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Angels' Gregg finally sees years of patience pay off

Kevin Gregg
Kevin Gregg

Since he endured eight seasons of minor-league ball before reaching the majors, Kevin Gregg's Anaheim Angels teammates see him as nothing but the picture of perseverance.

But even Gregg has his limits.

Gregg was forced to pursue odd jobs every winter with a wife and, eventually, daughter to support. One day, he got home from his job at a steel mill in Albany, Ore., his face black from ash and his arms and shoulders aching from the strain of constructing titanium firewalls for airplanes.

He plopped down on the couch and told his wife, Nicole, "I'm done."

Gregg never went back to the steel mill, fearing the intense labor might jeopardize his physical well-being as a pitcher. But when it came to his lagging baseball career, Gregg couldn't bring himself to utter those two words of concession.

Gregg was cast adrift by the pitching-rich Oakland Athletics, who signed him at 17 and only briefly advanced him to Triple-A. Now 25, Gregg is a fixture with the Angels and a right-hander who could figure prominently in their championship hopes this season.

Once buried behind pitchers who still are loitering in Oakland's system, Gregg finds himself the likely first choice to join the Angels' rotation should injury or ineffectiveness force them to make a switch. In his first season as a reliever, Gregg has posted a 0.63 ERA in 14 1/3 innings with 15 strikeouts.

Friday night, he earned his first career save by pitching four shutout innings against the A's, the club that only briefly saw fit to advance him to Triple-A.

Afterward, Gregg professed no great significance in taking it to his old club. Already a soft-spoken sort, he was humbled further by his seven years in the Oakland organization. With the A's, he reached high Single-A ball by 1997, but he didn't reach Double-A until '99 and Triple-A in 2002.

That was the season Gregg pitched for Double-A Midland, Triple-A Sacramento and Single-A Visalia again. It was enough to make him ponder giving up the sport, saying he went "back and forth" on whether to continue his career.

Fortunately for Gregg, he has an understanding spouse.

"He had those times he said, 'I don't want to go back to Single-A, I don't want to go back to Double-A,' " Nicole Gregg said by telephone from their Corvallis, Ore., home. "He felt he was dragging me through it. But I always let him know I had no problem going back to Texas, going back to Visalia."

Even under the oddest of circumstances. Gregg and his wife were high school sweethearts at Corvallis High. Since Gregg was just a 15th-round selection by the A's, he did not receive the sort of signing bonus that sets up players for life.

So the couple, who married when Gregg was 20, did the best they could. At Visalia in 1997, they shared a three-bedroom apartment with two other couples and two single players.

At one point, one of those players was third baseman Eric Chavez, who recently signed a $66 million contract extension with the A's. Back then, he slept on a couch in Gregg's apartment.

Nicole found odd jobs wherever they landed. In Visalia, she manned the day-care center at a health club. In Midland, she drove a beverage cart through the Texas heat at a golf course.

"The tips were good," she said, "and I got a great tan."

On the field, things weren't as sunny. In 2000, as Barry Zito arrived in Oakland to complement Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, Gregg led the Texas League in losses (14) and earned runs allowed. He could see his future clouding.

But he also got a good piece of advice from fellow pitcher Erik Hiljus, who resurrected his career with Oakland after hitting a wall in Detroit's organization and is now with Kansas City.

"He told me, one team's trash is another team's gem," Gregg said. "If one team doesn't like you, another will. I didn't want to base my decision on one organization's opinion of me. If I didn't see an opportunity coming up, I might have given up."

But minor-league free agency loomed after the 2002 season. Angels general manager Bill Stoneman said reports on Gregg indicated he had a great arm with iffy command and an awkward delivery.

In signing Gregg, Stoneman told him to firm up the command, and be yourself. Gregg's windup is unorthodox, in that his entire body faces home plate until almost halfway through his delivery.

"It was nice to not have someone put a mold on somebody," Gregg said.

After some tweaking in spring training with roving pitching instructor Mike Butcher, Gregg's command returned. His reward was another trip to the Texas League, but the Angels took great pains to assure him he was in their plans.

He was in the Angels' plans sooner than he could have imagined, as it turned out. Gregg went a combined 11-7 at Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake, with 135 strikeouts to just 37 walks.

When an April rainout in Cleveland created an Aug. 9 doubleheader, Gregg was summoned to pitch the first game and Nicole, their daughter Ryann and 14 other family members beat a hasty path from the Northwest to Jacobs Field.

"When he walked out to the mound, I just lost it," Nicole said. "It was that moment, that sigh of relief that we made it. Even if it was only one start, we made it."

There would be more starts. Gregg excelled that day, holding the Indians to one run and striking out six in six innings. He was recalled again in September and beat playoff contenders Kansas City and Seattle, going seven innings and giving up one run each time.

He continued the hot run in relief this season, forcing his teammates to wonder what took him so long to get here.

"I don't know if he's changed any, but he was down there way too long," reliever Scot Shields said. "That good head on your shoulders, that perseverance, is where he came through. It's good to see it happen to a good guy, because he's a great guy."