Carl Pavano: Been there, done that

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2012 - 8:58 AM

Carl Pavano has accomplished a lot in his long, distinguished career, and the Twins benefit from his experience and generosity in helping teammates and the community.

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Carl Pavano will pitch the opener today. He was 9-13 with a 4.30 ERA last year but pitched 222 innings and showed the younger Twins a no-quit attitude.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune file

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BALTIMORE - Twins reliever Glen Perkins took to Twitter this spring to disseminate "Stuff Carl Says,'' a compendium of funny phrases uttered by Carl Pavano.

The better list would be "Stuff Carl Did.''

On Friday, Pavano will start on Opening Day for the Twins. If you think this will become his career highlight, it may be because you remember Pavano as the pinstriped laughingstock he was for four years in New York, instead of the high achiever he was before he signed with the Yankees, or the competitor he has been since he arrived in Minnesota.

Carl has done some cool stuff.

He pitched his high school team to the Connecticut state title, refusing to leave when legendary Southington High coach John Fontana came to the mound.

"Carl told me if I reached for the ball,'' Fontana said this week, "he would sit right down on the mound. He said he would not give that ball up.''

Pavano grew up in the demilitarized zone between Yankee and Red Sox nations, and got drafted by the Sox and wound up signing with the Yankees.

He pitched for a team that no longer exists, the Montreal Expos, after getting traded for the great Pedro Martinez.

He won a World Series with Florida, allowing just one earned run in nine innings as the Marlins beat the Yankees in 2003, and became an All-Star the next year.

He gave up Mark McGwire's 70th home run and witnessed Tony Gwynn's 3,000th hit, David Cone's perfect game and Francisco Liriano's no-hitter.

"Plus,'' he said with a smile, "I got to see Roger Clemens retire like three or four times.''

He pitched in the last game in Montreal's Olympic Stadium and was in uniform for the last game at old Yankee Stadium and the first at new Yankee Stadium. He was there for the last game in the Metrodome and the first in Target Field. He earned his 100th career victory last year.

"I've seen a lot in this game,'' Pavano said.

Down, never out

He has sprayed champagne, dated starlets, made dozens of millions and been ridiculed by tabloids, and somehow wound up where nobody in New York ever thought he'd be: Taking the ball on Opening Day for a franchise that reveres him as a great competitor and human.

"You say you want to bring in that veteran guy who impacts younger players?'' Perkins said. "He's that guy. He's had a tremendous impact on me. When you talk to Carl about pitching, or life, you always end up doing the right thing.

"You could not find a better teammate. He's made a lot of guys better here, with their attitudes and thought processes and thinking their way through games. He's a guy who's been to hell and back three times. Five times. He's been an All-Star and he's been at the bottom of the heap. He's been known for injuries and now he's thrown 200 innings the last three years.

"He's been through everything, and he's one of, if not the most, genuine person I've ever met.''

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson rave about Pavano's mental toughness.

"Yeah, he gave up some hits and runs last year, but here's what I look at,'' Anderson said. "He pitched 222 innings and, given the plays that weren't made behind him, he should have pitched about 250. But in that, what he showed the kids was that regardless of what happens, you keep coming at them. We know he's the leader of the staff, and he knows he's the leader of the staff.''

"You can't give in,'' Pavano said. "You can't create that stimulus in your body where you stop competing. It's fight or flight. You can't give in to the flight mentality; you have to fight.''

It wasn't long ago that he found himself on the ropes. He parlayed his success with the Marlins into what was then considered a gargantuan contract, four years at about $40 million with the Yankees. In New York, he pitched in 26 games over four years. Injuries sabotaged his effectiveness, and some teammates and members of the media viewed him as cavalierly enjoying his money without caring how his team fared.

Pavano became a target of his teammates, most notably Mike Mussina, and the tabloids.

"It was definitely a test,'' Pavano said. "I was in a bad place. I didn't like having my back against a wall, but I had my back against the wall for a while. I was walking into that clubhouse after being on the cover of those tabloids, and that is not fun. It's embarrassing.

"Fortunately, I had great confidence in myself, and I knew that once I was healthy I could be successful, and that was something I held on to real tight. Everything around me was falling apart. But it didn't break me. It made me better.''

Pavano started working with Brett Fischer of Fischer Sports in Arizona. In Pavano, Fischer didn't find a lack of desire; he found a lack of flexibility.

Fischer was working with then-Yankees pitcher Randy Johnson, who would fly Fischer to New York periodically.

"So I got to see Carl pitch in person,'' Fischer said. "I remember thinking, man, he looks so stiff.''

Fischer put Pavano through a 2 1/2-hour evaluation, measuring the flexibility of his ankles, hips and back.

"People in New York thought he was faking,'' Fischer said. "Nobody believed him. I didn't know him, but when I looked at him I wasn't dealing with perception, I was dealing with objective data.

"When I started telling him what we needed to work on, when I compared what his movements were to what they should be, I saw this huge sense of relief from him, as if only now did someone understand what he had been dealing with.''

The road back

Pavano started rebuilding his career in 2009. He signed with Cleveland and was 9-8 in August when something strange happened: The Twins, battling for a playoff spot, traded for a former pariah with a 5.37 ERA.

Why?

"Red raved about him,'' Gardenhire said.

"Red'' was former Marlins and Twins catcher Mike Redmond. Without that insight, the Twins might never have been interested in Pavano, who helped them make the playoffs in 2009 and 2010.

Known in his previous life for dating Alyssa Milano and wrecking his Porsche with a model in the passenger seat, Pavano is now married with two kids and has dedicated himself to good works.

"You should see him with Anthony, his son,'' Perkins said. "In the clubhouse, Carl is this big, tough guy who can use vulgar language with the best of us, and you see him around his kids and he's a big softie.''

Pavano started his own charity, "Pitch In Foundation.'' Last year, when floods destroyed a Connecticut high school's baseball equipment, Pavano reached out to Major League Baseball and ESPN baseball writer Buster Olney and wound up helping procure brand-new equipment for the school. He works with the family shelter, Mary's Place, near Target Field.

Bryan Donaldson, Twins director of community affairs, said Pavano is one of the Twins most eager to do good works, comparing him to Kirby Puckett and Ron Coomer.

"He and his wife came to me and said they wanted to do whatever they could,'' Donaldson said.

Pavano says it's the least he could do.

"I definitely owe the Twins, and my teammates and past teammates here, for opening my eyes to a lot of this stuff,'' he said. "In a way, I'm ashamed that it took me this long. I'm in a position to do this, and it's not a lot of effort and it's very rewarding. Everything happens for a reason, and for me, it happened here.

"I look back on the years I could have been doing more and I'm kind of down on myself, but that's the maturation process, I guess.''

Fontana isn't sure Pavano has changed that much. When he had heart problems, he remembers Pavano, then in instructional league with the Red Sox in Florida, flying home unannounced on a day off to visit. And he remembers seeing Pavano this winter at a funeral, and Pavano telling him, "I've been with a lot of teams, and the atmosphere in the Twins' clubhouse, and with the manager and in the neighborhood where I live, my wife and I couldn't be happier -- that's why we're re-signing and staying in Minnesota.''

Which means Anderson will be busy Friday.

"I have to have my A-game when Pav pitches,'' Anderson said. "Between innings, he will want to go over every pitch. He's obsessive.''

Pavano has learned to appreciate every pitch of every start.

"If that experience in New York had broken me, and I hadn't made it back, and let's say I had been out of baseball for the last five years, I'd probably be a totally different person,'' he said. "To be able to rebound from it and show myself that I can do this again, it's changed my life.

"Unfortunately, as an athlete, a lot of your self-worth is determined by how you perform on the field. As you get older, you start to learn that your performance doesn't make you who you are. But, man, when you can do your job, you sure enjoy it.''

  • TWINS OPENING DAY 2012 2:05 P.M. TODAY AT BALTIMORE

    At Camden Yards • TV: FSN (1500-AM)

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