Northside SF
Cover Story
Ryan Vogelsong's odyssey worth the wait

Vogelsong dons his first All-Star uniform
Coming on the heels of the San Francisco Giants 2010 dream season, it seemed untimely that a soon-to-be-34-year-old pitcher, with major arm injuries in his past and out of the major league baseball spotlight for four-plus years, would pick this team to make his comeback.

After all, the four starting playoff pitchers were signed, along with fifth man Barry Zito, who delivered 33 regular season starts last year, same as Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonny Sanchez. With Madison Bumgarner on the big-league roster from Opening Day and most of the shut-down bullpen intact and back in the orange and black, the Giants would have one of the deepest and perhaps best returning staff in baseball.

The 2010 World Series Champions Giants. The wild childs of the West. The Beard. The Freak. Buster Ballgame, Boss Ross and the Panda too. From misfits and castoffs came big hits and unforgettable strikeouts. One million people partied at the victory parade. A Showtime special was created. Things were good in the City by the Bay. Great timing, charisma, chemistry, some luck, and lots of talent had vaulted the Giants to baseball bliss.

The joy, torture and ultimate victory of 2010 will eternally be etched into the hearts and minds of Giants fans and players. It was quite a thing to experience and see a hope, an ambition, fulfilled.

Into this once-in-a-lifetime fantasy walked Ryan Vogelsong. His dreams had come out quite differently.

During the Giants summer run to the playoffs, Vogelsong was pitching for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs. He was 2–5 with a 4.91 ERA when he was released July 15, two days after the Major League All-Star Game and a week before his 33rd birthday.

Prior to Lehigh Valley, Vogelsong had spent three mostly forgettable seasons in Japan, including two years with the Hanshin Tigers and one year with the Orix Buffaloes.

Born in Charlotte, N.C., Vogelsong’s family moved to the small town of Atglen, Penn., about an hour west of Philadelphia when he was 5. He would play soccer, basketball and baseball at Octorara High School before he starred at NCAA Division II Kutztown University, where he was a stellar pitcher and third baseman from 1996–98. Vogelsong finished his college career with nine school records, including earned-run average in a season (1.41 in 1998) and career (2.87).

Vogelsong tips his hat to the fans photos: courtesy San Francisco Giants
He was taken by the Giants in the fifth round of the 1998 draft and eventually made his major league debut with San Francisco on Sept. 2, 2000, where he pitched two innings of shutout relief against the Chicago Cubs. 

In 2001 Vogelsong was the centerpiece of a trade that garnered Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal from the Pittsburgh Pirates. While Schmidt became an ace for the Giants, Vogelsong’s career went south.

He lost two games for the Pirates in ’01 before being shut down for Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2002 and most of 2003 except for five starts in six appearances. After finishing 2001 with a 6.75 ERA, he finished 2003 with a 6.55 ERA. For no particular reason, the Pirates put him in their rotation full time in 2004, and it did not go well.

In fact, it was historically bad. His season in 2004 was one of only 15 in major league history where a pitcher made at least 26 starts and finished with an ERA of 6.50 or higher. 

Vogelsong made 40 appearances for the Pirates in 2005, mostly in long relief, finishing with an ERA of 4.43. It was not much better in 2006 when he made 20 relief appearances, split the year in the minors and majors, and finished with a 6.25 ERA.

He went 10–19 overall for Pittsburgh before becoming a minor league free agent after the 2006 season.

When the Hanshin Tigers of the Nippon Pro League called, Vogelsong decided to give Japan a shot. He was not great in his three years overseas, where he finished with a record of 11–14 and a 4.22 ERA.

He returned home and signed with the Phillies to pitch in their minor leagues, but after being dumped by Lehigh, Vogelsong was an aging pitcher carrying below average career stats with a wife and 1-year-old son at home.

“It was humbling,” said Vogelsong from the home dugout bench on a warm, sunny mid-July weekday morning at AT&T Park, three hours before the day game start. “I’m not going to say I was at the bottom, but I was close to being out of this game. Half the reason that I wanted to come back to the Giants is because I loved it so much here the first time. The other half was if this was going to be my last season playing baseball I wanted to go out with the Giants organization. It wasn’t even about being in the big leagues. Just being in the organization, that’s how I thought my baseball career was going to be this year. I hoped it wasn’t, I prayed it wasn’t, but at the same time I hadn’t done anything in my career to show I was going to turn things around. The fact that this is happening, that’s why I tell you that I can’t explain this. God had a plan for me, that’s all I can say.”

So did the Giants. The team kept tabs on Vogelsong and then the hand of fate finally shined on their former prospect.

While managing the Bravos De Margarita team last winter in Venezuela, San Francisco batting coach Hensley Meulens saw Vogelsong pitching for Tiburones de La Guaira. Meulens remembered Vogelsong. “I’m not a scout, but I’ve been around baseball, and I can tell when someone is pitching different than they used to,” he said. 

Vogelsong dominated, finishing 6–2 with a 2.25 ERA in 11 starts. Teammate Guillermo Rodriguez, a former Giants catcher, also recommended the journeyman to the Giants.

Vogelsong received a competing offer from the Dodgers, but his decision to rejoin the Giants was easy.
“I was like, I just can’t wear Dodger blue.”

Giant’s pitching coach Dave Righetti received the news with open arms.

“He’s been rejuvenating before he came back to us. What we’ve seen is kind of the finished product of the hard work we’ve seen him put in the last three or four years to get back to this point.

“You know, in our game, careers are never simple, in a sense. You try and bring a guy up through minor leagues and watch him grow, and you get to the big leagues and normally they come and go. They normally don’t stay 10, 15 years, things like that. Those are the storybook ones. Then you have guys that have to go through different things like Vogelsong has gone through. To see it work out for him … you always knew that it was there. When he first signed with us in 1998 we had good feelings about him. He got hurt a couple of different times when he was younger, and to see him battle these things and go through all that, it’s just not easy.”

“Once you get off a major-league roster, it is so tough to get back on one and stay on it,” said Righetti, a two-time All-Star and 19-year veteran as a starter and reliever. “And he is doing it as a starter, not as a reliever who’s coming in and getting a hitter out and getting hot and things like that. He has really got to go out there as a starting pitcher and dissect hitters every fifth day and get them out and keep maintaining his stuff. It just doesn’t happen very often.”

Vogelsong added, “I think what sometimes gets lost in my story is everything that went on behind the scenes. I didn’t just sit around and wait for something to happen. There’s a lot of hard work that went into getting to this point.”

The Giants signed Vogelsong to a nonroster invitation, and after a stellar spring training he was sent down to Triple-A Fresno. Volgelsong excelled, going 2–0 with a 1.59 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 11⅓ innings in his first two starts. When Zito was injured on April 17 and forced to miss the first start of his 11-year career, Vogelsong got the call.

After stops in 10 minor league cities, plus San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Japan, and Venezuela over 14 professional seasons, Vogelsong was back.

When he won his first game as a starter on April 28 against – yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates – it marked his first victory as a starting pitcher in more than 2,400 days.

Then he got hot.

Vogelsong pitched back-to-back shutout starts against Colorado and the Chicago Cubs on May 8 and May 14 to run his record to 3-0. After allowing one run over seven innings against Minnesota on June 22, he was 5–1 with a 1.86 ERA.

How was he doing it? Even Vogelsong wondered. “There’s been times out on the mound where things happen and I go, this isn’t me. This is way bigger than me right now. I didn’t make that pitch like I just made 10 years ago. Is it experience? Is it my time? I don’t know, but I’m not going to ask why.”

When Major League Baseball announced their All-Star rosters on July 3, Ryan Vogelsong joined 12 other pitchers selected to represent the National League.

At the time Vogelsong was sporting a 6–1 record and a 2.05 ERA. 

Manager Bruce Bochy shared his feelings about the selection. “When I told him, it was an emotional time,” said the Giants skipper. “There are special moments in this game. This is one of the best.”

Two-time Cy Young award winner and fellow All-Star Tim Lincecum was also inspired.

  “Just knowing his story and his background and what he’s come from, then to see him come out of it and be successful at the same time was cool. A lot of guys hit that road where they get there, but they really don’t make that mark as much as he has for us. He’s been a guy who’s picked us up on days when we were hitting consecutive losses, and he’s pitched big innings and in big series. It’s not like he’s a flash in the pan. I think he’s got the capability to stay here and be a big factor for us.”

“It definitely gives you a different perspective,” said Lincecum. “The way he values this game is impressive. He takes everything to heart when he pitches. He wants to be a mainstay and not just another guy on the team. He wants to be a leader on the team, kind of a veteran presence, and he’s doing it.”

Giants announcer and former big-league pitcher Mike Krukow weighed in with his observations. 

“This isn’t a fluke that’s going to go away after one year,” he said. “This isn’t a ‘Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees story.’ This is a guy who learned his craft. He paid a lot of dues for his education, but he understands how to pitch with a fastball, he has knowledge of movement with the fastball, he has an excellent changeup that neutralizes both lefties and righties. He has a nice cut fastball, slider and a curveball. He has all different kinds of pitches that he can apply as he reads different swing types.

“He gets it, he understands it. It’s like when you learn a language, said Krukow. “You can get by, you can order a cheese omelet, or you can converse in great detail. Well, he can converse in great detail, only his language is pitching. And it’s going to be something he can sustain for a long time.

“What a difference a year makes. Think about this: last year at the All-Star break he was released from a minor league team. A year later he’s on the All-Star team.”

Duane Kuiper, Krukow’s broadcast partner, was even more specific. 

“… [Y]ou see a guy go through what he has gone through, and then you see the success that he has had after all those years of traveling and trying to get back into the big leagues and then really choosing the Giants as the team to get back to the big leagues with, with friends here like Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner – he liked all those people.

“I’m not sure from a pitching standpoint if there is a better story this year. You know they always have the Comeback Player of the Year? A guy will win it when he really didn’t come back from anything other than hitting .240 or something. Well, this is the true definition of a comeback. This is the true definition of a comeback. I don’t know what’s going to happen between now and the end of the season, but if he is not the Comeback Player of the Year, I’ll be shocked.”

“This is a story you make a bad movie about,” half-joked Kuiper. “Stuff like this doesn’t happen. It’s not realistic. Well, we watched it happen. That’s why it’s been such a good story.”

During the flight down to the All-Star Game, Vogelsong allowed himself a minute to enjoy his success, but he really was happy for his wife, Nicole.

“She’s my best friend. We fit well together. She’s the optimist; I’m the realist. When things are going down, and I’m talking about real life situations, she’s always got the optimist view ... I’m not sitting here today without her. Everything that I’ve been through she’s been through too. She’s had to not only deal with her feelings, but she’s had to help pick me up, and sometimes I forget that it affects her too. Here she is trying to deal with herself and myself at the same time. She’s a giver.”

“The flight to the All-Star Game was definitely cool,” said Vogelsong. “We were on our team plane, and it wasn’t packed because it was just the All-Star guys and their families and the coaching staff. It was the first time my wife, Nicole, and son, Ryder, had been on the team charter. There was a sense of accomplishment that night. It was also a nice exhale. It’s finally here. I’ve done it. I’ve fulfilled one of my lifetime dreams. Now I can get to enjoy a couple of days off and hang out with the best players in the game.

“Yeah that was a cool flight. It was rock-star like. It was even better because my wife got to experience it all with me. And it’s going to be a cool thing to show Ryder when he gets older.”

“It was amazing seeing how happy Ryan was and knowing everything he had been through,” said Nicole. “Everything he’d done was finally validated when they announced his name.”

The Giants pitching staff owns the second-lowest runs-against average in the Major Leagues at 3.13 - behind only Philadelphia at 3.11. Vogelsong (second), Lincecum (third) and Cain (ninth) all rank in the Top 10 for ERA and hard-luck fourth starter Bumgarner is 29th.   The Giants have more quality starts (83-82) than the Phillies and a better batting-average-against than their 2010 NLCS foes (.229 to .239).

Unfortunately for the team the Giants hitting stats are completely at the other end of the spectrum. The team ranks dead last in the National League in runs scored. If the bats don’t come alive, the magical ride of the 2010 season will be tough to repeat.

Vogelsong and the other starters don’t worry about the things they can’t control. In fact, Vogelsong seems to worry a lot less about a lot of things these days.

“I hope that my story sends the message that you should never give up. It became tough sometimes when I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I think if people just have faith and trust in God and continue to work hard and follow your dreams, it’s a good chance it could happen.”

From his lofty stature this season as a dominant starting pitcher for the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants to his wonderful apartment atop Russian Hill, Vogelsong has finally put together all the pieces of success.

“I tell my wife every day you are doing yourself an injustice if you don’t walk up those steps to the roof and look out on a daily basis. The picture we have from our place over Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf is incredible.

“That speaks to me and says this is the kind of thing you don’t take for granted. I go up there every day and thank God for putting me here when I look at this view that you can’t get anywhere else. I love San Francisco.”

The City loves you, too, Vogey. As the romantics would say, it’s a match made in heaven.

Bookmark and Share Print Page PDF
Features: Cover Story Archives