KISSIMMEE, Fla. – When Josh Fields takes the mound, his shoulder-length mane bounces jauntily with abandon as he unleashes an overpowering fastball which sometimes appears faster than the speed of sound.
Well, maybe not, but he has seen his signature pitch clock out at 100 miles per hour. That’s autobahn speed. Hitters, more often than not, swing in futility.
Field’s top-speed fastball causes one to harken back to another day. In olden times, before machines were around to document and confirm, the original old timers were of the mind that nobody could throw a ball harder and faster than the Washington Senator’s Walter Johnson. A gentle man, Johnson never brushed back hitters, fearing the damage his fastball might cause.
The next overpowering pitcher latter-day old timers raved about was Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians. By Feller's time, the late thirties and forties, there were machines which could measure the speed of pitches. Feller could throw his fastball over 100 mph, which brought about eyebrow-raising awe. Ellis Clary, the colorful Valdosta native who spent a long career in the Big Leagues as a player, coach, and scout, batted against the Indian ace in Feller's prime and had this description of his fastball: “He looked like he was shaking hands with the catcher with a white hoe handle."
Fields, 6-0, 193, has always been a strong-armed right hander, but maybe his hair figures into his speed in some way--a Sampson like effect? Fields, devout and pious, has Bible heroes. Surely Sampson is one of them. Cut his hair, and he might have to rely on his changeup to get hitters out.
Whatever talent and nuisances are in the mix, Fields is one of the best relief pitchers in the majors today. He and the Astros avoided arbitration this year with Fields signing a one year contract. At the next round of negotiations, big money will get top billing on the agenda.
Fields, shall we say, has paid his dues and is now ready for the big inning, the big game, and the big payday. After an eye-popping year at Georgia in 2008—consensus All-America, 18 saves (school record), 3.38 ERA, SEC pitcher of the year, National Stopper of the year (college) and the Georgia and SEC record for career saves (41)—Fields was drafted in the first round by Seattle. Life in the bushes began. He was ready for the long bus rides and austere living, knowing that Major League opportunity awaited.
That was in 2009, beginning a four-year minor league travel log with the Seattle farm club at West Tennessee. He soon was involved in a three-team trade (Seattle, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston), which sent Fields to the Red Sox, who did not protect him when the Rule 5 draft came around in 2012. That turned out to be a red letter day for the Astros. Fields considers divine intervention as a factor in how things have worked out, just as it was in 2007 when he had finished his junior year at Georgia with a so-so season but an opportunity to leave campus
early to play for the Atlanta Braves, his boyhood team. Negotiations did not go smoothly with Atlanta. Josh chose to stay at Georgia one more year, which turned heads just as his fastball does. It became an accomplished season and moved him to within two semesters of graduation.
(When baseball reaches that dead end, as it does for all players, the first matter of unfinished business for him will be to complete degree requirements.) At the moment, his goal is to enhance his Big League career by building on what took place in 2015, when the Astros forced the ultimate World Series champions, the Kansas City Royals, to five games in the playoffs after defeating the Yankees in the first round.
Josh saw action in game two versus the Royals, coming in with the bases Loaded. He gave up a walk before striking out the next two batters. If more of those pressure-type games come his way, Josh’s temperament will be compatible.
“You like pitching when the game is on the line,” he said.
There is optimism in Houston, entering its fourth season in American League competition. “More heart. More energy. More Power.” That motto is striped across the cover of the team media guide, indicating that this is a team which expects a championship of itself. If that’s to be, it will be up to young, but seasoned, players like Josh Fields.
Growing up in Hull, ten miles Northeast of Athens, Josh is keeping active the Madison County link to the Big Leagues which began with Jake Westbrook who finished his career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013.
Fields, last year, made 54 appearances for the second consecutive season. He led all Astro relievers in strikeouts per nine innings (11.9), ranked second in strikeouts (57), and fifth in innings (50.2). He ranked fifth among American League relief pitchers in strikeouts per nine innings. He has come of age.
There is also another Bulldog link to the Houston Club, dating back to the days when the team was known as the “Colt 45s,” (before taking on the name of Astros when the team moved into the Astrodome in 1965). Jim Umbricht, also a relief pitcher, played for Jim Whatley at Georgia in the fifties and became a member of the Colt 45s in 1962-63. Umbricht began his career with the Milwaukee Brewers, was traded to the Pirates, and then joined the Houston club after being purchased from the Pirates from a big league player pool.
In 1962, Umbricht became one of the top relief pitchers in the National League, posting a 4-0 record and an ERA of 2.01. He was afflicted with cancer, but made a remarkable comeback to pitch again in 1963, bringing about reverential respect with a 4-3 record and a 2.61 ERA. However, he succumbed to cancer at the age of 33 in April of 1964. Umbricht's number was the first to beretired by Houston.
(Loren Smith is a guest columnist for the Newnan Times-Herald and an avid University of Georgia supporter)