FORT MYERS, FLA. — Livermore is a California city of 85,000, east of Oakland in Alameda County. Famously, it is home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a research facility started in 1952.
The lab has a mighty task: research and development to ensure the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
“That’s why Livermore was put on the highest alert immediately after the 9/11 attacks,’’ J.R. Graham said. “The lab was considered a prime target.’’
Graham was 11 at the time, and yet fully aware of dramas involving Livermore’s research lab. “Our house is right next to there,’’ he said.
The lab received considerable recognition in 2000 when it was involved in the discovery of a synthetic super-heavy element that was extremely radioactive. In 2012, the International Union of Applied Chemistry designated this new element as Livermorium.
That’s not the nickname for your high school teams — the Livermoriums — is it?
“We’re the Livermore Cowboys,’’ Graham said. “Rodeo is a varsity sport at our school. And the big event in town is the Livermore Rodeo in June.’’
It’s billed as the “World’s Fastest Rodeo.’’ A couple of years ago, Graham was a hot prospect with the Atlanta Braves, and it wouldn’t have been a reach to bill him as the “world’s fastest 5-foot-11 pitcher.’’
Graham will be with the Twins in this camp as a Rule 5 draftee. It’s the same mini-drama that fans hear about every spring:
A Rule 5 player must make the team, or be put on waivers, and if he clears, get offered back to his prior club for half of the $50,000 drafting price.
The odds are probably against Graham, with all the righthanded relievers the Twins have among their 29 pitching candidates, although there is that fastball …
Graham first hit triple digits – as in a radar reading of 100 miles per hour – as a junior at Santa Clara University in 2011.
“My fastball was riding at 98, 99 that season, without what I would call extra effort,’’ Graham said. “I still was there, 98, 99, a few 100s, into 2013 in the minors.’’
Graham was drafted in the fourth round by Atlanta in 2011 and signed for $175,000. He was with the Class AA Mississippi Braves on May 13, 2013. He was warming up for the third inning, threw a changeup and felt numbness in his right arm.
“I thought, ‘That doesn’t feel right,’ ‘’ Graham said. “Next pitch, I threw a fastball that didn’t go halfway to the plate.’’
Graham didn’t throw his next pitch in a game until early March 2014, in spring training. The diagnosis was a strain in his right shoulder. Any exotic description for that?
“No, just a bad strain that was going to require quite a bit of rehab,’’ he said.
Graham played shortstop and closed games on the mound for the Livermore Cowboys. He made it clear out of high school in 2008 that he was going to play college baseball at Santa Clara.
That helped push him down to the 46th round in the June draft. His favorite team, Oakland, selected him, but late-round money offers no temptation for changing a player’s mind on college.
Graham remained a two-way player at Santa Clara. He made 16 starts in right field and 19 relief appearances as a freshman in 2009. He started the first 11 games at third base while also closing games as a sophomore.
“I wasn’t hitting, and my pitching wasn’t as consistent,’’ Graham said. “I became a full-time pitcher a few weeks into the season.’’
The radar readings drew more and more attention over his last two college seasons.
The Braves signed Graham and told the plan was to develop him into a starter. After his second pro season in 2012, he was rated as Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect and as baseball’s No. 93.
Then came the shoulder strain, followed by a 2014 season where his work was limited and the results were poor — a 5.57 ERA back in Class AA. The Braves didn’t put him on the 40-man big-league roster and Twins spent the $50,000 last December.
“I still was 95, 96 last season,’’ Graham said. “I’ve been here [at the Twins complex] for a month and my shoulder’s good, everything’s good. My fastball should be all the way back.’’
Graham admitted that he’s 5-11, not the 6 feet as listed. How does a guy throwing from that angle hit 100 with his fastball?
I have a suspicion — rubbing up against a lab full of Livermorium — but was too tactful to mention it.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.