Santaluces High product Darin Downs, 27, makes it to big leagues with Detroit
Monday, July 09, 2012
by Matt Porter
Santaluces grad Darin Downs throws a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning on Tuesday, July 3, 2012. (AP photo)
The lefty wearing No. 38 took a deep breath before approaching the bullpen gate. He could barely feel his legs.
Don't jog too fast, Darin Downs told himself. Don't jog too slow.
He kept the bill of his cap level, shielding his eyes. He knew most of the 36,757 fans at Comerica Park were supporting him.
At that moment, he didn't want visual confirmation they existed.
"If I looked up, I knew I'd see 10,000 more people in the upper deck," said Downs, who pitched at Santaluces High.
Downs, 27, was used to pitching in front of crowds a tenth the size of the one that greeted him last Tuesday in Detroit when he made his major league debut for the Tigers. He entered in the ninth inning two runs down, with no outs and a runner on first.
He suppressed his anxiety while some who know him fought back tears.
Downs, who was born in Southfield, Mich., but grew up in Boynton Beach, spent nearly a decade in the minors before receiving his call-up. Not only that, but his dream and -- for a few harrowing hours -- his life were in jeopardy in 2009 when a comebacker fractured his skull.
Despite those obstacles, he can call himself a big-leaguer.
"I don't know how to explain it yet," Downs said by phone. "But it's awesome."
Downs estimates that he has told the near-tragic part of his story a hundred times. He was 24 on Aug. 17, 2009, making his second start for Class AA Montgomery (Ala.), a Tampa Bay Rays affiliate. He faced Christian Marrero with his team trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth. He threw a knee-high fastball that Marrero sent back to the mound.
The ball hit Downs above his left ear, hard enough to ricochet into the third-base dugout. He felt for blood. There was none, but he couldn't speak.
He was rushed to a Birmingham hospital. His skull was fractured, his brain bleeding and swelling. The scariest moments came when he began vomiting blood.
"I worried about getting the phone call saying he was going to die," said his wife, Christy Downs, who was then his fiancee.
Downs spent nine days in the hospital, slowly regaining the ability to write and speak. He was later flown home to Lake Worth by medical charter.
"The first week or two were really hard," he said. "I'd sleep and sleep and sleep."
After months of physical therapy and speech therapy -- plus marriage and a honeymoon -- Downs faced his first live batter at Rays spring training in Port Charlotte.
It was six months after the accident. He was nervous but forced himself to abandon his fear.
"How many millions of pitches are thrown a season and nobody gets hit in the head?" he said.
He went 12-4 with a 2.95 ERA in Double- and Triple-A that year, but the Rays didn't re-sign him. Downs hooked up with the Marlins but struggled in 2011, going 5-7 with a 4.66 ERA in 32 appearances in Double- and Triple-A.
He caught the eye of Tigers scouts while pitching in Venezuela last winter. Signed as a reliever, he put up a 2.15 ERA in 29 1/3 innings for Class AAA Toledo.
Last Monday around midnight, he drove home with Christy and his 20-month-old daughter, Briana. Toledo manager Phil Nevin called him to return to the ballpark. Maybe he was traded, he thought.
Or maybe this was it. Maybe a decade of hard work had finally paid off.
"He came out crying with the biggest smile on his face," Christy said. "All those years in the minor leagues. All the pain and suffering. It was worth it."
She and her brother were on hand in Detroit for Tuesday's game against the Minnesota Twins. They saw him retire three of the four batters he faced that night. On Thursday, more family members arrived from Palm Beach County to help give him a standing ovation after his three scoreless innings.
Downs enters the All-Star break with three appearances. He has struck out seven in 4 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and one walk.
He knows that at any moment he could be a former big-leaguer. That's why every moment is sweet.
"It's more than I asked for," he said. "I'm just soaking it up, day by day."