Commentary

Yalies take pride in one of their own

Former classmates give us a glimpse at what Craig Breslow is made of

Updated: October 31, 2013, 10:42 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- When Red Sox pitcher Craig Breslow was still at Yale, he was given a couple of molecules, a test tube and an open flame and told to make something, and a week later he figured out how to make caffeine. He also took classes in biophysics, which is essentially solving the structures of things too small to be seen under a microscope, and was advised by his professor that they were going to be using imaginary numbers in some of their calculations.

[+] EnlargeCraig Breslow
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWhile Craig Breslow toes the rubber, his former Yale classmates are leaders in medicine and science.

"You don't hear too many ballplayers who can talk about imaginary numbers," said Matt McCarthy, Breslow's old lab partner at Yale.

McCarthy, by the way, went to Africa and became the world's leading expert at holding bats who might be infected with the deadly Ebola virus, while other scientists stuck a needle in them and drew blood.

Breslow, in other words, is well acquainted with being challenged by difficult problems in high-risk settings, which is why those who know him predicted that given the chance, he would have solved the puzzle this 109th World Series became for him.

Or maybe you don't know how Breslow took one of the most difficult courses in his chosen major, molecular biochemistry and biophysics, while stricken with mononucleosis and never begged off a single test. We know this because his professor, Joan A. Steitz, said she included it in the letter she wrote on his behalf when she recommended him to med school.

"People say if you're too brilliant, you worry too much about what is going on instead of what you are doing, that being too bright is an impediment," Steitz said. "Craig has triumphed over that because he's really, really smart. He's not only able to think, but able to put it in a cubbyhole and control it, while most of us are victims of what's going on busily in our heads."

And what does a Yale professor, even one as celebrated as Joan A. Steitz, famous for her pioneering research in RNA (and whose husband, Thomas, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry), know about baseball, a life far removed from a chemistry lab? Maybe it would help to know that her son, Jonathan, was teammates with both Breslow and McCarthy, and all three, besides sharing the same extraordinarily difficult major, were drafted by big league teams.

"Joan actually knows a fair amount about baseball -- she used to bring her entire lab to watch us play Harvard," McCarthy said this week.

It's true, she admits, that she paid scant attention to the game until her son started playing, and became even more engaged when her son elected to play the game for a living.

"That's what all these guys were going to do," she said. "It was pretty clear they weren't all going to be able to do it. If one of them was able to do it, it was a miracle, and Craig was a miracle."

The Series proved to be a tough week for Breslow and the wide network of Yalies who text back and forth whenever he pitches. Breslow made a costly throwing error in Game 2 -- his first throwing error since he was a rookie with the Padres in 2005 -- gave up an infield hit and hit a batter against the only two batters he faced in Game 3, both of whom scored -- and gave up an RBI single and walk to the only two batters he faced in Game 4. Sox manager John Farrell described Breslow as a "little bit tentative," and he did not pitch in either of the last two games.

"Bres texted me three words on Monday night," McCarthy said. "'What a season.'"

And for the better part of five months, after he recovered from a sore shoulder in spring training that sidelined him until early May, this was the best season of Breslow's life. A career-best 1.81 ERA. No runs allowed in 52 of his 61 appearances. Twenty-three perfect appearances, second-most on the staff. Five wins, tied for most among Sox relievers.

But more than that, the assumption of a place of trust from Farrell, who counted on Breslow and Junichi Tazawa to act as the bridge to closer Koji Uehara, a job Breslow had held up marvelously until the Series.

His success, after having been cut in his second year of pro ball, signing on with an independent league team in New Jersey, making it out of an open tryout with the Padres, then passed around by five other teams before coming back to the Red Sox in a trade last summer, did not surprise Jonathan Steitz.

"To me, it was like, 'About time somebody woke up and realized this guy has been one of the best relievers in the majors,'" said Steitz, whose own baseball ambitions were cut short by a shoulder injury, leading him to go to Yale Law School and now to his current position with a leading management consultant firm in San Francisco.

"He's been really good in getting guys out on both sides of plate, and because he's so focused, he's not going to be intimidated by big situations. His first big league game, in Philadelphia, he faced Ryan Howard with a couple of guys on and struck him out.

"I'm not surprised he's doing as well as doing. He's healthy, he's throwing the ball well, he studies hitters, he's focused. He's not going to be overcome by the moment. I don't know what else you would want."

There was a moment, McCarthy said, when Breslow thought about entering med school -- after he'd been cut in 2003 by the Milwaukee Brewers, who had drafted him in the 26th round the year before.

"I was in Cameroon at the time," said McCarthy, who got his degree from Harvard Medical School and now has a residency at New York Presbyterian with a sub-specialty in infectious diseases. "He said to me, 'I got cut, but I'm still throwing 91, 92 and hitting 94.' I said, 'You're either lying or you should stick with baseball, and I know you're not a liar.' He's just gotten better and better."

In his early years in the big leagues, McCarthy said, it wasn't well known among their classmates that Breslow had made it to the majors. "I'd get texts from people saying, 'Hey that's the guy that was in our chem lab,'" he said.

That has all changed with his success with the Red Sox.

"There are a bunch of Yale guys in finance who have been organizing group outings to a bar in the West Village," McCarthy said. "People from the art world, finance, law, medicine -- it spans everything a person from Yale might go into. I get texts from novelists, people who do anything you literally can imagine. He's almost become like a mascot for our class. Who doesn't root for this guy?"

The three -- Jonathan Steitz, McCarthy and Breslow -- have remained very close. Steitz and Breslow never roomed in college but did so in the minors, and Breslow was best man at Steitz's wedding. Twice during his big league odyssey, in Boston his first go-round and in Oakland, Breslow has wound up staying with Steitz and his wife. McCarthy sees him when he comes to New York and is in regular contact.

"When we were in college, we were geared up for what was known as the New Haven City Series," McCarthy said. "Yale played against the University of New Haven, Quinnipiac and Southern Connecticut [State]. That's what Craig and I were joking about the last few days. I said, 'You're playing in the City Series, right?' He said, 'Yeah, Quinnipiac is looking tough, man.'

"To think, 11 years ago our Octobers were spent scouting out the City Series. Now it's the World Series."

Even though Breslow struggled in the Series, there can be no dismissing his importance in the Sox getting here. And you should know that last year, when he and his fiancée were planning their wedding, they settled on Nov. 9 as the date.

"We were kind of joking about that months and months ago, that he scheduled his wedding after the World Series," McCarthy said. "He's a smart man."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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