Monday, June 06, 2005

Hurry Up, Jerome--Lose Some Weight So You Can Replace Mitre

At some point in the previous century, a talented, young writer was ready to get her degree from the University of Iowa.

Her name was Melissa Isaacson, and she already was an outstanding sportswriter. She had covered the Hawkeyes for the Daily Iowan, the student paper at Iowa.

She also was well aware of the Des Moines Register, which then was more influential than it is now, sold a lot more papers than it does now and sent its reporters and photographers to many more places than it does now.

She applied for a job at the Register, and got an interview. Rumor has it that she was offered a job, but it wasn't anything that interested her. My guess is that the editors wanted her to write more 35-heads [in those days, 35-heads were short headlines that ran above short stories] while sitting on the sports copy desk than author stories on the Hawkeyes or Cyclones for the Big Peach [well, the then-Big Peach] in Sunday's paper.

So Isaacson did the smart thing. She forgot about the local paper and went someplace where she could write.

And write she did.

And she's still writing--now for the Chicago Tribune, where she's been a reporter and columnist.

The reason I brought up Isaacson's name is because she had a story in her paper the other day about Jerome Williams, an overweight pitcher who was traded recently to the Chicago Cubs from the San Francisco Giants.

Williams now toils for the Iowa Cubs, with Sec Taylor Stadium [it's always going to be Sec Taylor Stadium to me] as his headquarters when the team is at home.

It costs too much to park at Sec Taylor Stadium, and the hot dogs and everything else at the concessions stands are atrociously expensive. But at least guys like Jerome Williams can pitch there until they're ready for prime-time.

Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who doesn't know much about pitching and probably knows nothing about Des Moines but likes Jerome Williams, can't wait for the 23-year-old to get to Wrigley Field. I can't, either.

As far as I'm concerned, he can replace Sergio Mitre in the rotation any day now.

Anyway, here's Isaacson's nicely-written story on Williams as it appeared on

He's no island

New Cubs farmhand Jerome Williams plays for his family back in Hawaii—and his mother's memory

By Melissa Isaacson
Tribune staff reporter

June 4, 2005, 8:58 p.m. CDT

DES MOINES -- He is a mature 23, an established 23 and a very weary 23.

The Hawaiian lilt in his voice and a genuinely warm demeanor prop up the Cubs' new acquisition, even as his body, slumping in the Iowa Cubs' clubhouse, does not.

Jerome Williams has pitched six innings in his first game for the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate after arriving in Des Moines the day before, and he is asked to recount his life story. Again.

He does so willingly, generously, although it is clear the ache does not recede with each telling. Growing up poor on the outskirts of Honolulu, seeing his oldest brother sent to prison, losing his mother to breast cancer at 47, watching his father go through a liver and two kidney transplants.

And, oh, yes, feeling as though his family's very survival, not to mention the hopes of the eight main islands of Hawaii, rests squarely on his shoulders.

"It is a lot of pressure," Williams says. "But you know what? That's life. As a young kid growing up and seeing what happened with my family, I've had to choose to make a better life for myself, and right now this is a good life for me and the only way I can support my family.

"Even though I'm only 23, I'm the backbone of the family now."

Once, that was his mother's role, and Deborah Williams was going to make sure her youngest son knew it. When he came home hurt and angry from the frequent taunting that came with looking more like his African-American father than his native Hawaiian mother, she told him to embrace who he was, to be proud of a heritage that also includes eight other ethnic groups.

When she lay dying in the final days of her long struggle with breast cancer, she told her eldest son, Elliott, 10 years older than Jerome, to take special care of his baby brother.

"I'd always been protective of him, but my mom asked me to do her a favor and just let him be," Elliott Mathias says by phone from the home he shares with their father Glenn in Waipahu, Hawaii. "She told me, 'Say things when they need to be said, but let him take his own route. Let him be his own man.'"

The call may come tomorrow for Williams to join the Cubs, or it may come in a few weeks, or, depending on some things he can control and others he cannot, it may take a little longer.

He already is a gifted young pitcher, a big-leaguer at 21 and the youngest San Francisco Giant to pitch a shutout in 28 years when he blanked the A's in June, 2003. As a 22-year-old in 2004, he won 10 games for the Giants before elbow surgery caused him to miss the final two months of the season.

This year spring training was interrupted by rehab and a return home to Hawaii to attend to his father. Williams started 0-2, rang up a 6.48 ERA as the Giants' fifth starter and found himself back in Triple A before April was over.

On May 28 he was dealt to the Cubs with fellow pitcher David Aardsma for reliever LaTroy Hawkins.

If baseball is Williams' dream—and clearly it is—it is also a lifeline that dangles a little too tenuously for comfort.

Asked what he would be doing if not for baseball, Williams doesn't hesitate.

"I know exactly what I would be doing," he says. "I would be at home doing the same thing my brothers are doing—working at a Home Depot or a convenience store. For sure that's what I would be doing. When I got drafted (39th overall in 1999), I didn't have any college offers. My grades were pretty good, but I didn't have the requirements to get to college. So it was either work or go to the Army.

"If baseball wasn't here, I would be nothing right now."

No paradise

Deborah Mathias played softball and volleyball in high school in her native Hawaii and was a hula dancer when she met Glenn Williams, an African-American from New York and a Vietnam veteran who decided to settle in Hawaii after being stationed at Pearl Harbor.

"Hawaii was a dream for me—once I got here I was staying," Glenn Williams says. "I said, 'I'm going to get married and raise me a family.' When I got three boys I told my wife, 'I'm going to train them to play some sport to keep them out of trouble.'"

Glenn Williams is all of 5 feet 8 inches, but he played every sport at nearly every position and wreaked havoc on the playgrounds of Hawaii playing his New York brand of ball. They would look at him like he was from another world, which he was.

"They called me names I'd never heard of," Glenn Williams recalls. "I'd come home and tell my wife and she'd say, 'Baby, those guys are going to fight you.'"

He worked for the Navy for 13 years until a neck injury landed him on disability. The family settled in Waipahu on the western outskirts of Honolulu, not what most people would imagine when they think of Hawaii.

"I grew up in a rough neighborhood—shootings, killings," Jerome Williams says. "Everybody thinks of Hawaii as a paradise, but I grew up basically in a ghetto. It was pretty tough just walking across the street."

Williams' older brothers Elliott and Glenn Jr. turned away from sports, Elliott finding acceptance in a world of drugs and alcohol, which precipitated a downward spiral that led to a six-year prison sentence for burglary in 1996.

"When Jerome was little," Glenn Sr. says, "I told my wife, 'Debbie, this one really wants to play baseball. This one is not going to get away.'"

His parents were strict with their youngest son, keeping him away from any event where alcohol beckoned, even school dances. But he had a stutter and a temper, a dangerous combination when he began running into the same type of racism his father faced.

"It was tough," Williams recalls. "Everybody thought I was just black because I look just black. I was getting called every name in the book. In elementary school I got called into the office all the time because I was punching somebody who called me a black so-and-so."

Glenn Williams talked to his son. "I said, 'Jerome, you see that rock over there? That rock can hurt you. You see that bat? That bat can hurt you. But what those guys say, that can never hurt you unless you let it.'"

Williams listened. "I finally told myself those are just words and I'm not that," he says. "And every time I went on the mound, that's when my frustration poured out and nobody could really hit me when I was frustrated and [angry]. That fueled my fire and really, I think, made me what I am right now."

As a senior at Waipahu High School, Williams struck out 116 batters in 65 innings, compiled a 0.30 ERA and became Hawaii's highest-drafted player. He made his first trip to the mainland when he and his mother flew to San Francisco to sign his Giants contract.

If professional baseball was an adjustment for Williams, the homesickness was worse.

"Hawaii is slow—we're real behind in a lot of stuff and when you come to the mainland, you have to grow up quick," he says. "At 17, 18, 19, I had to grow up. I didn't want to be a kid anymore, I wanted to be a man."

Deborah Williams' breast cancer had been in remission, but it returned with a vengeance shortly before Jerome was to leave for spring training in 2001.

"I didn't want to play," he recalls. "I was going to quit playing baseball."

His father helped change his mind. "I always told him, 'What do you know in life?' And he'd say, 'Dad, all I know is baseball.'

"'So you tell me,' I said. 'Why would you want to quit?'"

Ultimately, he returned to the Giants for his mother.

"It was tough because it was my mom, and I wanted to stay with her," he says. "But my mom's No. 1 thing was for me to play baseball, so that's what I was going to do. I went back up, and a week or two later she passed away."

Mom close to heart

Clawing the pitcher's mound at U.S. Cellular Field two years ago, Williams felt more than dirt slipping through his fingers.

He felt his very identity might be lost.

So he scooped up what he could of his broken puka shell necklace into his Giants cap, and after the game he called his brother Glenn.

The necklace had been a gift from his mother shortly before she died. It had belonged to her since she was a child and she told her son it should always remind him of his Hawaiian heritage. He would bury a handful of shells in a shallow grave next to his mother's and the rest he would keep close to his heart.

"My first year in the big leagues I wore it all the time," Williams says. "Every time I pitch, I know that if I have it around my neck, she's there watching me."

Williams was shocked when the necklace broke. "I called Glenn and asked him to dig up the other shells and send them to me," he says.

His father restrung the necklace and Williams threw his first career shutout the night he got it back. He then went on a roll that included six victories and the distinction of being the first Giants rookie to start a postseason game since 1937.

The Giants began selling replicas of the necklace at SBC Park, raising more than $60,000 for cancer research. But these days the puka shells are tucked discreetly inside his T-shirt for fear that an opposing team will protest that they are costume jewelry.

"That really hurt Jerome," his father says. "Other guys wear gold and silver and no one makes them take that off. No one knows what it takes to make one of those, and here was Lou Piniella calling it costume jewelry.

"No one knows how much it meant to him. Jerome gets his feelings hurt easily, just like his mother did."

Jerome Williams says he gets strength from his mother, and he needed all of it when his brothers called this past spring to tell him his father's body was rejecting the kidney he had received in transplant surgery last fall and that his liver was failing as well.

"Two days before I went home, they were talking about him dying," Jerome says. "It was tough … but that's when you have to be strong. That's how I take after my mother."

Apparently that applies to his father as well. Glenn Sr. came through the double transplant well, gaining back 60 pounds from a frighteningly frail 114 pounds before surgery and says he will get on the first flight he can to see his son.

"That would brighten the spirits of both of them so much," says Elliott, who is back on his feet with a wife and a son. Elliott would like to come, too, and see his brother play in person for the first time since Jerome was 8 years old.

"It would make this all so great," he says.

Williams married his wife, Sarah, in February, 2004, and she gave birth to the couple's first child, Alana, in August. He also has a 4-year-old son, Tre-Jordan.

Williams knows he carries the pride and enormous expectations of a state that both embraces and smothers its heroes. But the immediate goal is in front of him: drop down from his present 242 pounds to about 225 and work on locating his 95-m.p.h. fastball to complement his sweet changeup and serviceable curve. He believes he'll be more effective with less weight.

"When I was younger I used to eat," Williams says. "Hawaii is a starchy place—rice, noodles. When I was young I had high metabolism. I thought I was OK, until I reached 21, 22 and it caught up to me. Plus I wasn't really working hard. I was basically living the life, trying to be a big-leaguer.

"I was 17 the first time I left the island, and going through all that trouble with my family and everything, I feel like I'm an old guy. But I'm still just 23. Some guys my age would probably have broken down and wouldn't be playing baseball … but I take after my mother and I just want to be strong and come out and pitch and not really think about that stuff, even though it's always in the back of my head."

"Everybody says the easiest thing is to get to the big leagues, but the hardest thing is to stay, and that's so true. I don't want to be that guy who eats his way out of baseball, especially at 23. If I'm going to have the talent to be up there, then I should be up there.