They sit together in the fancy restaurant of a swank hotel. A father, a son and the dream they shared. It is two days before the 2011 All-Star Game, and Tyler and Bob Clippard are reflecting on a journey that brought them across the country and beyond their expectations. The rest of the family has not yet arrived in Phoenix, and so the father and son have time to talk of the hopes, heartbreaks and highlights along the way. Tyler is 26 years old and has no idea he is 48 hours away from becoming the winning pitcher for the National League in his first All-Star appearance.
Put it down as kismet. A you-never-know kind of story.
You see, Tyler Clippard once played a role in one of the most talented eras of youth baseball in Pinellas County history.
There was Casey Kotchman, the Seminole High first baseman who would be taken by the Angels with the 13th pick in the 2001 draft and go on to play for five big-league teams. There was Ryan Harvey, the Dunedin High legend who was the sixth pick in the 2003 draft but could never quite find his way out of the minor leagues. There was Boof Bonser and Brian Dopirak and Chris Coghlan.
And there was Clippard. Tall, gangly and not as obviously talented. He failed to make the varsity team his first two seasons at Palm Harbor University High, and he eventually transferred to Mitchell High in Pasco County where the family had another home.
He was good, make no mistake about that. He could pitch, he could hit, he could play a little shortstop. He was part of a Palm Harbor Senior League team that won the World Series in 2001, beating teams that included future Rockies stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez along the way.
He had goals, and he had plans. And the fact that he wasn't attracting as much attention as some of the guys around him was incidental to the greater objective.
"My dad always put me on teams with a lot of great players. He wanted me around them," Clippard said. "So I was never the best player on any of my teams growing up."
• • •
They stand together on a mostly empty baseball field in East Lake. They didn't want it to come to this, but they really had no choice. Clippard had been dismissed from the Mitchell High team during his senior season after being stopped by police for underage drinking and driving. So Bob had enlisted the help of some of Tyler's old teammates and Kotchman's father, Tom, a longtime minor-league manager and scout, to put together this showcase for scouts from a dozen teams. Tyler pitched to his old teammates while the scouts passed judgment on his future.
It was the Yankees who took a shot. They spent a ninth-round draft pick on Clippard and sent him to their Gulf Coast League team in Tampa.
Suddenly, all the hard work, all the lessons, all the sacrifices seemed to be paying off. Clippard was a 10-game winner in all three of his first full seasons in the minors. Before he knew it, Clippard was on the mound at Shea Stadium on ESPN's nationally televised Sunday night game in May 2007.
That night, in his big-league debut, he threw three-hit ball for six innings and got the win while helping the Yankees avoid a sweep against the Mets.
His parents and brother were there for the occasion and they celebrated the only way they could at 1:30 a.m. in a New Jersey hotel. With a bottle of champagne and Big Macs.
It wasn't until the next day when Bob Clippard saw the typically overboard New York tabloids — BOY WONDER and YANKEE CLIPPARD — that he began to worry.
"You've got four or five newspapers putting your face on the front page in New York City," Bob said. "At the time, I was thinking this was way too much. It's hard for a young man to handle that sort of thing. But I really didn't say anything to him.
"I figured I had to let it play out."
• • •
They talk together on the telephone. Tyler is in his car on a 20-hour drive to Syracuse, N.Y., and he sounds devastated. It seems nothing has gone right the past 18 months. Weeks after his big-league debut, the Yankees shipped Clippard back to Triple A with his 6.33 ERA. Four months later, they would trade him to the Nationals. Now, on the final day of spring training in 2009, he was sent back to Triple A and told he was being put in the bullpen. As far as Tyler was concerned, it was a demotion on top of a demotion. On the other end of the phone, Bob was calm. You still have a uniform, he said. You still have a spot on the 40-man roster. You still have a chance to fulfill all of your dreams.
This time, there was no singular event. No headline-grabbing moment like his debut against the Mets. It was just an accumulation of things.
Clippard had gotten stronger. He was throwing harder. His command was improving, and he was making better decisions in terms of attacking hitters. In the bullpen, he wasn't facing the same hitters two or three times a game, and that helped, too.
Slowly, gradually, Clippard established himself as a shutdown reliever. He had ridiculous numbers at Syracuse and was eventually called back to Washington as a long reliever.
Soon, he evolved into the role of setup man. And this season, he became the first of his childhood compatriots to be named to an All-Star team.
"For me, it's been the blink of an eye," his father said. "I can still remember the first lessons on the mound as an 8-year-old, and all the highlights and adversity since then."
• • •
When he found out, he described it like being called to the majors for the first time. He could feel it all the way to his stomach. Later, there were conversations with his girlfriend. His mother, Debbie. His brother, Colin. And there was the phone call to his father to let him know he had been named to the NL All-Star team. "Just hearing the emotion in his voice, and knowing how happy he was for me was special," Tyler said. "Just knowing how far we had come, all the Little League games and everything else that had taken place to get to this point. It meant everything to him." For a moment, Clippard pauses and ponders the question of whether he finally belongs. "There's a big part of me that's like, 'What am I doing here?' " he said. "And there's also a part of me that knows I've done the work and put in enough effort to deserve it. I belong here."