Andrew Miller hopes fog is lifting

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Soon enough, The Great Chatham Fog Game will be only a memory, like other Cape Cod legends that have disappeared, the Chequesset Inn and Billingsgate Island, recalled only by those who saw them with their own eyes.

The game was like no other ever played in the Cape Cod League, or so the old-timers say. Even on a clear summer's day, the towering left-hander skinnier than a fungo bat was a sight to behold, his fastball popping his catcher's glove so loud that folks thought someone was shooting off fireworks on the beach, his slider swerving so unexpectedly that a couple of batters found themselves swinging and missing at pitches that hit them in the leg, causing the pitcher's teammates to muffle their laughter in their sleeves.

But in the fog -- and with Chatham surrounded on three sides by water, including the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound, it can be as thick as a seven-layer cake -- no one had a night quite like this. Andrew Miller, a 6-foot-7 freshman from North Carolina and the best pitcher Chatham Anglers coach John Schiffner ever saw in a lifetime of coaching on the Cape, struck out 12 batters in a row -- a K for every out in the first four innings.

"Yeah, I do remember," said Miller, who is now in camp with the Boston Red Sox trying to unlock the key to past glory, when someone brought up that night in 2004 the other day. "Hard to forget."

But here's what will make it a challenge to remember. As far as the game's gatekeepers are concerned, it never happened. There is no official box score. Records not only weren't broken, they didn't count.

This game wasn't lost to the mists of history. It was lost to the Chatham fog. Umpires called the game after four innings.

"Chatham fogs are just another conversation piece," the town's chamber of commerce breezily proclaims on its website.

In this case, the fog ended all talk of what might have been.

"The odd thing," Miller said, "is that in the Cape League, they determine if it's too foggy by one of the coaches hitting a pop fly, and the outfielders saying, 'I can't see the ball.' I guess it's not surprising they said they couldn't see it that night.

"Just a funny game, one of those things you kind of look back and laugh about."

Miller's past unexpectedly intersected with his present in Sox camp. He recalls that he walked or hit the first batter of the fog game, but couldn't remember who it was.

It was Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who at the time had recently finished his sophomore year at Oregon State and that night was leadoff man for the Falmouth Commodores. Ellsbury, like Miller, was fuzzy on how he reached base that night. "He either walked me or hit me," Ellsbury said, "and I thought he struck out more than 12."

But Ellsbury had absolute clarity about another detail. "It was wacky because you couldn't see because of the fog, and once the fog rolled in it would just sit there.

"We were probably happy they called it because of the fog. It was good for us."

It was Schiffner, the longtime high school social studies teacher and all-time winningest coach in the Cape League (Mike Lowell was his all-time favorite Chatham player), who recalled the batters swinging at baseballs that wound up hitting them.

"Two right-handed hitters swung and missed, and the ball hit them in the foot," he said. "My guys were trying not to laugh on the bench."

That happened in broad daylight, too. "I remember one game where I hit the leadoff guy three times and he swung all three times," Miller said.

"I tried to throw my slider to right-handed hitters where it would break right into their back leg. I guess a couple of times when they swung at it and that happened, it was funny."

Miller, remember, was just a college freshman. That year, in the Cape all-star game, he struck out the side on 15 pitches. Schiffner said he dialed up Miller's velocity to 100 mph that day.

The next year, Miller was even better: a 6-0 record in eight starts with a 1.65 ERA, while averaging 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Opposing hitters batted .133 against him that summer.

Former big leaguer Mike Hampton was at one game, picnicking and casually watching the game, until Miller started dealing. "There's this kid pitcher, a tall lefty," he told his agent, Mark Rodgers. "He looks just like Randy Johnson."

"I know," Rodgers said. "I already signed him."

Scouts flocked to Miller's games, and when he continued that phenomenal success as a junior at North Carolina, where he was teammates with Daniel Bard and set the school strikeout record, it was inevitable that he would be a first-round draft choice. And he was, going sixth overall to the Detroit Tigers, selected 22 spots ahead of Bard, who went 28th to the Red Sox.

But while Bard overcame a rocky debut in pro ball -- he walked better than a batter an inning in his first season in the minors -- to emerge as one of the game's best setup men, Miller's fast-track rise to the big leagues -- the Tigers called him up that first summer -- did not translate into instant success.

At the moment, in fact, Miller's career is in the breakdown lane. He has been traded twice, the Tigers shipping him to the Marlins, and the Marlins last winter sending him to the Red Sox for lefty reliever Dustin Richardson.

The numbers are dismal: a 5.84 ERA in 79 games, 54 of them starts, and a ratio of 10.3 hits and 5.3 walks per nine innings.

Constant tinkering with his mechanics left Miller with an inconsistent arm slot and a shattered confidence. But it is a measure of his extraordinary promise, and the fact that he is still just 25, that he still attracted a great deal of interest this winter.

Miller briefly became a free agent when the Red Sox, with Miller out of options and arbitration-eligible, non-tendered him, but in the end he elected to remain with the Sox on a minor league deal that contains a club option for $3 million in 2012. Rodgers said Miller had big league offers on the table from several teams, but decided the Red Sox were the best fit.

"This is a critical time for him," Rodgers said. "He wants to improve, he wants to establish himself. This is where he can restart his career. If he ever figures it out, he'll dominate."

Schiffner, the Cape coach, is confident that will happen. "I still think the kid is going to be fine," he said. "Left-handers take a little longer to mature, especially hard-throwing left-handers. I'm not comparing him to Sandy Koufax, but it took Koufax a little while to figure it out."

Miller called Rodgers the other night and sounded as happy as he has in some time, the agent said. What were the Sox doing with his mechanics, the agent asked. Nothing, Miller said.

That's by design, Red Sox pitching coach Curt Young said.

"We want him to get comfortable with the arm slot that he feels good about," Young said, "and I think that kind of goes back to what he did in college and when he was real good throwing the ball. If he gets to that spot, with his stuff, his location will be on, and that's what we're looking for."

Young has watched Miller throw three side sessions.

"He's shown good command," Young said. "He's shown the ability to throw a good breaking ball for a strike every single time. He's got stuff, he's got a healthy arm, he's always been healthy. It's now about getting that right frame of mind, that positive attitude, and make it work for yourself."

Hey, Randy Johnson was very erratic at the outset, Young noted. "But he fine-tuned his mechanics, he started feeling comfortable on the mound every single time, he started to locate, and with that kind of stuff you dominate."

For Miller, the fog -- or as they like to say, the Chatham Sunshine -- may finally be lifting.

"My goal," he said, "is just letting it go, gripping and ripping it like I used to."

And if that happens, just ask any old-timer on the Cape -- there will be a show you won't want to miss.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.