Waipahu grad Jerome Williams honors his mom by using a pink glove. If he keeps pitching well, Angels of a different sort will be watching over him, too
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 3, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 10:29 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
Jerome Williams expected the jabs, the questions, the quizzical looks. Heading out to the mound sporting a pink glove on his left hand tends to invite some pointed dugout chatter. But Williams' statement was never about fashion. It's been 10 years since Deborah Williams died of breast cancer. So as a tribute to his mother, Williams picked out the pink Zett model and has worn it for each pitching appearance this season.
"Guys always give me stuff about it, they always get on me," Williams said. "But when they find out the story and find out what's really the story behind it, then they'll be, ‘OK I understand that and I respect you for that.' "
Williams is also winning respect for his performances in a resurgent season.
The 29-year-old Waipahu High graduate is undefeated with the pink glove, some four years removed from his last major league appearance and a year after pitching in Taiwan, by far the longest leg of his 12-year odyssey in professional baseball.
Williams began this spring with the Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers in the independent Atlantic League. A 6-0 start led to a call from the Los Angeles Angels, who signed him to a minor league contract and assigned him to the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees of the Pacific Coast League.
He won his first two starts with the Bees and takes a 3.14 earned-run average into today's scheduled start against the Reno Aces.
For all he's experienced over the last decade, Williams is in much the same position he was back then —toiling through the minors, driven by a vision of throwing off a big-league mound. He has added some pop to his fastball and now owns a perspective cultivated during a swift rise to the majors, an equally quick descent and the process of working his way back.
"I have a lot of years left. I feel like I'm in my prime," Williams said. "Before, I was coming up, I was young, I threw the ball hard, but I took everything for granted at that time."
Williams was the 39th pick in the 1999 draft after a dominant senior season at Waipahu. He steadily progressed through the San Francisco Giants system before making his major league debut on April 26, 2003.
He earned his lone postseason start in the division series against Florida and went 10-7 with the Giants in 2004. But his production tailed off soon after and he spent most of 2006 in the minors.
Williams last pitched in the majors on May 15, 2007, as a member of the Washington Nationals. He went 0-5 and was released later that season, freezing his major league record at 23-29.
When 2008 rolled around, Williams was playing for Long Beach in the Golden League.
"From that point on I told myself I had to really bear down and see where my career was going to go," Williams said. "I was 26, 27 years old and I was just in the big leagues and now I'm in independent ball. It kind of put a reality check on me to say, ‘It's either you're going to play, you're going to work out, you're going to do the right things to stay, or are you just going to throw it all away and go back home.'"
He signed minor league contracts with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's over the next two years, but it took a season in Taiwan for Williams to restore his faith in the pitch that had scouts flocking to Waipahu a decade ago.
"It taught me how to pitch, to be honest," Williams said of his overseas experience in 2010. "When I was coming up I threw the ball hard and I got to a point where I was trying to be like (Greg) Maddux, trying to spot up everything. When I went to Taiwan, it taught me to trust my fastball, trust everything that I've got."
Williams carried that mind-set into this season and signed with Lancaster, confident a strong showing would lead to a call from a major league organization. Williams tossed a complete-game two-hitter with 11 strikeouts in his last outing with Lancaster and the Angels signed him on June 15 and sent him to Salt Lake City.
In two starts with the Bees, Williams has 12 strikeouts against two walks in 14 1/3 innings. He gave up eight hits in both appearances.
Williams said he's replaced his slider with a cutter and mixes speeds with a curveball and changeup. But his approach is firmly based on his fastball. In his most recent start — he went 8 1/3 innings in a 6-4 win over the Colorado Springs Sky Sox on Tuesday — Williams said he was clocked between 88 and 95 mph.
Although Williams hasn't spent much time in one place over the last few years, he now calls Fresno, Calif., home and hasn't been back in Hawaii since 2005.
"But you never can take the islands out of the boy," said Williams, whose father still coaches Little League in Waipahu. "I'm always Hawaii to the fullest."
He hopes to come back to visit soon, but for now he's focused on pitching well for the Bees.
Of course, taking the pink glove to Anaheim depends on developments with the Angels staff. So while he remains motivated by the tantalizing possibility of returning to the majors, experience has taught him to live in the present, even as he honors the past.
"You never know with baseball; baseball is weird," Williams said. "I'm just going to go out there and pitch. ... As long as I'm here playing baseball, no matter what league it is, I'm happy."