Career Minor Leaguer Booker gets the call

November 5, 2007

By Conor Nicholl

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Chris Booker was driving his sister to the Atlanta airport shortly after the Minor League season ended. Kewanna Booker, a member of the Army’s 50th Signal Battalion, was headed to Germany to prepare for her third tour of duty in Iraq.

Suddenly, Booker’s phone rang with an opportunity to also represent his country overseas. Paul Seiler, executive director for USA Baseball, asked if the 30-year-old Booker, a career Minor Leaguer, would like to play for Team USA at the IABF World Cup in Taiwan from Nov. 6-18.

Booker said yes.

“I know that if [Kewanna] can go and fight for her country then I can go and play baseball for my country,” he said. “It means a lot to be on this team.”

Team USA also represents several other opportunities.

Not only does Booker wear U-S-A on his jersey for the first time in his career, he has a chance to impress a Major League team and solidify a career that has yielded an incredible 19 professional teams over 12 seasons and features stops at every level of Minor League baseball, including squads in Chattanooga, Tenn., Omaha, Neb. and Wichita, Kan.

Booker, the oldest player on Team USA’s roster by several years, is a six-year Minor League free agent who is free to sign with any team.

A 6-foot-3, 235-pound right-hander who Team USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann calls “physically imposing,” Booker will likely be the national team’s closer when the team starts play Nov. 6. A strong showing against international competition could propel him into a Major League bullpen.

“He is hungry,” Team USA general manager Bob Watson said. “This I think will be great exposure for him, because I think he has kind of fallen through the cracks. Who knows? Like I told him in our orientation meeting [on Oct. 23], there are going to be a lot of eyes on you. Every organization will probably have a scout there.”

Those scouts will see what Watson calls a “genuine closer.” Booker, who is one of a select few that throws a true forkball, posted a 2-5 record and a 2.95 ERA and went to the International League All-Star Game for Columbus, Washington’s Triple-A affiliate.

His 30 saves and 12.88 strikeouts per nine innings both ranked second in the International League and stood ninth and 13th respectively in the Minor Leagues.

“[Booker] has got a pretty good forkball,” Team USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann said. “A lot of guys throw [split-finger fastballs], but not many people throw a true forkball which is what his is. It comes out like a knuckleball sometimes, a very hard knuckleball.”

Overall, Booker has pitched in 443 career Minor League games with an impressive 11.16 strikeout per nine innings rate. However, several injuries have curtailed his Major League career. He has worked in just 17 Major League contests for three teams and posted a 14.29 ERA.

But Team USA sees untapped talent, talent that was exhibited in two appearances (three innings, three strikeouts, one save) in a six-game tuneup against Arizona Fall League opponents in late October.

“He has that closer look and has that Dave Stewart look about him that you know that is a piece of the pitching puzzle that we needed,” Seiler said.

Booker has been a reliever his entire career. Booker, from Monroe County (Ala.) High School, was a 12th round pick of the Cubs in 1995 Draft. A power reliever, Booker said he could hit triple digits on the radar gun when he started his career.

He played six years for Chicago before the Reds picked him up on July 20, 2001 in a trade for outfielder Michael Tucker. Booker had shoulder surgery a few months later and wasn’t the same. He never threw in 2002 and pitched sparingly the next season.

“That set me back for two years,” he said.

He made his first Major League appearances at the end of the 2005 at posted a 31.50 ERA in three games for the Reds. He signed with Washington on Nov. 3, 2005. In the next eight months, he was the property of four different Major League organizations and played for seven different teams (including Kansas City and Washington) in 2006.

After a solid season at Triple-A this past year, he was outrighted off the Nationals’ 40-man roster in mid-October, refused a Minor League assignment and was a free agent. Team USA, though, was very intrigued by Booker. While Booker is considered a “Quadruple-A” player to some organizations, his tools are still impressive.

“His numbers is there, his experience is there,” Seiler said. “Again, how do the pieces of the puzzle fit together? If you are talking to a scouting director or a GM, Chris Booker is one conversation and if you are USA Baseball and putting a team like this together, then Chris Booker is a different conversation. We don’t always necessarily fit the mold of how the team is built.”

Booker doesn’t fit the mold of many Team USA players.

While many players still in their early and mid-20s, Booker has a family.

After Booker received Seiler’s phone call, he talked with his wife, Keidre. The couple has a six-year-old son, Christopher, and a two-month daughter, Sakarra. If Booker joined the team, he would be apart from his newborn daughter for a month. However, Keidre understood the opportunity that Team USA presented and told him to go, a choice her husband and Seiler both enjoyed.

“If it something that is to better my career, then she is all for it,” Booker said.

“It tells you something about his commitment and belief in this, but the stock in the family that he comes from, too,” Seiler added.

Booker joined the USA team in late October and immediately impressed, saving Team USA’s first win with two ninth-inning strikeouts.

Seiler calls his demeanor “scary,” an apt phrase for Booker’s best pitch, the knuckling forkball. The pitch, popularized in the 1950-60s by legendary Pirates’ reliever Elroy Face, is thrown with the ball wedged deeply within the fingers.

The pitch was linked to several injuries and lost popularity when San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig taught the split-finger in the 1980s.

Other than the White Sox’s Jose Contreras, very few current pitchers can throw the pitch and stay healthy. Booker, who first started to throw it in high school, wasn’t allowed to use it when he was drafted. A few years ago, though, he started to throw it again.

“It is more dangerous,” Lachemann said. “The more you spread your fingers, the more you tighten up the muscles [in the forearm].

Booker, helped by oven mitt hands and his powerful build, can control the pitch and used in effectively against AFL hitters.

He’ll also throw it plenty in Taiwan – a place where he can emulate his sister’s patriotism and possibly position himself for a Major League job.

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com.