Commentary

When September comes

The tragedy of 10 years ago still inspires Eric Junge's major league dreams

Updated: September 19, 2011, 4:20 PM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN The Magazine

ERIC JUNGECody Pickens for ESPN The MagazineEric Junge lost three friends on Sept. 11 and still uses their memory as motivation.

This story appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THE MOUNTAIN WIND turned the rain sideways just before the first pitch, which meant it was pouring straight from the mound to home plate. Summer in Salt Lake was dragging into late July, and the 34-year-old with the baseball had hoped for a dry day, a full house and a couple of scouts from Anaheim. Instead, he looked up and saw 100 distracted fans in the stands searching for cover. He bit his lip hard. This was supposed to be his personal World Series.

He had now spent parts of eight seasons in Triple-A, which he considered seven too many, and he could only shrug when his 20-year-old teammates called him Pops. He'd recently heard himself described as a "Triple-A vet,'' and his response was, "I'd rather be a major league vet." Which is why he waits every year for September.

He knows how the baseball calendar works. Every September, big league teams can expand their rosters. They call up hot minor league prospects. Or borderline minor league prospects. Or "Triple-A vet" pitchers who will eat up innings during blowout losses. The September call-up offers the proverbial "cup of coffee" in the major leagues. It is short-term and finite. It is an audition or a last chance. And Eric Junge, throughout his 1,300 minor league innings pitched, has always loved coffee.

So the 6-foot-5 right-hander stood in this crooked rain, on the brink of August, hoping his parent club, the Angels, would see the value in a thinking man's pitcher who's worn 15 different pro uniforms. As the leadoff hitter approached home plate -- drying his bat with his sleeve -- Junge stepped off the mound and mumbled something under his breath, something that had everything to do with his Septembers, past and present: "Fetch, Mello, McGins. Help me keep my arm healthy. Let's do this."

He could've gone a different route. Junge (pronounced Yung) grew up a New Yorker in the affluent town of Rye. A lot of the boys he played ball with became stockbrokers, and if not for his pitching acumen, Junge probably would have joined them on Wall Street. While he was attending Bucknell University in the late 1990s, he certainly had options. In addition to studying business administration and playing baseball, he was the third trumpet for the Bucknell orchestra. He'd taken up the instrument in third grade and was so skilled that his middle school trumpet teacher asked him to play taps for local war veterans every Memorial Day. "I'd be nervous," Junge says. "If you mess up taps for the veterans, that's like walking five guys in a row."

He chose baseball over finance and music, and it paid off when the Dodgers selected him in the 11th round of the 1999 draft. Two seasons later, Junge was a Double-A power pitcher on the fast track to the big leagues. His team, the Jacksonville Suns, reached the playoffs that summer of 2001, and on Sept. 11, Junge was slated to pitch a postseason game in Huntsville, Ala. But that morning, he couldn't take his eyes off the TV.

When the news broke that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, Junge could think only of his father, Peter, whose law firm was two blocks away from the Twin Towers. He couldn't get through to his dad's cellphone. His mind raced. Junge also had dozens of friends inside the Trade Center, and he dialed as many as he could. Again, nothing. He wept on the bus.

At the stadium, the Jacksonville players were asked whether they wanted to play the game, and they voted 20-5 against it. "I was the only New Yorker, and God, I couldn't concentrate," Junge says. "I couldn't have imagined pitching." That evening, he learned that his father was safe, but he still had no news on his friends. The next day, the Southern League canceled its postseason and Junge was free to go.

After a quick stop in Jacksonville, he drove home via Interstate 95, afraid of what he might find at the other end. As he approached New York City on Sept. 15, he could still see the smoke rising from downtown. By then, he knew that a high school buddy from Rye, former Princeton rugby player Chris Mello, had been on American Flight 11 -- the plane that crashed into the North Tower. He'd also heard that a frat brother from college, Bucknell golfer Mark McGinly, died in the impact zone at the North Tower. "A terrible collision of lives," Junge laments.

He later found out that one of his closest friends from Bucknell, lacrosse player Brad Fetchet, had perished in the South Tower. Junge and Fetchet used to argue about which sport was more macho, baseball or lacrosse, and Fetchet was known to wear a T-shirt that said, "Friends Don't Let Friends Play Baseball." They'd laugh over that.

So as Junge drove past an enormous American flag hanging from the George Washington Bridge, he broke down again. He arrived home in Rye, hugged his parents, grabbed his trumpet and played taps in his driveway. It was the worst September of his life.


TWO MONTHS LATER, the Dodgers traded Junge to Philadelphia. The Phillies must have had plans for him, because they put him on their 40-man roster and sent him to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to start the next season. There, Junge's roommate was Chase Utley, and two of his fellow pitchers were Brett Myers and Joe Roa, a 31-year-old Triple-A vet who went 140 and got nicknamed "14-in-a-Roa." The Phillies called up Roa over the summer, and Myers followed two weeks later. Utley and Junge, left behind, were miffed.

After the Triple-A season, Junge returned to Rye. Then on Sept. 10, a Philadelphia number showed up on his cellphone. "Eric, it's Ed Wade of the Phillies. We had an injury and we're calling you up. Any chance you can make it to Philly tonight?"

"I'll be there in three hours."

ERIC JUNGE
Cody Pickens for ESPN The MagazineThe 34-year-old Junge refuses to walk away from the game.

Junge was driving west over the GW Bridge when the date dawned on him. "One year before, I'm driving on the bridge, crushed," he says. "But now I'm driving, and it's like, the world is possibly opening up. I might have a 10-year major league career here."

He arrived in Philly but didn't pitch that night. The next day, the anniversary of the attacks, Junge was feeling melancholy. Before the game against the Marlins, he wrote "Fetchet. Mello. McGinly" on the side of his Phillies cap. Had he not been called up, he probably would have gone to ground zero on Sept. 11 to play taps for his fallen friends. Instead, Junge made his major league debut as a mop-up man in the ninth inning.

"It's Sept. 11, and I'm warming up in the bullpen," he says. "Turk Wendell and Mike Timlin are saying, 'Nervous, kid?' I'm like, 'Hell yeah, I'm nervous! Get away from me.' I'm snapping at them. I've got a mouthful of sand. No saliva at all. We're winning 9-1, so, cool, I decide I'm absolutely throwing a first-pitch strike. Ramon Castro crushes it, an inch from a home run. I give up one run.

"I'm like, 'Gawd, my ERA's 9. What a tribute, guys.' But it was like this was supposed to happen: 'You're not going to the big leagues. Oh, you are going to the big leagues -- and you're going to pitch on Sept. 11.' It was clearly supposed to happen."

The Phillies brass knew nothing of Junge's story until they saw a photo of his cap, with the names on its side, in the newspaper. But they were far more interested in his getting some big league experience and gaining some composure, which are the main reasons to call up a kid in September.

Had the Phillies been contending that year, they might have left Junge in Rye and opted for a "Triple-A vet" pitcher they could trust. GMs and managers know that September isn't a time to experiment with a winning team. But the '02 Phillies were headed for an 80-81 record, and Wade, the team's GM, wasn't afraid to call up a 25-year-old quasi-prospect fresh out of a liberal arts college. "Eric was a pretty bright guy," Wade says now. "He had a good head on his shoulders. He may not have been perceived as a top prospect, but there's value in calling up a guy who has a good makeup. If you're not in contention, why not bring a young kid up? Let him get his feet wet and get him ready for the next year's Opening Day."

So for Wade, the issue wasn't that Junge's first pitch on Sept. 11 was hammered off the wall; it was whether he would cave in afterward. Junge answered that question on Sept. 14, when Phillies manager Larry Bowa started him against the Pirates. Before his first pitch, Junge whispered his new ritual, "Fetch, Mello, McGins. Help me keep my arm healthy. Let's do this.'' He got the win 4-1, hitting 94 on the gun that night.

"He acts like he's been around 20 years," Bowa said afterward. Ten days later, Bowa called on Junge in the first inning to replace injured starter Vicente Padilla against the Braves' Tom Glavine, and the kid won again. He was 2-0. He'd had his cup of coffee in the big leagues, and now he was thinking refill. "When September ended," Junge recalls, "I thought, There are going to be a lot more chances. I'm a prospect. I'm done with Triple-A. Done."

Instead, Junge spent 2003 in Triple-A-and-a-half; he'd start games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, then be called up to the Phillies bullpen, back and forth, back and forth. By May, he had pitched in six more big league games for a total of 7 2/3 innings. Then his shoulder blew out. Junge underwent labrum surgery in July and wasn't even a September consideration that year or in '04.

All along, he'd been asking Fetch, Mello and McGins to keep him healthy, but the opposite happened. He thought maybe he'd paid tribute to them the wrong way. But then he remembered a letter from McGinly's mom thanking him for honoring her son. And he heard Fetchet's father, Frank, say Junge's debut was "one of those sparks that helped me through the fog." The pitcher forgave himself and carried on.

The Phillies released him after 2004, and the merry-go-round began. In '05, he reached Triple-A with the Mets, going 10-7 with a 3.80 ERA. But come September, the big club was interested only in young guns Heath Bell and Royce Ring. It was the same story in '06 with the Padres and in '07 with the Yankees. "I was expendable, a Triple-A vet,'' he says. "I'm thinking, Ay, ay, ay, I might be done."

Junge thought a change in continent might help. He spent 2008 in Japan and '09 in Korea, the equivalents of Triple-A -- he couldn't escape it. "Now I was an overseas vet,'' he says. "I was 32, I was down, done. Then I heard about a winter-ball job in Venezuela. It saved me."

Venezuela was a virtual major league. Junge pitched for the Navegantes del Magallanes, based in Valencia, and his infield consisted of the Giants' Pablo Sandoval at third, the Rangers' Elvis Andrus and Andres Blanco at short and second, and the D-backs' Miguel Montero at first. The stadium rocked: Fights would erupt in the bleachers and soldiers would straddle the foul lines with K-9 attack dogs. After every home run, raucous fans would pour beer on each other, and the dogs would bark. Junge was hooked.

Coming out of the bullpen, he threw junk or fastballs in the high 80s, tricking the hitters. He didn't walk anyone for two months and stranded 35 of his 37 inherited baserunners. The Magallanes ended up playing Caracas in the 2009 Venezuelan Professional Baseball League Championship Series, a rivalry that mirrors Red Sox-Yankees fervor. Every at-bat was a war. That atmosphere gave Junge the itch to pitch in the big leagues one last time.


SOMEHOW, THE ANGELS found him. Junge believes his own angels -- Fetch, Mello and McGins -- might have arranged it, because in 2010 an Anaheim scout happened to see him pitch for the Lancaster Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League. Junge thought, Friends do let friends play baseball. The Angels offered him a job at Triple-A Salt Lake, his 15th team in 11 pro seasons.

A year later, he's Salt Lake's No. 1 starter -- a crafty righty who goes nowhere without his water bottle, his guitar and his books. He is the only one in the clubhouse attempting to read every Pulitzer Prizewinning novel since 1919. But that's just a convenient distraction from the reality: September's coming.

Nine years ago, a raw Junge had been the quintessential September call-up for the mediocre Phillies. Now for the contending 2011 Angels, he feels he's a Triple-A vet they could trust. "Eight years in Triple-A -- for lack of a better term, he's a mercenary," says Wade, now the Astros GM. "But in September, there's always a need for pitching and for guys who conduct themselves the right way."

Don't experiment in September. That mantra now makes Junge a big league candidate. His numbers may look mediocre -- an 8-9 record and a 5.12 ERA -- but he pitches in a hitter-friendly league. And he's thrown 160 innings this season, his most since 2002, the year of his debut on Sept. 11. Every game since then, for nine years, Junge has prayed to Fetch, Mello and McGins. "I probably speak to them more than I speak to my friends who are walking," he says. "They're with me when I pitch.

I think they'd be psyched that I've stayed with it. Other friends tell me, 'Wall Street will always be there, but baseball won't.' They say, 'Keep pitching until your arm falls off.'"

So he pitched in the rain that July summer night, giving up only one run in 71/3 damp innings. He didn't see any Angels scouts as he ducked into the clubhouse, but maybe manager Mike Scioscia saw the box score and made a mental note. "There is this hope, a hope things work out,'' Junge says. "It doesn't have to happen this year or this week; it doesn't have to happen at all. But if it happened on Sept. 11 this year, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, it'd be ridiculous. I'd lose it."

It would be the best September of his life.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.