tampabay.com

Bond between father and son remains strong

By GARY SHELTON
Published May 20, 2007


At the heart of it, this is a father and son story.

At the heart of them, the best baseball stories usually are.

Away from the Hollywood feel of the story line, beyond the dreamlike fabric of the moment, the tale of Blue Jays pitcher Jesse Litsch and his father, Rick, is as simple as that. It's the story of a kid and pop, locking eyes once again across a baseball diamond.

Jesse and Rick. Rick and Jesse.

Same as ever.

Oh, there are other parts to the story, delicious details that border on fantasy. It seems the world cannot get enough of those these days, not since Jesse's masterful major-league debut against Baltimore on Tuesday night. Jesse's phone hasn't stopped ringing, and Rick hasn't stop talking, and most of Canada has not stopped feeling good over the mention of them.

After all, this is the legend of the battlin' bat boy who baffled the batters. Five years ago, Jesse was collecting bats for the Devil Rays, and five days ago, he was conquering those of the Orioles. You can't make up stuff like that.

Also, this is the story of the kid from nowhere, an afterthought of a draft choice who was picked up by the Jays in the 24th round in 2004, a Double-A pitcher who was an emergency call-up when Roy Halladay needed an appendectomy.

Also, it all happened on his father's 57th birthday. Honest, it did.

There are so many success stories intertwined here. Think of it as 42nd Street meets Star Wars meets Field of Dreams.

Yep, you might think the story of Jesse Litsch is unbelievable.

Unless you are Rick, who has believed it all along.

This was inevitable, Rick Litsch will tell you. Jesse's performance -- 8 2/3 inning of four-hit baseball -- was bound to happen. Oh, not even Rick expected it to happen this fast, but it was coming. He knew it all along. And if you didn't know it, well, you weren't listening.

"This was always something I anticipated," Rick said. "I want to say this right, but I made a pact with God. He isn't going to take me until I see Jesse go into the Hall of Fame."

Rick Litsch laughs loudly, which he seems to do a lot these days. Who can blame him? That's his kid out there.

Always, from the Pinellas Park playgrounds to Dixie Hollins High, it has been the two of them. Jesse's mom left when he was 5, and since then, there has been a deep bond between father and son. And if Jesse can thank Rick for growing up, well, Rick can do the same.

Once, Rick was a musician, a guy who played the songs of Jimmy Buffett and the Eagles at local hotels and told ribald jokes and displayed an uncanny knack for finding the next party.

Fatherhood changed all of that. He took a job selling flooring. He bought a house because he thought Jesse should grow up in a house.

"I probably would have done a lot of things differently if he hadn't needed guidance," Rick said. "But that's the way things were. We didn't have a lot of money. We were usually on the verge of one financial disaster or another, but I don't think Jesse ever knew it. We made it from day to day."

A lot of those days, as you might imagine, were spent on a baseball field.

"Once I saw him play baseball, I thought it was a lot better than being verbally abused by drunks (as a singer)," Rick said. "It was baseball because Jesse loved baseball. If he wanted to be a ballerina, I would have bought him a tutu."

There is something about sitting 26 rows up and watching your son pitch that opens the photo album of the mind. Sitting in Toronto on Tuesday night, Rick couldn't help himself.

One minute, he was thinking about the kid who knew which players were pictured on which baseball cards before he could read. Another, he was thinking about how he lied about Jesse's age to get him into a 5-year-old league when he was 4. He thought about an infield hit Jesse beat out as an 8-year-old, which was important since Jesse was 46-for-46 at the plate that year.

Then there was Jan. 1, 2002, the day Jesse bounced a line drive off of his father's skull.

"I was pitching to him," Rick said. "I threw the ball, and I was on the ground. He broke my jaw, and I lost a couple of teeth."

Understand, then, the lump in Rick's throat as he watched Jesse pitch. Oh, there was a wobbly start. Seven of Jesse's first eight pitches were balls, and he gave up a walk and a hit before he got anyone out.

After that, however, Jesse was dominant. And bat boys all over the world had a new reason to dream.

"It was awesome," Jesse, 22, said. "But I would have loved to have finished the game."

For a pitcher, the focus is always on the hitter. Everything else, you tune out. But, yeah, Jesse saw his dad. Once, he glanced up and saw him being interviewed on the JumboTron.

"I was glad he could be here to see it," Jesse said. "He deserved it."

Perhaps you have heard the story by now. In his sophomore and junior seasons of high school, Jesse worked as a bat boy for the Devil Rays, fetching coffee and shining shoes. How many ball boys end up winning Wimbledon? How many equipment managers play quarterback in the Super Bowl?

Turns out, maybe the Rays should have paid him a little more notice. Jesse was taken in the 37th round by the Rockies out of high school but didn't sign, then in 2004 went in the 24th to the Jays.

Less than three years later, he was on the mound for the Jays. From the look of it, he might be there awhile.

Today, the story continues. Today, Jesse makes his second start against the Phillies. Today, we all see what he will do for an encore.

Hint: Today, Jesse gets to bat.

Perhaps the pitcher should duck.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.