The Perfect Closer
In the spring of 2009, Andrew Bailey ’06 and his father, Bill, took a cross-country road trip from their New Jersey home to Phoenix, Arizona. Little did they know it would lead Andrew to a major league bullpen and Rookie of the Year honors.
By Jordan Conn
In the spring of 2009, Andrew Bailey ’06 and his father, Bill, took a cross-country road trip from their New Jersey home to Phoenix, Arizona. There, the younger Bailey would be participating in the Oakland Athletics’ spring training, the pre-season practices and scrimmages that help the established major leaguers prepare for the season and give upstart wannabes a shot to compete with stars.
Bailey belonged to the latter group.
A 24-year-old pitcher less than three years removed from his Wagner College graduation, Bailey had been honored to even get invited to spring training. For the past three years, he’d been working his way up through the Athletics’ minor league system, and was beginning to draw attention from the big league club; but, as he drove to Arizona, his only goal was to prove himself worthy of making the AAA Sacramento River Cats, the Athletics’ minor league affiliate that sat just one rung below the majors. So together Bill and Andrew drove, having decided that making the trek would be cheaper than paying for Andrew’s car to be shipped.
When they passed through St. Louis, Bill made an unwelcome remark.
“You know, the all-star game is going to be here in St. Louis this year,” he said. Yes, Andrew was aware. But that would be the major league all-star game. Andrew was just trying to keep working his way up the minors. Bill continued: “I could be coming out here to watch you play.”
“Come on, Dad,” Andrew fired back, angry over the excess expectations. He grew silent as the drive continued.
Turns out, Bill was right.
As cuts were announced each Sunday of spring training, Andrew’s name never appeared on the list. Soon enough, the final cuts were released, and the Baileys were left stunned. Andrew had made it. He’d be going to the major leagues after all. And not only did he go on to make the first of two consecutive Major League Baseball All-Star teams that summer — by the end of 2009, he had also been named American League Rookie of the Year.
The journey to that point was an unlikely one, winding from South Jersey to Staten Island to ballparks all over Texas, Arizona, and California. Bailey had been pitching since the day he graduated from T-ball to baseball. He’d always been a good player — typically a little league all-star — but he never struck anyone as a “phenom,” says his mother, Lori. He’d gone on to attend Paul VI High School in Haddonfield, New Jersey, a Catholic school without much of a baseball program. “Most games they won, it was because Andrew was pitching,” Bill says. He never signed up for showcases, the pay-to-play events that put high school players in front of scouts. With no powerhouse programs recruiting him, Bailey reached out to Wagner coach Joe Litterio, who quickly offered him a spot on the team. “He had the body to become a good pitcher,” Litterio says. “He had the talent. He had the attitude. He had everything we would want.”
Litterio offered Bailey a chance to join the starting rotation right away, due to both Bailey’s talent and the team’s lack thereof. The Seahawks struggled through that 2003 season, going 11-36 overall and 10-16 in the conference. Bailey posted a paltry 2-7 record with a 6.79 ERA, but he showed flashes of his potential, like in his six-strikeout performance in an 8-3 win over Monmouth that April. “That game was when I realized he could really turn into something,” Litterio says. “That showed what he could do.”
Bailey asserted himself as the pitching staff’s ace in his sophomore season, leading the team with a 3.18 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .209 batting average. He continued to perform well in his junior year, but suffered a serious elbow injury that cut his season short. The injury required Tommy John surgery, a procedure that replaces a ligament in the elbow with a tendon from another part of the body. The surgery is common among pitchers, and although it’s often restorative, it can ruin athletes’ careers. “A lot of people never come back from Tommy John surgery,” Litterio says. “You can start to lose command of your pitches, and then you get that fear factor in your head. There are plenty of kids who are not themselves afterwards.”
While recovering from the injury and ensuing surgery, Bailey was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 16th round of the 2005 MLB draft. Faced with a chance to move closer to his big-league dreams, Bailey made a decision Litterio calls “a little crazy.” He decided to come back to Wagner. “I wanted to finish my degree,” he says. “I wanted to move up in the draft. I had a lot of goals. And with the friends I’d made and the education I’d receive, I knew I wanted to be there.”
Bailey also wanted to continue rehabilitating his injury with Wagner’s trainers, rather than adjusting to a new staff. “The way Andrew handled the surgery and rehab was incredible,” Litterio says. “He just attacked the rehab every single day. There would be a lot of days where I was showing up for work and he was already walking off the field, already done with his morning workout.” The work paid off. Bailey returned to the mound ahead of schedule — about eight months after he underwent surgery — and pitched better than he had in his life. With his fastball now routinely topping 95 miles per hour, Bailey posted a 2.03 ERA and held opponents to a .146 batting average in the 2006 season. He led the Seahawks to a 15-9 conference record, their best mark since Bailey had arrived.
So the year could be called a success. Bailey improved his draft stock, becoming the Athletics’ sixth-round pick, he earned his degree in business administration, and most importantly, he met his future wife, a Seahawks lacrosse player named Amanda Scalzo ’07. “He was definitely on the fence about whether or not to come back to college,” says Amanda, who married Andrew last fall.
“Luckily for me, he did. We always joke that the decision worked out well for both of us.”
Bailey began his professional baseball career shortly after graduation, moving his way up through the Athletics organization over the next two years. After a promising start, Bailey began to struggle when playing for the franchise’s AA affiliate in Midland, Texas. Rather than sending him back down to a lower level, coaches decided to move him from the starting rotation to the bullpen, meaning he would pitch more frequently, but for shorter periods of time. “I never really thought of myself as a relief pitcher, but switching to the bullpen completely changed my mentality,” he says. “Before, I felt like I had to hold something back, pace myself, kind of be picky. But as a reliever I knew that I could just go with my instincts.”
The switch served him well, as Bailey dominated the second half of the 2008 season, setting himself up for the opportunity to make the big-league squad in the spring of 2009. Now one of the game’s best relievers, Bailey shows no signs that he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. “He’s the perfect closer,” says A’s teammate Jerry Blevins. “His intensity, the way he approaches the game, it’s incredible.” While Bailey insists that he’ll work as hard to maintain his all-star form as he did to achieve it, the luxury of life in the big leagues has allowed him to pursue other interests. He serves as director of development for the Strike 3 Foundation, an organization dedicated to childhood cancer research, founded by Athletics pitcher Craig Breslow.
Five years removed from his last Wagner class, Bailey remains thankful for each moment in the process that led him to this point. “This is everything I dreamed of,” he says. “I’m right where I want to be.”
Jordan Conn is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and the San Francisco Chronicle.