it remains that now for the Pirates right-hander. Baseball was the door to a college education, and Correia wasn't too short-sighted to miss that.
It was no accident that he ended up at a school (California Polytechnic State University) that was not far from the coastline. Correia is deliberate in everything he does. But changes to his sporting schedule didn't end Correia's drive to be the best.
Those changes merely redirected his competitiveness.
Correia never played baseball simply for the love of the game, content to be living a dream that few ever realize. He took to baseball with the same mindset he did when he conquered the waves -- that belief that anything less than his best isn't good enough.
But such a mentality doesn't fully define Correia anymore. Not after he took a phone call from his wife on May 8 of last year. From hundreds of miles away, she broke the news. Correia's 21-year-old brother, Trevor, had fallen to his death off a cliff at the Channel Islands National Park in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Little was known about the details of the accident, other than that Trevor and six friends had been spending the day hiking. Trevor jumped over the edge. He died shortly after the fall.
Trevor's death provided a punch of perspective to his older brother. Buried beneath the loss was a lesson, and Kevin Correia took it to heart.
"It just shows you that there is a lot more in life," Correia said. "It's not a life-or-death situation when I'm at the field. If I don't pitch good, then I don't pitch good. There is another day. I can try to get better."
Correia doesn't talk much about the incident -- at least not publicly. It wouldn't mesh with his personality if he did.
|"I think he needed some time to deal with it on his own. No one can imagine what he was going through last year. He's always been pretty laid back, a low-key kind of guy. But I'm sure he was fighting it internally quite a bit."|
-- Former teammate|
As his former pitching coach in San Diego, Darren Balsley, insisted, "People listen to him because good stuff comes out."
Hardly the center of attention, Correia has always preferred privacy over being an open book. And that didn't change after his family's tragedy.
Correia dealt with Trevor's death on his own terms, out of the public eye. The two brothers had differing interests and contrasting personalities, but they had been close.
Correia left the Padres for a brief time immediately after the accident, but he never sought time with the counselor the club made available when he returned.
"I think he needed some time to deal with it on his own," former teammate and current Padres reliever Tim Stauffer said. "No one can imagine what he was going through last year. He's always been pretty laid back, a low-key kind of guy. But I'm sure he was fighting it internally quite a bit. He keeps things to himself like a lot of us do."
The idea that athletes should be expected to publicly discuss personal matters, especially tragedies, is a flawed one. But it is often an expectation -- from writers who want to pen a captivating human interest story, and from readers who want to delve into the personal lives of those they root for.
But sharing his story just for the sake of appeasing everyone else or evoking sympathy isn't going to help Correia in the grieving process. So he's not going to do it.
And to whatever degree someone can, he has done his best to move on.
"This year is just a fresh start," he said. "It's just kind of a non-baseball issue. It's always going to be a personal issue, but I don't have to bring it to the field anymore, and that definitely helps. Everyone has been pretty good about not talking about it, because I'm not going to really discuss it this season. If I did, I would have to talk about it every series with five different people, and I'm not going to do that for a whole year."
Correia is changing the topic of conversation in 2011 by ensuring that his on-field performance is once again the primary story. Signed to a two-year, $8 million deal by the Pirates in December, Correia made a critical cross-country jump from San Diego to Pittsburgh.
Though he has no plans to permanently leave San Diego -- Correia makes the city his offseason home -- seizing the opportunity to have a six-month change of scenery was seen as a good idea in most everyone's eyes.
Continuing to walk around PETCO Park and seeing the same faces would have only further conjured up memories of his tumultuous 2010 season. The adversity was as much on the field as off, as Correia couldn't live up to expectations following his breakout year in 2009. He went 10-10 with a 5.40 ERA. His season included a 7.83 ERA in five June starts and a 7.20 ERA in six August outings.
As soon as Correia arrived in Pittsburgh, the baggage he lugged around vanished.
"Coming over here, you just get to totally start over," Correia said. "It was hard, just because I was at home pitching and I was coming off a good year, and everyone expected me to have a better year than I did the year before. I started off the year very well, then I pitched kind of mediocre in the middle, and then got on a good streak and it ended poorly. It just kind of felt I never got on a roll."
Apparently a perfectionist by nature, Correia isn't entirely satisfied by the way things have gone in 2011. He is still irked by a handful of bad pitches that marred his first three home starts, and the right-hander was particularly disgusted with his May 15 outing in Milwaukee.
And yet, when Correia is done with his nitpicking, the reality is that his win on Saturday night moved him into a tie for the Major League lead. Joining company with Roy Halladay and Trevor Cahill, Correia entered Monday as one of 10 starters with six wins. He has four losses and a 3.84 ERA.
Correia has averaged more than six innings a start, and he has been a big reason behind the Pirates' notable success on the road. One year after the team won 17 road games total, Correia already has five wins outside of PNC Park.
"We decided to give him the ball first, and since that day, he has taken the ball and he has been the lead dog out there," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who made Correia the team's Opening Day starter. "I think he's taken ownership of it. When he gets the ball, I think he's trying to show the rest of the guys that here is the way we need to pitch."
"We looked at several peripheral numbers and saw that we had every reason to believe that he was going to be closer to his '09 form than his '10 performance," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We thought he would be a good get for us to add some innings-eating stability. We had good reports on the person and believed he would fit in our clubhouse well."
Even those who saw Correia labor through an up-and-down season in 2010 aren't a bit surprised that, free from distractions, he has returned to his '09 form. Correia posted a 12-11 record and a 3.91 ERA in 2009, his first year with San Diego. That was also his first full season as a starter, which led the Pirates to believe there was plenty of room to grow.
"His numbers don't surprise me at all, and I'm sure they don't surprise him because he has great confidence in his ability," Balsley said. "He seems to just be carrying on what he did a couple years ago here. Maybe a tick better, even. It looks like his command has been even a little better."
Correia sees things similarly.
"I know I'm a better pitcher now," Correia said. "It's hard to say that I will for sure have a better season, but right now, I feel as confident as I've ever been. In 2009, I was feeling my way around and learning new things. This year, I don't feel that way at all. I know what I'm doing out there. I have my game plan of what I'm trying to do every time."
That game plan has been tweaked since 2009, tweaked to include one new critical variable. Correia plans on having fun. And he does so deliberately.
Sure, Correia remains hard on himself when his results aren't up to par. Deep down, he'll always be that competitive kid who never felt a wave was too big to ride.
But the self-criticism is different, as is his long-term outlook. There's more to it all than simply being the best. Trevor -- in his life and through his death -- left behind a reminder not to take the journey for granted.
"Right now, I'm just happy to be here in Pittsburgh," Correia said. "If anything, I've been able to put my career in perspective and just enjoy it for what it is. I'm going to keep pushing myself each year to do better. But I think I'm just enjoying baseball a little more for what it is."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.