FORT MYERS, FLA. – The town of Jackson Hole, Wyo., is in a valley at the elevation of 6,000 feet. It has an average snowfall of 200 inches.
Tim Shibuya would come from school during the winter and spot two black eyes peering from inside a snowbank. And then the snowbank would explode and Holly, Tim’s Norwegian elkhound, would come bounding toward him with a welcome home.
“Every day,’’ Shibuya said. “I don’t have siblings. Holly was my sister for 14 years.’’
He shook his head. “When she died … I don’t think you get over losing a great dog,’’ he said.
Shibuya also can talk nostalgically about being raised in Jackson Hole, rising in the morning, stepping outside and staring at the peaks of the Teton Range.
“I was unbelievably lucky kid, to grow up with the outdoor world at my doorstep,’’ he said. “Fishing, hiking, boating, golf and, of course, incredible skiing. Whatever the season, it was paradise for a kid.’’
There was one drawback: The baseball season started late.
“The state of Wyoming doesn’t have high school baseball,’’ Shibuya said. “The late spring makes it impossible for much of the state. Our baseball is American Legion.
“The first games on the schedule were a tournament in Montana in late April. A couple of years, that was also the first time we had thrown outside off a mound or taken a swing against live pitching.
“It was great, though. All the towns were committed to Legion baseball, and we would play well into the summer.’’
Playing a Legion game — Jackson Giants vs. Cody Cubs — on a blue July day at Giants Field with the Tetons as a backdrop … yeah, that sounds great.
Shibuya had an interest in all sports, but as a 5-foot, 100-pounder in the ninth grade, there weren’t many options for varsity competition. Golf was his lone sport in high school.
As he grew, Shibuya had success as both a pitcher and a hitter in Legion baseball. The Giants won a state title, and he was twice named to the all-state team. In Wyoming, that will get you a hardy handshake but not a scholarship offer.
He enrolled at UC-San Diego in the fall of 2007 and became a pharmaceutical major. He was on campus for a couple of weeks and saw that open tryouts were being held for the baseball team.
Shibuya tried out and made the team. He was an outstanding reliever for the Tritons as a freshman, and then became a No. 1 starter.
He didn’t throw hard, but as someone said about a young Kevin Slowey as he came out of Winthrop University, “He can throw a ball in a teacup.’’
Shibuya didn’t get drafted until his senior season, being selected by the Twins in the 23rd round in June 2011. Once again, the reward was a hardy handshake and a flight to Fort Myers.
He arrived last March for his fourth pro season and basically hasn’t left the Twins’ Florida complex. He was assigned to the Fort Myers Miracle, where he received accolades for his control, his ability to start or relieve, and his fielding from manager Doug Mientkiewicz.
Dougie Baseball played 1,100 big-league games and was a teammate of Johan Santana, a phenomenal fielder. Last summer, Mientkiewicz said of Shibuya:
“He’s probably the best-fielding pitcher I’ve ever seen. He can make plays on bunts that I don’t think anybody I’ve played with could make.’’
Shibuya’s season came to an end in late July. Two years earlier, he had bone chips removed from his right shoulder. This time it was pain in his right elbow that turned out to be a partially torn ligament.
The Twins sent him to the Andrews Institute near Pensacola, Fla. The advice from Dr. James Andrews’ staff was PRP — platelet rich plasma treatment to promote healing.
In mid-August, blood was taken from Shibuya’s left arm, enriched, and injected into the spot of the injury. He returned to Fort Myers to be with the Twins’ rehab specialists. He’s on schedule, throwing off the mound for the first time this week, and could be ready to join a full-season team for Opening Day in April.
“I’ve been home twice, for a few days at Thanksgiving and Christmas,’’ Shibuya said. “I miss spending time in Jackson Hole, obviously, but this is where I want to be — getting ready to resume pitching.
“Baseball is a special thing to me. It always has been.’’
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. email@example.com