Jeff Weaver, less than two years removed from being the winning pitcher in a World Series-clinching game, toed the rubber at Greer Stadium as a member of the Sounds on a blustery May night. There was a palpable buzz in the air, though that might have been the dollar beers talking. Between innings, Weaver threw his warm-up pitches at about half-speed. He looked bored, even a little sullen at times—the way I remembered him from television—and boyish in the slouchy language of his body, and in the way his baseball pants seemed a little too long, his cap pulled down a little too far.
For Weaver, Nashville is the latest stop on a whirlwind tour that has seen him go from ace to goat, from durable innings-eater back to goat, from surprise World Series winner to unmitigated disaster, from castoff to minor-league hopeful. The Sounds are Weaver’s seventh team in seven years but his first minor league team during that stretch.
In July 2006, Weaver had just been traded by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to make room on the roster for his younger brother, Jered. The elder Weaver had just three wins against 10 losses, had a wince-inducing ERA of 6.29 and appeared headed for baseball’s scrap heap. But just four months later, a seemingly new pitcher started game five of the World Series as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, spinning eight innings, yielding just one earned run and earning the win. That night Weaver and the Cardinals defeated the Tigers, the team on which Weaver made his Major League debut, four games to one.
Although Weaver was one of the biggest surprises of the 2006 playoffs, at one time it was more or less assumed that he would eventually win a World Series game—it’s just that most people thought it would be with the Yankees. He was the top starter on the Tigers staff when he was traded to New York. His teammate in Detroit at the time, Bobby Higginson, bemoaned his team’s loss: “For the baseball fans in Detroit, this is a bad day. I think he’ll win a Cy Young with New York, a couple of them.”
In 2002 most days were bad days for baseball fans in Detroit, but nevertheless, Weaver didn’t win any Cy Young Awards for New York. He never won—or even started—a single playoff game, and will likely be best remembered by Yankees fans for giving up the game-winning home run to Florida’s Alex González in the pivotal game four of the 2003 World Series, which the Yankees eventually lost. When I mentioned to two local Yankees fans that Weaver would be starting for the Sounds, they both immediately got wide-eyed and loud, vowing to show up at the game just to boo him.
It was widely speculated that Weaver got his career back on track in St. Louis by making some kind of connection with pitching coach Dave Duncan. Weaver posted a sterling postseason ERA of 2.92 for the Cards and had seemingly found baseball redemption. But even though St. Louis reportedly showed interest in bringing him back, the following season he chose to sign with Seattle, where he racked up an ERA of 6.20.
In his first Nashville start, Weaver struck out four of the first five batters he faced and seemed to be cruising until the third inning, when he put runners on first and second with one out, then gave up a three-run homer to Cory Sullivan that landed on Chestnut Street. Sullivan batted .412 (seven for 17) against Weaver in the big leagues—where they both hope to be again soon—but that might have felt every bit as far as the 561 miles between Nashville and Milwaukee on Thursday night.
While I didn’t have the audicity—I mean, the audacity—to dream Weaver could get the Sounds through the night in his first start, I couldn’t help pulling for him. I imagine that whatever suitcases he brought to Nashville remain mostly packed and near the door, and I wonder whether his World Series ring is here among the baggage. If he makes it into the rotation for the Brewers (the Sounds’ parent club) this year and reaches certain statistical landmarks, he can make somewhere around $5 million, according to reports. In the meantime, he’s just another former World Series winner in Triple-A. If he’s not in the Majors by June, he can opt out of his contract. Imagine if academic hires worked this way: “You’re going to start the year as a grad student in Pocatello, Idaho, but if you make some good progress on your research, we hope to have you on the faculty here at Harvard by midsemester.”
After an inning-ending double play during which he’d almost been hit by the barrel of a broken bat, Weaver walked slowly off the mound, head down, not acknowledging any of his fist-bumping Sounds teammates either on his way to the dugout or once inside it. He just slowly sat down, took off his cap and leaned forward on his elbows, staring out onto the field as if nothing in the world mattered so much as when it would be his turn to get back out there.