ANAHEIM, Calif. — Like every good baseball tale, the hero’s ascent flickers with that tiny gem of magic that coaxes a smile, and heralds unbridled optimism.
Charlie Furbush had that unbridled optimism this week, and likely still has it, even though he discovered Saturday night just how cruel the business of baseball can be.
After being hammered for nine runs – four earned – by the Kansas City Royals in his second major league start, Furbush was returned to Triple-A.
Still, he was a delight Monday night when he made his first start in a California ballpark, some 3,000 miles from home on the Fourth of July.
And despite Saturday night, this is a story of a kid who made it, and likely will make it again.
It’s the story of a lanky pitcher from Maine with a dimpled grin who from the start seemed to know he had something special up the sleeve of his left arm.
If you haven’t already, meet Charlie Furbush.
Four syllables and a 6-foot-5 frame that hurls off the mound all arms and legs, a hurricane of movement that hides the ball for just a split second.
It carried him from South Portland to the starting rotation of the Detroit Tigers, making him just the fourth Maine pitcher in the last 20 years to start a major league game.
Furbush made his first big league start Monday at Angel Stadium, losing to Los Angeles. Saturday, he was knocked out in the third inning at Kansas City.
Furbush came out of high school in that splendid spring of 2004, when Mark Rogers of Mt. Ararat, an eventual Milwaukee Brewers first-round draft pick, faced a loaded Deering team in the Class A state final, a group that included eventual Triple-A pitcher Ryan Reid and Chicago Cubs prospect Ryan Flaherty among several other soon-to-be Division I baseball players.
The game was moved to Hadlock Field to accommodate the crowds. More than 7,000 were there.
Furbush was a secondary character that day, just a lanky kid who pitched pretty well, and whose groundout in the 11th inning ended South Portland’s run in a Western Maine semifinal a few days earlier.
He was wooed to St. Joseph’s College the next fall by a coach who saw something in him. But few other schools were interested.
He lit it up in Division III ball for Coach Will Sanborn and within two quick years, flanked by two summers mowing down batters in the storied Cape Cod League, transferred to Louisiana State.
That was the final launching pad, from which Detroit drafted him in the fourth round in 2007.
After Tommy John surgery in 2008, Furbush rose swiftly through the farm system, knocking out batters with stuff that never overpowered but simply got it done.
In May, with Brad Thomas on the disabled list, Furbush was called up from Triple-A Toledo.
Two days later, May 23, he made his big league debut, relieving an injured Phil Coke.
Six weeks later he was moved to the rotation when Coke was sent back to the bullpen.
And on the Fourth of July, in front of 40,000-plus at Angel Stadium, he trotted to the mound, jumping over the chalk of the first-base line, the kid from Maine, now the story’s protagonist.
Pitch by pitch, slowly but steadily, one step led to the next.
“I always think about that,” said Furbush. “It puts everything in perspective for me. It’s been a real fun journey for me. I’ve seen a whole lot of the country. I’ve met a lot of people.”
The rise is a testament, said his father, Craig Furbush, to the confidence his son has always seemed to have in his ability to throw a baseball.
“Every one of those parts of the story is connected,” said Craig Furbush. “One door led to another. Charlie kept walking through them and now he’s pitching in the big leagues.
“I mean, look where we are now. How does this even work?”
This was Tuesday, a night after watching his son’s first start from the first-base line, as Craig Furbush sat in the lobby of a swanky California hotel with a cascading waterfall in the courtyard. The Tigers’ players walked by in street clothes. Closer Jose Valverde. Catcher Alex Avila. Manager Jim Leyland.
“Mr. Furbush, how are you?” said Leyland as he stopped to shake hands.
The pair had met at the hotel pool a day earlier, Leyland telling him it was OK to be anxious for his son’s debut as starter.
They chatted about the 75- pitch count Furbush had been on, and why.
“You’ve got to,” said Leyland, in his gravelly voice from years of smoking Marlboros. “We’ll build him up, though. I thought he was fine.”
Later, in the clubhouse, Leyland talked about the deception of Furbush’s pitching, how he expects he’ll adjust if and when the time comes.
“That’s what the game’s all about. They figure you out, you figure out another way,” said Leyland. “I think he’ll be fine.”
In fact, he said the team is working on cutting down his delivery time from 1.7 seconds to at least 1.3.
One batter, in his first start, stole second, then third before scoring on a balk.
“He’s gonna have to shorten up his time. It’s 1.7 to the plate. Man on second, you’ve got no chance,” said Leyland. “Some guys hold the ball, try to get the runner antsy. That’s something he’s going to have to work on. That’s any pitcher, not just him.
“Every pitcher at the major league level is talented enough and good enough to deliver the ball to the plate in a respectable time and not lose stuff.”
To reach the majors, Furbush’s “deceptive delivery” has been effective at keeping batters guessing what’s coming at them.
“He’s got a lot of stuff moving,” said pitching coach Jeff Jones with a smirk. “He creates a lot of deception with what he has going. I think it’s hard to pick up his ball.”
Avila, the catcher, said the reason the ball is difficult to pick up has to do with his wingspan and height. He throws a fastball, curveball, slider and change-up.
“A lot of pitching is deception,” said Avila. “He’s very tall and very lanky. With those long arms, when he throws it, it looks a little closer. He also has good stuff.”
Furbush recalls working on his basic delivery just once, after his junior year at South Portland.
Craig Furbush, who played baseball at Amherst College, brought him to see his old coach, Bill Thurston, one of New England’s top baseball minds.
“He said the only thing I want you to do is stand against the wall, no ball, and go through your delivery,” recalled Furbush. “Every time I drilled it. I’d drill my hand into the wall. And over time I stopped doing it. It helped.”
Since then he’s pitched generally the same way, with minor adjustments here and there.
“Baseball is a game of adjustments. He’s very confident in his own abilities,” said Avila. “And he’s proven in a short amount of time that he belongs here. He’s a major league pitcher.
“His best pitch is his fastball. Coming from the left, it’s tough.”
Ironically three major league pitchers have come from South Portland: Jim Beattie, who threw for the Yankees and Seattle Mariners from 1978-86; then there was Bill Swift, who pitched for 13 years from 1985-98.
Both were right-handers.
Furbush comes from a long line of lefties.
His great-grandfather, Jimmy Fitzpatrick, the man Fitzpatrick Stadium and the James J. Fitzpatrick Trophy are named after, was also a lefty.
A college football, basketball and baseball player, legend says Fitzpatrick struck out Babe Ruth twice and denied him a hit in four at-bats during an exhibition game in the 1920s.
Furbush just remembers the sweet old gentleman who gave him candy and root beer.
Sweet treats, years before he pitched his first baseball.
“I remember vividly when this story began,” said Craig Furbush. “When Charlie was 9 his Little League coach asked if he wanted to pitch.
“When he’s standing on the mound now, and he looked the same way at 9 years old, he just seems to know what to do.”
Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at: