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Brett Pill’s climb from the Crabs to the Giants

It was a warm September evening, even by San Diego standards, when Brett Pill stepped to the plate for his first at-bat as a San Francisco Giant. His gray jersey was crisp and unstained, and his matching pants were pulled down over the tops of his cleats. Sitting nervously along PETCO Park's first-base line, his dad Mike Pill told a relative he hoped his son would get a hit. Inside, the elder Pill just remembers thinking, "I hope he doesn't strike out."

This was a pinnacle of boyhood dreams, realized eight long years after Pill was just another gawky but promising college student starring for the Humboldt Crabs. Since that 2003 summer, Pill had played 740 minor league games in dozens of towns across the country. Now, in his major league debut, he watched a slow curveball from Padres lefty Wade LeBlanc cross the plate at his knees. Strike one.

Pill backed out of the batter's box, banged his bat against the outside of his left foot and stared up the line for any sign from the third base coach. Then he licked his lips, took half a practice swing and adjusted his shiny black helmet as he dug back in.

LeBlanc tried another off-speed pitch and Pill was waiting for it. With one triumphant swing, he justified the promotion that had eluded him for so long.

The ball rocketed down the left field line and caromed off a balcony on the nearby Western Metal Supply building. Pill realized instantly he had homered as he dropped his bat, but his adrenaline carried him around the bases faster than he'd ever circled them before. As he rounded third and passed a cheering dugout of grinning teammates, Pill couldn't help but smile with them. It was an uncharacteristic display of emotion for the shy slugger. On Sept. 6, Pill had become just the third player in Giants history to homer in his first at-bat.

The next afternoon, he launched another stunner into the left field bleachers. In all of Major League Baseball -- among more than 10,000 players since 1919 -- only 21 others have homered in each of their first two games.

Pill, 27, is quick to credit the foggy nights he spent at the Arcata Ball Park for helping launch him to greatness on a much brighter stage.

"Playing summer ball in Arcata was just an awesome atmosphere, a great experience," the soft-spoken Pill said. "It was a good place to really start my career. Arcata was the first place where I got to play every day. I was kind of a walk-on in college, and I needed to play in a starting line-up. That's where Humboldt really helped me."

Formidable opponents on the baseball diamond were few and far between for Pill growing up in West Covina, an eastern suburb of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. His dad, who had played minor league baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, coached Brett and his younger brother Tyler.

As an adolescent, Pill hit the game-winning home run in a Pony League World Series semifinal in 1999, and Covina went on to win the series. He attended nearby Covina High, earning all-league basketball honors and becoming the first sophomore who baseball coach Charley Beal ever brought up to a varsity squad.

"He was very talented and mature beyond his years," said Beal, now a counselor at the school. "He was not afraid of getting into pressure situations when the game was on the line. He enjoyed that. He enjoyed the competition."

Honors came his way on the field and off: He was named co-most valuable player of the Valle Vista League his senior season before graduating 16th in his class of 348.

Pill chose to study business management at Cal State Fullerton, a baseball powerhouse.

"He liked the school, and after seeing the baseball program, he knew he would go there," his mother Kelly Pill said. "He knew that Fullerton was the best, and he wanted to show that he could compete with the best. It's just part of his personality."

Without a baseball scholarship, Pill had to prove himself. He chose to redshirt his freshman season to learn the ropes, an option that allows college athletes to defer one of their four years of playing eligibility while still being able to practice with a team.

"I definitely don't think I was ready to play that year because I came from a small high school, and that's one of the best college baseball teams in the country," Pill said. "It was just a big learning year."

The coaching staff at Fullerton recommended to Pill that he spend the summer with the Crabs in Arcata, due to the team's winning tradition and a guarantee of playing time.

A few months shy of 19, Pill and his family packed his white Ford F-150 with clothes, a TV and baseball equipment. They drove north through the redwoods for the first time, stopping to marvel at the world's largest drive-through tree.

When Pill walked into the Arcata Ball Park in early June, he was a lanky 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds. He hadn't played in a meaningful baseball game for more than a year, but he quickly found his niche in Arcata. He helped the Crabs win their first 11 games that season en route to one of the most successful finishes in a rich 67-year history. Pill played third base and had 48 hits in 130 at-bats to compile a .369 batting average, third-best on the team.

His parents flew up from Southern California to see him play over the Fourth of July, when the Crabs swept the Solano Mudcats in a holiday doubleheader.

"I can picture the field vividly like it was yesterday, everyone on the grass for the fireworks," said his mom, Kelly Pill. "The community support, I've never seen anything like it. It seemed like everyone in the whole town was a huge Crabs fan. There were just so many people there. The games were crazy, especially with the Crab Grass Band."

His dad still occasionally wears the Crabs hat and fleece pullover he bought as souvenirs that summer. Fans at Fullerton games have tried unsuccessfully to buy the gear from him.

"We had such a good time in Humboldt," Mike Pill said. "It's just the neatest thing the way the community rallies around those guys. It was something else."

Pill's experience in Arcata epitomizes why decades of college players have honed their skills with the country's oldest continually operated summer collegiate baseball team.

Playing time and a loyal fan base -- two things many Crabs miss at their universities -- are both promised in Arcata. The organization also provides accommodations and helps players find part-time work in the community.

Robin Guiver, who has coached the Crabs for 10 years after three summers pitching in Arcata, recruits players from colleges across the West Coast and beyond. Living in Santa Cruz, he's able to keep close tabs on several Division I schools nearby while also taking a few recruiting trips every year. His recruiting process begins almost a year in advance -- he already has 26 players committed for 2012.

More than 300 former Crabs have continued on to play professionally and several dozen of those have made it all the way to the majors. The Crabs aren't affiliated with any professional baseball organization, though, and the players are not paid. Collegiate summer baseball programs like the Crabs simply offer dedicated college athletes a chance to enhance their resumes and keep their skills sharp between seasons.

"It's inspiring for future guys to know they're playing where guys like Brett have been," Guiver said. "It keeps those guys aware that they might have an opportunity to make a living playing ball.

After Arcata, the successes kept coming for Pill, who made the most of each limited opportunity. At Fullerton, he came off the bench to help the Titans win the College World Series in 2004 -- a major milestone for a college athlete. He got more summer experience with teams based in Texas and Massachusetts.

The Giants drafted Pill in the seventh round in June 2006, and he signed for a $130,000 bonus.

"I liked that the kid could hit," said Ray Krawczyk, the scout who signed Pill. "I thought he played great defense, and he hit a lot of doubles all the time. I always thought maybe his power would come somewhere down the road, because if he's hitting doubles in the gaps or off the wall, maybe he'll be able to launch a little further as time goes on."

Pill embarked on his minor league journey in Oregon just a few days after he signed.

Most players begin their minor league careers in the rookie leagues, which are followed by Single-A, Advanced-A, Double-A and Triple-A. Each of the 30 teams that comprise Major League Baseball, the highest level of the game, has its own minor league system for refining talent. Competition in each rank is progressively more fierce.

Life in the minor leagues is a far cry from the glamor and big paydays of the majors. It's a grueling routine of late nights, long bus trips and low pay. Depending on how far players have ascended the ladder, they earn anywhere from $850 to $2,150 monthly for the five or six months the season stretches. Many players just beginning to work their way up clear less than $10,000 annually, forcing some to seek employment the other half of the year. It's the price of a shot at one day making it to the majors, where the average salary is over $3 million and the annual minimum is over $400,000 for fresh-faced rookies who play a full season.

Minor league life on the road wasn't always easy for Pill, who was raised Mormon and doesn't drink alcohol.

"You learn to keep yourself busy by going to the gym and finding productive things to do," he said. "That's another reason playing summer ball up there in Humboldt helped. That first summer in Humboldt was the first time I had really even left home."

He spent that 2006 summer with the Giants' short-season Single-A team, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, where he played infield behind future two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.

That December, Pill married his girlfriend, Chip Dunbar. They met in a class at Fullerton, where she played tennis.

"It was the best thing I ever did because once the game's over, no matter how I did, there's always something to come back to," Pill said. "It keeps me grounded.

As a young married couple, the Pills rented the first in a string of offseason apartments in Southern California. While Chip coached tennis at San Clemente High, Brett took the next step in his minor league journey, spending a season with the Single-A Augusta GreenJackets in Georgia in 2007. Seasons with the Advanced-A San Jose Giants and Double-A Connecticut Defenders followed as he worked his way up the ladder to the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies.

His first season with the Grizzlies was bittersweet. The Giants had added Pill to their 40-man roster, often a precursor to a late-season call-up. Instead, he spent the entire 2010 season with Fresno, hitting 16 homers in 140 games.

"When you're put on the 40-man roster, you worry about doing well enough to be called up in September and that's when all the statistics start creeping into your head," Pill said. Like any minor leaguer, Pill couldn't help but stress over numbers like his batting average and home run total. "It wore on me a lot last year," he said. "I didn't really have a good time playing, and it showed a little bit in the numbers."

The Giants cut Pill from the 40-man roster in November 2010 and left him unprotected during the offseason. To add insult to injury, no other major league team showed any interest.

Pill met with a nutritionist in the offseason, who helped him devise a stringent eating and weightlifting regimen. He started loading up on chicken and other protein, brown rice and dark green vegetables.

"He was trying to gain weight because all the comments were, ‘he has broad shoulders, if only he could fill out that frame,'" Kelly Pill said. "He's gotten his whole program of eating and working out down to a science. His nutritionist said this is the best way to do it, the next best thing to using steroids."

Following the strict new diet and training routines enabled him to pack on the muscle that put more power behind each swing.

Pill's slow but steady ascension up the Giants' minor league ladder was at times stalled by the organization's abundance of talent at first base, Pill's primary position. Fresno opened the season with a surplus of first basemen.

"There was a chance I was going to go back to Double-A because we had so many," he said. "Then a guy made the big league team and I got a chance to stay and started off pretty good at first base."

But when injuries and call-ups left the Grizzlies thin at second base, manager Steve Decker was forced to try Pill there. While a first baseman's primary responsibility is to catch anything thrown near him, playing second base is far less routine. Second basemen have more ground to cover and more quick decisions to make.

Said Pill in June: "You have to think a lot more about guys stealing and who's covering the bag on pickoffs. It definitely keeps you in the game a lot more. I like it. A lot of guys who have gone up to the big leagues recently have played more than one position, so it's probably better to be more versatile."

Pill turned heads in Fresno and at Pacific Coast League ballparks across the country all summer. He had 72 hits -- including 20 doubles and 12 home runs -- in only 53 games over June and July.  But with the logjam at first base in San Francisco, Pill seemed destined to close out another season in a Grizzlies uniform.

"I try not to really think about making the majors or what could happen," he said in June. "I'm just doing the same thing I did when my dad was coaching me in Little League, just trying to go out and have a good time and see what happens."

On Aug. 30 in Reno, Pill hit his 25th homer of the season in the Grizzlies' win over the Reno Aces. It gave him 107 runs batted in, one shy of the Fresno record. Pill and his roommate returned to their room at the Silver Legacy and channel surfed on the TV. He set his iPhone to vibrate mode before falling asleep.

"I'll definitely never leave it on that setting again at night," Pill said with a laugh.

He didn't hear a thing when his phone thrummed early the next morning. Grizzlies manager Decker finally called the landline in the hotel room shortly after 9 o'clock and relayed the news: Pill was booked on an 11 a.m. SkyWest flight to join the Giants in San Francisco.

After 59 minor league cities in 28 different states, he had finally caught a break.

"Whether they fail or whether they succeed, it's just a matter of getting that one chance," said Mike Pill, who speaks from experience. His professional baseball career in the 1970s was cut short by an arm injury and his father's fatal heart attack. After three years in the Pirates system, he returned to California and took over the family business, Glendora Tree Surgery.

For Mike Pill, who was his oldest son's longtime coach on the field and life counselor off it, seeing Brett in his new Giants uniform that first weekend in San Francisco brought tears to his eyes.

"He's had a lot of ups and downs, and as a parent you really see the frustration," he said. "He's just so ecstatic to be where he is. It was the culmination of a long, frustrating road to the majors, which had always been Brett's dream. To see that become a reality was overwhelming. I was just so proud of him."

The now-233-pound Pill wouldn't see any action on the field that week. His family spent the weekend helping him get accustomed to his new situation. While the Triple-A travel dress code was collared shirts and no tennis shoes, major league ballplayers fly between cities in suits, and Pill needed some.

"There are a lot of differences," Pill said. "You don't have to pack your own bags or anything. The food is obviously a lot better than the minor leagues. You stay in big cities. It's nice. You just have to learn the rules, like the young guys have to be at the field early to hit before anybody else. You have to get there however you can. You're kind of on your own. In the minor leagues they'll kind of hold your hand and help you out a little bit. Here you're expected to know what you're doing."

The Giants opened a series with the Padres in San Diego on Labor Day afternoon. During batting practice, manager Bruce Bochy suggested Pill get a good night's sleep. He alerted his parents, who began texting extended family -- including many of Brett's 54 cousins -- to coordinate tickets. His parents got seats close to home plate on the first base side.

Pill looked more like a seasoned veteran than the anxious rookie as he walked to the plate for his first major league at-bat.

Even Kevin Costner couldn't have scripted it much better.

Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow barely had enough time to announce Pill's hometown to the television audience when Pill unleashed a swing he'll always remember.

"His first big league hit is a home run," Krukow's longtime partner Duane Kuiper said. "I don't believe it."

"Well, he's been waiting a while to do that," Krukow responded.

Forty shocked relatives seated throughout the ballpark screamed in excitement.

"We went nuts," Kelly Pill said. "We were in disbelief the whole rest of the game. After he hit the home run it was a big sigh of relief."

Pill made history again the following afternoon when he homered to lead off the fifth inning, joining John Bowker as the only other Giant to homer in his first two games.

"Yep, think I'm gonna like this kid," Krukow said.

Pill's future is full of uncertainty. The Giants could keep him in the majors next season, but he likely wouldn't have an everyday role. Veteran Aubrey Huff signed a two-year $22 million contract extension last November, and Brandon Belt, a 2009 draftee who blazed through the Giants' minor league system last year, has shown promise at first base. Catcher Buster Posey, the young prodigy who broke his leg earlier this season, may also be transitioned to first base. Pill would probably be relegated to pinch hitting and the occasional fill-in start.

What's certain is that Pill, called up in the middle of a pennant race, helped keep alive the Giants' dim hopes of returning to the playoffs to defend their World Series title. In limited opportunities, he was a welcome addition to an anemic offense.

Now that Pill's been able to make some noise at the major league level, he could be an attractive piece in a trade with a team that needs a slugging first baseman. Either way, he has the option to eventually finish his last year of college classes, at the Giants' expense, whenever the time is right

"For him to get up there to the big leagues, that's huge," Krawczyk says. "It may be half a year, it may be one month, but if in that month you do pretty well, who knows? You could stay for the next 10 years in the big leagues."

Pill has already learned better than to waste time speculating about his baseball future.

"When I first came to the majors, really my only goal was just not to take a lot of pitches and look passive," Pill said. "I wanted to show them I was aggressive and not scared of the pitching up here. ... Whatever they decide to do with me after this year, that's really out of my control. I've been lucky enough to play professional baseball this long, so every day's a gift."

Baseball's rarest gift -- playing in the majors -- is what drives the hopes of nearly every college kid who has ever donned a Humboldt Crabs jersey. At least for a season, it has belonged to Brett Pill. In years to come? It could go to the next young unknown who will arrive to play ball in Arcata.

Eric Gourley covered his first Crabs game for the Arcata Eye in 1999, back when he attended Sunny Brae Middle School. He now writes about the telecom industry at a communications agency in Stockholm, Sweden.

 

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Eric J. Gourley

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