Commentary

Dad can't stop pitching in

After years of coaching and worrying, Buchholz's father still hangs on every batter

Updated: March 5, 2014, 2:21 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was the afternoon of Game 4 of the World Series, and they were in Joe Buck's, the St. Louis barbecue place just a short walk from Busch Stadium, father and son, sitting across the table from each other. The father, graying but still youthful looking, with hands that have known a hard day's work. The son, tall and skinny, long strands of hair framing his bearded face.

[+] EnlargeClay Buchholz
AP Photo/Steven SenneWhether his son Clay is pitching in a spring training game or the World Series, Skip Buchholz's stomach is sure to be in knots.

The father, Gordon "Skip" Buchholz, 33 years a millwright in a Texas oil refinery, spoke first.

"Are you nervous?" he said.

"Hell, yeah, I'm nervous," said the son, 29-year-old Clay Buchholz, the Boston Red Sox right-hander hours away from pitching the biggest game of his life, with a right shoulder of ebbing strength.

"Listen, buddy," the father said. "I know you're not 100 percent, but you can beat them tonight. Even if you're throwing 85 miles an hour, just cut and sink the ball, stay out of the middle of the plate, miss the fat part of the bat. You can beat them tonight."'

It is almost five months later, and Skip Buchholz is sitting at a patio table outside the Red Sox clubhouse at the team's spring training facility. His boys, Clay and Mason, are sitting a few feet away, patiently waiting as their father tells a visitor about what it was like to raise a ballplayer, to mold a ballplayer in his own image, and the time he thought that Clay would never pitch again because of the stress fractures in his back, and how Clay damn near bled to death in his own apartment, and how the two of them had sat in a doctor's office in Florida last summer and listened as James Andrews told them Clay had a strained rotator cuff, but just needed some rest and he could pitch again, all of which had eventually led to this night in St. Louis.

Beat the Cardinals? "Boy, he did," Skip Buchholz said, recalling how Clay had battled his way through four innings in a game in which the Red Sox prevailed.

"I was more proud of him that night than any other night he ever pitched."


The father knows, deep down, that he has to let it go. That it will be his loss if he doesn't. He can even say the words out loud.

"It's hard for me," he said, "and I want so bad to be able to enjoy it. To sit in the stands, get a beer, and watch the game, and I just can't do it.

"I want to so bad because I know sooner or later it's gonna be over, and then I'm going to realize what I missed. But it's just so hard. I understand. It's not like I don't know."

Skip Buchholz just can't accept life on this side of the fence. On the outside, where everyone else has to sit, instead of the inside, where he was the one coaching his son, cajoling him, challenging him, driving him harder than maybe he should have, driving him in a way that caused his other son, Mason, to give up the game when he tried to do the same with him.

"I live through every pitch of every game," Skip said after Clay Buchholz had thrown an inning against the Tampa Bay Rays in an exhibition here Tuesday afternoon. "I lived through every pitch today.

"And every fifth day is really hard for me, real hard. My stomach starts hurting the day he throws his pen, his bullpen. That's two days before he pitches. I'm a nervous wreck. When I was coaching him, it was easier, but it's been since he was 18 I haven't coached him. When I was calling the game and coaching third base, it was so much easier. Once I had to get on this side, where everybody else is, it's been really, really hard."

Robin Buchholz, Clay's mother, once told the hometown newspaper back in Beaumont, Texas, that her husband wished he could have been a pro baseball player. In the same article, she said that when Clay was 8, she came across him writing squiggly lines on a piece of paper. What are you doing, she asked. Practicing my autograph for when I'm a ballplayer, the little boy replied.

Baseball for the Buchholzes, Skip says, is a family thing. Robin Buchholz still charts every game Clay pitches, the same way she has done since he was playing T-ball. They've got a stack of those charts this high at home, Skip says.

"My wife knows more baseball than most men I know, and that's a fact," Skip said. "Her brother was a hell of a baseball player. She comes from a baseball family.

"Mason, my youngest son, he could have been a hell of a ballplayer, and I run him out of the game. My wife would always say, "Mason's not Clay,' and I'd say,' I'm not trying to make him Clay, but if he's going to play he's going to do it the right way."'

The way he did it with Clay.

"I was really hard on him," Skip Buchholz says. "I raised him to be a shortstop. He's one of the best shortstops I've ever seen. You could ask him, he took 200 ground balls every day, seven days a week. My wife played first and I had a bucket of balls at home plate, and he took 200 ground balls every day. And he could hit. He led his college team in home runs and RBIs.

"Beat [Jacoby] Ellsbury in a race? Ellsbury couldn't sniff him, man. He could run a 4.25 40 in football. I'd see him on the bases when a ball was hit into the gap, when he hit second he was in another gear."

And Skip Buchholz says he taught his son how to pitch. No curveballs until he was 16, to protect his precious arm. Fastballs and knuckleballs.

"Up and down, in and out, change their eye level," Skip said of his early lessons. "I told him, 'You've got to pitch inside, man. I don't care if you throw 83 miles an hour or 93 miles an hour, you have to pitch inside.'"

The days when Skip Buchholz used to catch his son are long gone.

"I can't catch him," he said. "S---, he hit me when he was 10, almost broke my ankle during an all-star game. I was warming him up before the game. I don't think I've caught him since then."


The Red Sox have been trying to put weight on Buchholz's slight frame for years now. Before, Clay says, they essentially told him to eat whatever he wanted, in hopes something would stick. Now, he's been advised to try a healthier route, forgoing the pizza and other fast foods for more nutritious fare he prepares at home.

Skip Buchholz says Clay takes after the men on his daddy's side of the family. Skip is of average height, 6-foot even, and Clay's grandfather was the same. "But my daddy's brothers were 6-4, 6-5, 6-6 -- all big tall, skinny kids.

"We fed [Clay] everything we could feed him. Look at Mason. Mason is 6-3, 235. But when Clay was little, he'd walk through the house with his little tighty whiteys on, his underwear, and he'd squat down, he looked like a [starving] kid, his shoulder blades sticking out. It was terrible.

"But he was so sickly as a kid, sickly. He had tubes in his ears and the tubes would be hanging out because his ears drained so much. And he was allergic. Back in that day they'd take a pad with 100 needles on it, put it on your back and test everything. He was allergic to air, allergic to dirt, allergic to eggs, ketchup, chocolate, grass. They said, 'He's going to grow out of it,' and he did."

[+] EnlargeClay Buchholz
Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)Clay Buchholz's series of injuries the last few seasons, after having none when he was younger, has been tough for Skip too.

All through school, every sport Clay played -- football, track, soccer, baseball -- he never got hurt, never pulled a muscle, according to his father. That's what has made the last four seasons with the Red Sox such a trial, Skip said. He was there in 2010 when Buchholz tore his hamstring running the bases in San Francisco.

"I wanted to see him hit," Skip said. "He gets up, he's facing [Madison] Bumgarner, who's left-handed. I'm left-handed, I threw him BP his whole life and first pitch he sees from Bumgarner, a 94 mile-an-hour fastball from a left-hander, and he rips it into right field. And I'm crying.

"Three pitches later, I'm crying because he blew his hamstring out."

More calamity in 2011, when Buchholz was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back in June and missed the rest of the season. Evidently, it was more career-threatening than anyone let on, according to Skip.

"We didn't think he was ever going to pitch again after the back thing, yes sir," he said. "He had two stress fractures in the vertebrae. One of them, they said, was older."

Buchholz made a full recovery, though, and was pitching the following season, 2012, when he had a scary episode that his father described in vivid detail, after he reacted badly to injections of Toradol, an anti-inflammatory medication that he and other Sox pitchers were taking. Clay was in his apartment, excreting and vomiting blood, when he passed out, Skip Buchholz said, and hit his head on the sink.

"He woke up and got in bed," Skip Buchholz said. "I don't know if everyone knows all this, to tell you the truth, but he called a friend of Josh Beckett and said, 'Man, I need some help.' He said, 'I'll meet you downstairs,' and Clay said, 'No, you don't understand. I can't get out of bed.' They took him to Fenway and then rushed him to the hospital.

"He was lucky to be alive. The doctor told him when he was in the ICU, if [the bleeding] wouldn't have glazed over, you would have died, you would have bled out. What do you have, seven units of blood in your body? He lost four."

Doctors diagnosed an inflamed esophagus, but Buchholz recovered and was back in less than a month. Then came the triumphant start in 2013 -- when he was 9-0 in his first dozen starts and led the majors with a 1.74 ERA --demonstrating the dominance predicted of him for years, but always forestalled by injury. That pattern repeated itself again, as the Sox reported Buchholz was having issues with his trapezius muscle and later an inflamed bursa sac. Finally, Buchholz sought a second opinion, and with his father went to see Andrews.

"We weren't in there 30 minutes and Andrews looked at the MRI and said, 'Hey, there is nothing wrong with the shoulder. This kid's shoulder is as clean as I've ever seen for a 29-year-old kid. It's unbelievable how clean it is."'

The problem, Andrews said, was a strained rotator cuff muscle in the shoulder. "He said, 'Four to five weeks, he'll be good to go."'

In the interim, Buchholz -- and his father -- had heard people questioning his durability and toughness.

"I heard a lot of this stuff -- 'Oh, he don't want to pitch, he's a p----, he ain't got no heart' and this and that," Skip said. "He was trying to throw, but every time he tried he'd start flaming up again, and that's when we finally said, 'We got to get a second opinion. Something's not right, man.'

"It's been a roller coaster the last three, four years. Yes sir, it has been."


"I talk to Clay before and after every start," 56-year-old Skip Buchholz said. "Yes sir, I do."

"Clay calls me the night before the game. If I had to call him, he probably wouldn't answer. But he calls me and he calls me after he pitches, and we talk about this and that."

Is he still hard on his son?

"Not like I used to be," he said, "because he's a grown man now. When he was younger, it was easy to be hard on him because he took it. Now, he listens to me, but he's 29 years old. And the things I tell him are the things I told him when he was 12, 14 or 15. It's Baseball 101, Pitching 101. It's up and down, in and out.

"I still question his pitch selection in certain situations. Like today the first thing, I asked him -- I couldn't see from where I was sitting -- they've got an infield shift on [Matt] Joyce, I asked him, 'Did you throw him a pitch away,' and he hits it through the hole at short where nobody was. He said, 'No, Daddy, that was on his hands and he just pushed it that way.'

"That's the kind of stuff I question him on. You're 0-and-2, you get to 3-and-2. Instead of wasting two or three pitches, if you want to waste a pitch in the dirt, do whatever you've got to do. That's what I question him about, pitch selection and location, because I taught him that."

In three days, Clay Buchholz is scheduled to throw another bullpen. And Skip Buchholz's stomach will begin to hurt. Son and father. Father and son. Fenced in. Fenced out.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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