Johnny Cash could have written a song about Mud Hens pitcher Pat Ahearne. Maybe he did.
After all, Ahearne has been to Lakeland, Trenton, Toledo, Detroit, Norfolk, Duluth, San Antonio, Vero Beach, Albuquerque, Bridgeport, New Haven, Tacoma, Calgary, Erie, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Caracas. Some more than once.
Sound like a country and western jingle? Sort of. But it s really just one of those “my girlfriend packed up the pickup and took the dog and I sure do miss that dog” baseball love songs.
Pat Ahearne was born in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge and has made just about every stop between there and the Long Island Sound off the southern coast of Connecticut.
He has awakened to warm, soft trade winds and fallen asleep to purple mountain majesty. He has warmed up on mounds in Venezuela next to a guy wearing army fatigues and clutching a saber and a guard dog to keep rowdy fans at bay. He has pitched down under and under water - his opening night start at a new stadium in Trenton was dashed when the sod infield literally floated away during a rainstorm - and in a stadium in Duluth encircled by a 20-foot-high stone wall and an interior wire fence that players nicknamed “Shawshank.” They didn t get called up, they got paroled.
You may note that Ahearne s travel log includes just one major league stop, Detroit. It happened in 1995. In just his third full professional season he started 7-0 at Toledo, was selected for the Triple-A all-star game, and got paroled to the Tigers.
Ah, but it s not a happy story. If it were, we d be writing Broadway show tunes, not country ditties.
In his major league debut with the Tigers, Ahearne lasted one inning and gave up five runs on six hits. He ended up making four appearances and finished with an 0-2 record and an 11.70 ERA. He was sent back to Toledo, proceeded to lose nine straight, and has not pocketed major league meal money since.
Ahearne is 34 years old now, no longer a prospect, no longer, perhaps, even an afterthought. Back with the Mud Hens for the fourth or fifth time - after all, who s counting? - Ahearne is pitching as well as at any time in his career, as well as he was in early 1995. But last week, when the parent Tigers put starter Nate Cornejo on the disabled list, they called up a non-starter from Toledo whose numbers didn t measure up to Ahearne s.
“I just don t think about that stuff,” Ahearne was saying a few days ago. “As soon as you start thinking about that it sneaks in and disrupts your focus. And when I m on the field, my entire focus, my entire being has to be on that exact moment in time.”
Jeff Jones, the Mud Hens pitching coach, was a coach with the Tigers in 95 and feels certain there is no organizational bias against Ahearne because of his second-half collapse that season.
“He wasn t there long enough to make that kind of an impression,” Jones said. “Being a sinkerballer, I think he might have tried to throw harder when he got up there because his location was really off. He wasn t in the strike zone.”
And now, almost a decade later?
“Pat works as hard, or harder, than anybody I ve been around in baseball,” Jones said. “Nobody spends more time studying his delivery. He has done everything and more to be successful.”
After his dismal finish in 95, Ahearne didn t even make it out of the next spring s camp with the Tigers before being traded to the Mets organization. What followed - four teams in 96 and 21 total stops, both domestic and international, in nine years - can only be described as an odyssey.
“It s my job,” Ahearne said. “I like playing. It s the job I want to do. You do your job and you get a better job and you make sort of a living at it. It s as simple as that.”
A lesser man might have quit. Even Ahearne almost did.
When he was released by the Yankee organization during spring training in 98, he took his glove but left everything else stuffed in the locker and went to his dad s house in Detroit.
“I spent a couple months and never touched a ball. If I turned on the TV and there was a ballgame, I changed the channel.”
But Pat Ahearne isn t a quitter, so after some time to reflect, Part II of his career began with Bridgeport of the independent Atlantic League.
“The joy of being on the field came back to me,” he said.
To make a long story short, he went back to Bridgeport in 99, started 6-0 and was signed by Seattle, which assigned him to Double-A New Haven (Conn.), where he went 8-3 and won the ERA title. A year later he was back in Triple-A in Tacoma and led the Pacific Coast League with 13 wins.
Then came another one of those forks in the long and winding road. Sensing he was a mile-per-hour or two away from returning to the big leagues, Ahearne went to Calgary in 2001 and tried to become something of a power pitcher.
“It seems like I spent the whole year backing up third base,” he said. “Trying to go from 85 to 91 on the radar gun in a span of like three starts was silly. I know now that improvement comes in inches, not in large leaps, and doesn t always show on the gun. I am what I am, and the goal is to make myself better regardless of where I end up. If a good season in Toledo is the max, then that s the max.”
He s certainly off to a good start at 3-1 with a 3.10 ERA. Ahearne leads the International League in strikeouts - 39, against just six walks - and innings pitched.
Maybe, just maybe, Toledo won t be the max. Detroit is only an hour away, and every odyssey needs a destination. Even country songs have the occasional happy ending.