By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA (CBS)–Jesse Biddle wasn’t about to be pulled into the comparison game of where-were-you-drafted, and how-much-did-you-sign-for talk. After all, he just barely took off his cap and gown upon graduating from Germantown Friends on June 11 before he was headed to Clearwater, Fla., to play for the Gulf Coast League Phillies.
It’s what happens to high school players when they get drafted in the first round and sign quickly with Major League Baseball teams. But Biddle’s case was slightly different. The Philadelphia resident grew up a Phillies fan, dreaming and yearning one day to play for the hometown team — and on June 7, he got his wish, when the defending 2009 National League champions selected Biddle with the 27th overall pick in the first round.
Within a week’s time the 6-5, 245-pound left-handed pitcher’s life turned upside down. He went from a lauded graduating high school senior to a millionaire (after signing a $1.16-million bonus), to a lowly minor-leaguer trying to prove his lofty draft status and contract were worth it.
So Biddle reported to Clearwater on June 17 with a goal: Continue working hard — and say nothing. He was about to enter a whole new world, with college players fighting to prove themselves and seeking attention. Biddle was one of the youngest players in the Gulf Coast League — but he wasn’t about to let that phase him. In fact, he had cordoned off pretty much everything around him.
“I didn’t have time to think about it — I just went right down to Florida, flew down by myself and reported to the team and went right at it,” Biddle said. “I joined the extended spring training and there were a lot of guys already there, plus there were a couple of draftees, like me. Everyone knew exactly what was going on, but I had no idea what to do.
“I remember that first day. I just followed what everyone else was doing. I got right into stretching. The pitching coaches introduced themselves to me, but no one told me what time to go out there for my first start. It is really like you’re learning as you go along. I was a high school guy and you have to figure out a program that works for you.”
The problem with Biddle was what used to work for him. A workout fiend, with no let-up, he had to be viewed more cautiously now. He was given a regiment of arm stretches three times a week and a full-body workout two times a week.
Only Biddle didn’t exactly stick with that.
Jesse kept with the arm-stretching routine — but had different ideas when it came to the full-body workouts.
“I kind of overdid that,” Biddle said, laughing. “I did that five days a week, instead of two. I didn’t pitch so well when I first got down there, and once the coaches found out what I was doing, they figured it was because of the additional workouts. I was tiring myself out.”
Turned out he was. Once he found his routine, Biddle found himself — the Biddle that mowed down everything he faced in high school. He posted a 3-1 record with a 4.32 ERA in 33.1 innings, including one shutout for the Gulf Coast League Phillies, playing an instrumental part in them winning the league championship.
More importantly, Biddle showed a mental toughness in embracing a level of baseball that most, if not all, major-leaguers detest. The Gulf Coast League is like a baseball boot camp. All the games are played on the desolate backfields of Major League practice facilities, in front of no one, or hardly anyone. They’re also played at noon, under the sweltering 90-degree June Florida sun.
Biddle tore through drenched t-shirts and shorts left and right. While everyone usually hates the experience, Biddle saw it differently. He and his roommate, Chris Duffy out of Central Florida, were usually the first players at the Phillies’ training complex, arriving each morning at around 6:30.
And because hardly any of the players have cars, they walked everywhere. For Biddle, it was a unique introduction to professional baseball.
“The Gulf Coast League was supposed to be the worst experience, I was told. But I had a great time. You have to get up early every morning and play noon games, and that’s the whole reason,” Biddle said. “There’s no sleeping in, and you’re playing in front of zero people. I loved it, and because Chris and I are morning people, it was great for us.”
But the experience did come with a tacit byproduct: a lot of head-to-toe type looks. It’s why Biddle wanted to do his thing, keep to himself and pitch. They’re young men, and some may one day be in the majors, but at the lower levels of minor league, those baseball studs can be catty.
“You have a lot of sizing up going on, and it’s sometimes all you hear in a clubhouse, ‘What did he sign for, where was he drafted.’ A lot of that,” Biddle said. “I heard it all of the time. It’s why I didn’t want to say anything to anyone. I’m this high school kid drafted in the first round, and I didn’t want to get labeled as a ‘first-rounder’ walking around like I accomplished something. I haven’t accomplished anything yet until I reach the majors. It’s what everyone at this level wants.
“But some first-rounders may have the attitude they’re in the majors already. That’s not me. It’s why I didn’t want anyone to know I was a first-rounder. I didn’t want that label. I didn’t even want to be labeled as a baseball player, walking around in Clearwater. That one was kind of tough though, since the whole town is pretty much filled with baseball guys like me.”
Biddle is a special talent with a high motor. It’s something the Phillies instantly grasped. It’s why after three weeks Biddle was called up to play for the Williamsport Crosscutters, in the Class-A Short-Season New York-Penn League.
It was a higher level of play, with Biddle going up against experienced hitters in their early- to mid-20s. And at the higher level, Biddle pitched better, going 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in three appearances for Williamsport.
It was in the New York-Penn League that Biddle got a dose of the real “Bull Durham” minor league life of tiny corroded showers, flea-bag motels, four-hour bus rides through creepy backwater towns, fearless swarms of flies and along with it came the scrutiny. That began quickly, after his first appearance, when a crowd of reporters surrounded him.
Suddenly a boisterous clubhouse was taken over by a quiet lull. A teammate derisively pulled out a chair so “the first-round pick” could sit.
“I tried and tried to get rid of the stereotype, I was just in high school a few months ago, and I didn’t need the superego idiot label,” Biddle said. “I really tried to get rid of it. But some of the Williamsport guys actually came up to me and asked me how much I signed for, what’d I get. I just said I didn’t want to talk about it.
“I tried to keep my mouth shut, because these were guys 23, 24 years old and they really didn’t want to be there. I got called up and some guys were there because they got called down. My first day there, someone got sent home — and that was kind of a shock to me. One day he’s before me stretching, and the next day he’s being sent home to the Dominican Republic. That’s reality. It hit me so hard to see these guys get their dreams shattered.”
Biddle endured the rookie hazing that comes with being the young one on the team and the “first-round” jokes. But he did enjoy the camaraderie, with players who he came up with like Duffy, who liked throwing around the term “Biddle money,” referring to Biddle’s contract, which Biddle himself would laugh about.
The twist is that Biddle still drives a 1999 Toyota minivan. He hasn’t touched a cent of the contract money. He’s looking forward to receiving the championship ring he’ll receive for the Phillies’ Gulf Coast League title. He even caught a few of the parent club’s National League Championship Series games against the San Francisco Giants when he got back home.
Biddle, who turned 19 on Oct. 22, is enjoying his down time, mostly because he’s home with his family and friends. He says being away from them for such a prolonged period of time was his only struggle in his first season as a professional baseball player, and the only major transition he had to bear.
That may not be the case next spring, when Biddle is scheduled to report to Low-A ball at Lakewood, New Jersey, a little more than an hour away from Philadelphia. His large family and big contingent of friends will be able to come see him pitch.
“I have a timetable on when I want to make it to the majors — that’s tomorrow,” Biddle said. “I’m not afraid to admit it. If you don’t set high goals for yourself, you’re always going to be left stuck settling for something less and that’s not me. I want to keep on setting higher goals for myself. I’m glad I got called up to Williamsport. Whenever the Phillies call me up, I’ll be there at Citizens Bank Park. I’ll be ready.”