The True Story of Tim Fortugno, the Man Once Traded for a Bucket of Baseballs

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJuly 24, 2015

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Tim Fortugno was 18 years old when he gave up baseball, which is a funny thing to say, given that he's 53 now and the game still hasn't given him up.

The game kept finding him, no matter how far he strayed. The dream followed him, from coast to coast, from town to town and country to country. It wouldn't leave, even during that year-and-a-half when the pain in his shoulder wouldn't go away, even on that night when he, literally, was traded for a bucket of baseballs.

He held on, and baseball held onto him, and there he was on the mound at Anaheim Stadium, a 30-year-old rookie giving up George Brett's 3,000th hit (and then picking him off first base).

There he still is, years later, sitting in that same ballpark or another one like it, working as a professional scout with the New York Mets. He lives a baseball life now like so many others, with ballparks and hotels and small towns and bigger ones, with early wake-up calls and late flights and one game after another.

If you see him at the park sitting with the other scouts, you'd guess that his life had gone a lot like theirs.

His scouting peers would have guessed the same thing, or just would have assumed it without giving it much thought. They might have crossed paths with Fortugno when he was scouting amateur players for the Texas Rangers, and maybe remembered that he was the scout who signed C.J. Wilson, John Mayberry Jr. and Scott Feldman.

Tim Fortugno

What they didn't know was what came before all that. They couldn't know, because until recently, Fortugno wouldn't talk about it.

He never mentioned the abusive stepfather, the run-ins with drugs and the law, the time he walked off to live in the woods or the two years from 18-20 when he thought he'd left baseball behind for good, as he worked in a restaurant and in construction to try to support his young family. He never talked about the arm injury that could have ended his career before it really began or about getting released four times within a year and still finding his way back to the major leagues just a year later.

"He's a real good man," said Ken Graves, the foster parent Fortugno credits with helping to turn around his life. "And he has a good story to tell."

Now he's finally ready to tell it.

It begins not with a baseball but with a tennis ball. And it begins not on a baseball field but on a construction site in Costa Mesa, California, where a 20-year-old kid with a strong left arm is working as a carpenter, struggling to support a wife and a newborn son. He's two years removed from his last high school baseball game in Massachusetts, so removed that he rarely talks about the game or even watches it on television.

It's lunch hour, and Tim Fortugno is eating with a buddy named Jerry Head when he sees that tennis ball. In the years since, he's wondered why it was there just then, and why he thought to pick it up and throw it across the work-site. But he does remember thinking, "Man, that felt pretty good."

He remembers going to retrieve the ball and telling Head, "Jerry, I used to play ball in high school, and I bet I can hit that house over there with this tennis ball."

And he remembers Jerry watching and saying, "You have a cannon for an arm."

Ten years later, that cannon of an arm was on display at Anaheim Stadium, where a 30-year-old left-hander named Tim Fortugno shut out the Detroit Tigers in his second major start, with 12 strikeouts.

The drive from Costa Mesa to Anaheim isn't a tough one, even in Southern California traffic. Fortugno took the long route, but it was nothing like the trip that brought him to that construction site in the first place.

He was a kid who loved baseball, but also a kid who was the product of a broken home. He was Timothy Shawn Santos, but his parents divorced when he was six. He grew up poor in Clinton, Massachusetts, about 45 miles west of Boston, but after his mother remarried, the family moved to Berlin, five miles away.

Butch Fortugno gave Tim his name and a new, theoretically better, place to live. But he also gave him nightmares, and the years of trouble that eventually led him to that construction site.

"Everything I did was wrong," Tim says now. "Nothing I did was right."

There were four children, three boys and a girl, but the big problems were between Butch and Tim, and Butch and Paula, Tim's younger sister. Butch would lock Tim out of the house for hours at a time, even in the winter when temperatures dipped below zero. Once, when Tim came home with one C on his report card (after being a straight-A student), Butch told him that he had to stay in bed and remain silent, all day and all night, for an entire summer.

There would be no games, no baseball, none of what Tim loved the most. He had known since he was six or seven that he wanted to pitch in the big leagues, but now he was 14 years old and couldn't even play for his high school team.

"I remember going to bed one night with a knife under my pillow," Tim said. "I absolutely wanted to kill him when he was sleeping. To this day, I'm not sure what stopped me. I felt so angry, and so strung out."

He had thoughts of killing himself, and eventually sought to dull the pain with alcohol and drugs. He would drink in the mornings and sometimes showed up at school drunk. Eventually, needing money to buy drugs, he stole cash, first from his family and then from others.

He tried moving back to Clinton to live with his father, but that didn't work. He stayed with friends, then spent two weeks in the woods, living in a tent.

Later, in the fall semester of his junior year, Fortugno and two friends began breaking into neighbors' houses looking for money and were caught by the police. He landed in court and then was a ward of the state. Finally in Worcester, he ended up with Ken and Vicki Graves in a foster home.

"They said he was a very angry young person," Graves said. "He was very angry outwardly, fighting and everything."

Moving in with the Graves changed his life. It also gave him a chance to get back to baseball.

Fortugno played baseball as a junior and senior at Uxbridge High. He rediscovered his love for the game, and he had a reason to go to class and stay away from the alcohol and drugs. He became a Christian and finally felt that, as he said, "God was looking over me."

With the help of Ken and Vicki, who had an 80-acre farm and took in 110 kids over 35 years as foster parents, Fortugno found a life that was worth living. With their help, he eventually reconciled with his mother and stepfather. When he graduated from high school, they came to the ceremony.

Tim Fortugno

"I was still angry," Tim said. "But I was able to reach out, forgive and make peace."

The peace-making with Butch and Mary Fortugno continued over the years, and when Butch was dying of cancer in 1995, Tim went to see him one last time.

"Time heals, if you deal with the past," Tim said.

Fortugno's personal healing began when he got to Uxbridge. Coach Dean Tourangeau remembers him as a personable young man who fit in easily with his teammates, a kid with a strong left arm and a stronger competitive streak.

"I thought he had the potential to maybe pitch in college," Tourangeau said.

He was a decent player as a junior, and he improved enough as a senior that Tourangeau named him the co-MVP of the team. For two years, though, that would be where Fortugno's baseball story would end.

"I didn't know minor league baseball even existed," he said. "I still felt the dream deep down inside. But it seemed unrealistic and improbable, a pipe dream, not reality."

So when a friend asked him that summer if he wanted to travel to California, Fortugno quickly agreed to go. He rode out of town on the back of a yellow Ford pickup truck, on a trip that would lead to marriage, fatherhood and that construction site in Costa Mesa.

Fortugno was 19 years old in March 1982. He was a husband and a father, and he'd been a maintenance worker, a waiter and a construction worker.

He wasn't a baseball player.

He'd barely thought about it, and he hadn't talked about it, not until that day with the tennis ball.

"He came home and he said, 'I want to play baseball,'" said Kelly Fortugno, who met Tim in the fall of 1980 and married him the following June. "I said, 'What? What do you mean, baseball?'"

After two years away from the game, now baseball was all Tim could think of. He realized he'd need to get in shape, and he'd need to find a college program that would take a soon-to-be 20-year-old pitcher with a strong arm but little experience.

Kelly was skeptical, but she was all for it, thinking baseball could be a road to college and a better job and a better life.

"Good, maybe you'll be a teacher," she told him.

Tim just wanted to be a pitcher. He found a field, and he found a mound where he could throw by himself, under the lights of nearby tennis courts.

He was half an hour down the road from Anaheim Stadium. But he was still miles from the major leagues.

Fortugno found his way onto a summer-league team, and then another one. He had a strong arm but absolutely no command.

"Oh my gosh," Kelly said. "He was awful."

He got in a few games, and one night, he was introduced to a coach who was looking for Christian players to join the program he was building at a place called Southern California College. Sight unseen, Rich Emard offered Tim a partial scholarship.

"This was surreal," Tim said.

And it was just getting started.

Fortugno got his chance at Southern California College.
Fortugno got his chance at Southern California College.Tim Fortugno

Tim and Kelly took out student loans to afford the rest of the SCC tuition. Tim reacquainted himself with education and with baseball, and Emard put him in games against some of the best local competition he could find. The next summer, Fortugno felt good enough about what he was doing that when he heard the Major League Scouting Bureau was holding a tryout camp, he made plans to be there.

"I showed up, and I couldn't believe my staring eyes," he said. "There must have been 400 players at the camp. I didn't stand a chance."

No matter how many players were there, left-handed pitchers who throw 90 mph get noticed. Tim got noticed.

The scouts told Fortugno to come back the next day. When he did, a man named Bob Wadsworth offered him a chance to sign with the Atlanta Braves.

Fortugno said no.

Playing baseball for a living was his dream, and here was a chance to do it. But the more he talked, the more he prayed and the more he thought, the more obvious it was to him that he had to turn it down.

"I knew I wasn't ready," he said. "I was 21, but I had only pitched a year at junior college. I knew instinctively and intuitively I wasn't ready. I knew I had more work to do."

Calling Wadsworth back to tell him was one of the hardest things Fortugno ever had to do.

"I truly want to play baseball," he said. "But after serious consideration, I'm not sure the timing is right."

"You may never get another shot at this," Wadsworth told him.

The answer was still no. But Tim Fortugno did get another shot.

The chance didn't come immediately. It almost didn't come at all, because in December 1983, he felt a razor-sharp pain in his left shoulder. A doctor told him it was just biceps tendinitis, but the pain wouldn't go away.

A few weeks later, unaware that he was hurt, the Oakland A's made Fortugno the ninth overall pick in the January 1984 draft. He was what was known as a "draft and follow," meaning the A's could watch him during his junior college season and then attempt to sign him just before the June draft.

A player drafted in that spot could expect a $30,000 bonus. After watching Fortugno pitch injured that season, the most the A's would offer was $2,500.

One more time, Tim said no.

"I felt ready to sign," he said. "But my arm told me I can't."

He was drafted again that June by the Cleveland Indians, but it was almost an afterthought. The Indians never even contacted him, and there was no contract offer.

Fortugno, who had transferred from Southern California College to Golden West Junior College before his sophomore season, also had scholarship offers from Division I schools across the country. He accepted an offer from Oral Roberts before changing his mind (because of the injury) and returning to SCC for his junior year.

"I don't expect that you'll ever make it," Fortugno said ORU coach Larry Cochell told him. "God doesn't honor quitters."

Fortugno didn't quit, but his arm still felt dead. What used to be 92-94 mph was now coming out at 82.

Depressed, he turned to alcohol to escape from his troubles. Kelly told him he needed to cut back, but it took him months before he did.

"My arm ached," he said. "My soul ached. I was turning my back on my faith. I was running away from my problems."

Eventually, Kelly suggested acupuncture as a last resort to heal his shoulder. Tim found someone in the yellow pages, and he swears to this day that after three treatments a week for three weeks, his arm felt good. For the first time in nearly a year-and-a-half, he could throw without pain.

Not only that, but he could throw hard.

The dream was alive, and when Tim drove past Anaheim Stadium, he could once again picture himself standing inside, on the mound, in a major league game.

It would happen, but not for another seven years.

Tim Fortugno

Fortugno's senior year at SCC was a good one. He struck out 153 batters in 102 innings and was named the conference MVP. Scouts were showing interest again, and Tim was sure he'd be drafted in June.

He wasn't drafted, but the Seattle Mariners offered him a contract as a free agent. The signing bonus was just $500, but at this point, Fortugno didn't care.

"I wanted one shot," he said.

He went from Bellingham in the Northwest League to Wausau in the Midwest League. Omar Vizquel was one of his teammates, and after the next spring training in Arizona, he went to Salinas in the California League and ended up throwing a seven-inning no-hitter in a spot start.

Suddenly, he was a prospect, invited to the Fall Instructional League along with Vizquel, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez.

Two months later, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, a small piece of a bigger deal that sent Phil Bradley to the Phils and Glenn Wilson to the Mariners. A year-and-a-half later, the Phillies released him out of spring training. The only job he could find was with an independent team back in the Cal League.

"Jack Patton was the general manager, and I told Jack I need to get to the major leagues," Fortugno said.

He still had a good arm, but he had no command. Many times, Kelly wondered if it was all a product of his troubled past, if the mental beatings he took were keeping him from succeeding at the most mental game of all.

With the benefit of hindsight, and with his experience as a scout, Tim thinks Kelly may have been right.

"To pitch, you have to pitch with confidence, and I lacked confidence," he said. "I lacked self-esteem. I had these tapes in my head saying, 'You can't do this. You're not good enough.'"

He'd walk the bases loaded, and then strike out the side. He'd been like that all the way back to high school, when Coach Tourangeau would accuse him of walking batters just so he could pick them off.

Now he was 27, pitching for $500 a month for the Reno Silver Sox, just hoping someone would notice him. After a start against the Milwaukee Brewers' team in Stockton, the Brewers noticed.

The Brewers offered Patton $2,500 to buy Fortugno's contract. Patton kept saying Fortugno was worth more than that, and Fortugno kept telling him to take the money and let him go to the major league organization.

Patton insisted he had to get more, and finally the Brewers relented.

They gave Patton the $2,500, but they threw in 12 dozen baseballs.

And that's how Fortugno became known as the guy traded for a bag of balls.

He went from A ball to Double-A and all the way to Triple-A with the Brewers, but he never got a big league chance. His Double-A manager told him he was "major league ready," but the Brewers never brought him to Milwaukee.

Tim's friends told him he was chasing a pipe dream. Kelly watched her friends settle down with a house of their own. She longed for that "normal life," but she never would tell Tim, never would suggest he give up.

That December, the Angels picked Fortugno in the Rule 5 draft.

He was about to turn 30, but he would go to major league spring training for the first time in his life. He walked into the clubhouse in Tempe, Arizona, and he had that same surreal feeling he did when Southern California College offered him a scholarship.

"But I also felt I kind of belonged," Fortugno said. "For the first time in my life, I felt like I was truly a prospect. Until then, I was always competing with the prospects, even though I knew I had as good stuff as they did."

He still wasn't making much money. The Angels gave him a split contract that would pay him $109,000 in the big leagues, but only $2,000 a month if he got sent back to the minors.

At the end of spring training, they found a way to send him down.

He didn't know it, but the long journey to living his big league dream would make only one more stop, in Edmonton, Alberta.

It was cold there, but Tim and Kelly quickly felt at home. They'd been in so many minor league towns, hating many of them at first but eventually growing to love them. Every time they'd leave, Kelly would inevitably say this is a place I could settle down.

She loved Edmonton, but it still wasn't the major leagues. And the way Tim was pitching out of the bullpen when the 1992 season began, he wasn't going to get there anytime soon.

He had an ERA around 8-something as a reliever, and someone had the idea of putting him in the rotation. He made a few starts and was pitching well, and down in Anaheim, the Angels needed a starter because Jim Abbott was going on the disabled list with a strained oblique.

Tim got the call.

"I was sitting with the other wives, and someone came over and said, 'Tim needs to talk to you,'" Kelly said. "I can't even describe the feeling. I was so happy. I was so thankful to God. The tears would not stop.

"After all those years of struggling, you're going to get your dream."

The Angels flew the whole family back to Southern California. Kelly's mom ordered a limo to meet them at the airport.

Tim's dream was coming true. And the story was only going to get better.

Fortugno walked into the clubhouse in Anaheim, and he was a major leaguer for the first time, the oldest rookie in Angels history. He flashed back to Uxbridge, to Southern California College and to all those minor league towns.

"All of those moments when Kelly and I thought I was done," he said.

Tim Fortugno

He was less nervous than he expected, and he figured that being 30 years old had something to do with that. He would make his first start July 20 against a Toronto Blue Jays team that would go on to win the World Series that year, and while he didn't win, he pitched well.

He still remembers the Angels played Foreigner's "Feels Like the First Time" as he took the mound, and that teammate Mark Langston offered to help with a pass list that included nearly 100 names. He threw a fastball to Devon White for his first big league pitch. White struck out, one of six strikeouts Fortugno had that day. He carried a 3-2 lead into the sixth inning but gave up a game-tying home run to John Olerud and was pulled after 96 pitches.

The Angels went on to win the game. Fortugno was thrilled, but he also worried that he might get sent right back to the minor leagues.

Instead, five days later, he pitched the game of his life and shut out the Detroit Tigers on just three hits. He struck out 12 and looked so good that legendary Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said afterward that it was the best game anyone had pitched against the Tigers all season.

"I don't know where he came from," Anderson said that day. "And I don't know why he wasn't here before now."

The Tigers were baseball's highest scoring team in 1992, and the middle of their order was the game's most powerful. Against Fortugno that day, their 3-4-5 hitters (Travis Fryman, Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton) went 0-for-11 with nine strikeouts.

Fortugno retired 15 of the final 16 Tigers batters he faced, and on a warm day, he threw a 129-pitch complete game. Bert Blyleven and Chuck Finley doused him in champagne in the clubhouse. Angels owner Gene Autry came down to shake his hand.

"I was so amazed at the turn of events in my life," he said years later. "It wasn't quite the World Series, and it wasn't quite a no-hitter, but gosh, for me it was close."

Fortugno spent the rest of the 1992 season with the Angels, making three more starts and nine appearances out of the bullpen. He made it to Fenway Park, where his foster parents and his high school coach could see him, and to Yankee Stadium, where he got his first and only big league save.

He also had the highlight that gets replayed the most, the one thing he's probably still known for if he's known at all. On Sept. 30, in one of the final games of the season, he gave up George Brett's 3,000th career hit.

And then picked him off first base.

Fortugno came out of the bullpen, after Brett got to 2,999 with three hits off starter Julio Valera. There were thoughts that the Royals might pull him from the game and let him try for 3,000 at home, but Brett's brother Ken was an Angels broadcaster, and George decided to stay in the game.

"I remember [pitching coach] Marcel Lachemann saying, 'This guy's going to swing at the first pitch, so be careful,'" Fortugno said. "But my aggressive nature was to attack, and I threw him a first-pitch fastball. I could almost see Lache in the dugout swearing at me."

The play-by-play called it an infield hit, a line drive to second base, but the truth is Brett hit a rocket that ate up Angels second baseman Ken Oberkfell.

"I hit the dog snot out of it," Brett told MLB.com for a story four years ago.

"Oberkfell got a glove on it, but it was a hit," Fortugno said. "Some people accuse me of giving up the 3,000th on purpose, but I didn't. I really have an aggressive, competitive nature, and I was really attacking George.

"I didn't like giving up hits to anyone."

But that's not why he picked him off—not exactly.

In the aftermath, Fortugno told reporters he threw over to first base on his own, because it was a 3-0 game in the seventh inning and the Angels still had a chance to win.

"Now it's time to tell the truth," he said.

The truth is Fortugno threw to first because Angels manager Buck Rodgers called for it from the bench. The truth is Fortugno thought he was going to make a half-hearted attempt.

"I guess my competitive nature kicked in," he said.

Besides, Brett was barely paying attention.

"I was right in the middle of a sentence to [first baseman Gary] Gaetti," Brett told reporters that night, according to the Los Angeles Times. "He asked me if my wife was here and I said yes, and I had friends here from Kansas City....He didn't even let me finish the sentence. Believe me, my mind wasn't on getting picked off."

They can laugh about it now. When Brett ran into Fortugno in January at the annual scouts dinner in Los Angeles, he asked to have a picture taken with him.

Fortugno finished the 1992 season as a big leaguer, for the first time in his life. He ended spring training unemployed, after the Angels released him.

He had to get used to that feeling, because it would happen again. He was released by the Expos in July, by a Venezuelan league team in November and by the Mariners the next March.

He refused to give up, and days later, the Cincinnati Reds gave him $5,000 a month to go to Double-A.

"I told them I would have paid them $5,000 a month," he said. "That's how desperate I was to get a chance."

A month later, he was back in the big leagues.

The Reds told him he was only coming up for six days. He stayed for three months and would have stayed longer, except in August 1994, major league players went on strike.

Fortugno was finally a major leaguer again. And he was on strike.

The strike ended the following spring, and Fortugno (now with the Chicago White Sox) made an Opening Day roster for the first and only time in his career. He stayed with the White Sox until the end of July, making his final big league appearance July 26 at Fenway Park, just down the road from where he grew up.

The next day, he and Jim Abbott were traded back to the Angels. Abbott went to Anaheim. Fortugno went to Triple-A Vancouver. 

He went to major league spring training the next two years, once with the Detroit Tigers and once with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Tigers chose Mike Myers over him, and the Phillies elected to open the season without a lefty in the bullpen.

LAKELAND, FL - MARCH 8:  Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Tim Fortugno makes his first pitch of the spring training game with the Detroit Tigers 08 March. He relieved Mark Portugal in the fourth inning at Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, FL.  (Photo credit shou
TONY RANZE/Getty Images

"I must not have been that impressive," Fortugno said.

Finally, with an opportunity to make a little money, he signed to play in Taiwan in 1998. They offered him $125,000 guaranteed, more money than he had ever made playing in the big leagues.

Taiwan was the fifth country he had played in as a professional. The Sinon Bulls were his 24th pro team, and his last one.

A year later, he sent letters to all 30 major league teams, asking about jobs as a scout. The Texas Rangers responded and offered him a job.

Sixteen years later, he's still scouting, now with the New York Mets. 

Fortugno lived the scout's life, and he loved it. He signed some players who went to the major leagues (C.J. Wilson is the most prominent one, but as Tim likes to point out, not the only one), and in recent years he helped identify players who could help the Mets.

He was popular among his fellow scouts, but if they thought about it at all, they figured his life had been much like theirs. He never spoke about his past, except in the most general of terms.

Tim and Kelly Fortugno, at the major league scouts dinner in January 2015.
Tim and Kelly Fortugno, at the major league scouts dinner in January 2015.Tim Fortugno

Ken Compton had known Fortugno back to his playing days. Compton was working for the Mariners in Southern California in the early 1990s, and he helped Tim get the contract with the M's in 1993. In more recent times, he and Fortugno often found themselves scouting the same games.

One day this spring, Fortugno pulled Compton aside.

"He said, 'Hey, I want to run something by you,'" Compton said.

Fortugno began telling the story of his childhood, and of the long road he had traveled. Compton listened.

For years, he had been too ashamed to tell people the truth, too scared of what they might think. He would talk about his path to the big leagues, but he would leave out almost every detail about the abusive stepfather, about the drugs and the crime.

He didn't feel ready to talk about it, or to deal with it, until after he turned 50 years old. There was nothing magical about that number, but in the time that passed, he came to understand his story was about overcoming adversity, and not about how he got into trouble in the first place.

"I'm able to accept the difficulties I went through, and that I made something of it," he said.

Fortugno told Compton he was thinking about telling his story to a wider audience, in the hope that it could serve as an inspiration to kids facing some of the same challenges.

"I thought that was great," Compton said. "It's a wonderful story of perseverance. There are so many negative stories out there. To have a feel-good story is really good."

Fortugno reached out to others, and he heard much the same thing. Friends told him his life sounded like the script for a movie. Many said he should write a book.

He'd like to write a book now. He'd like to help kids who need a break. He believes his story could provide that help.

"I think it's a story of redemption, a story of hope, of encouragement, of aspiration," Fortugno said. "There's a spiritual component too. I turned my back on my faith, but God never turned His back on me.

"I was so fortunate to overcome all that adversity. I hope I can be an inspiration to others."

He already has been.

When Fortugno looks back on the people he met along the way, he thinks in terms of how much he gained from all of them. If you talk to those same people about Tim, you hear how much of an impact he had on them.

"He's a success story," said Tourangeau, his high school coach. "Tim has always had a place in my history, and in my heart. He's a great young man. He's getting older, but he's still a great young man."

Fortugno's scouting duties will take him back to New England this week. Tourangeau can't wait to see him and to give him some old newspaper clippings he has saved.

The Graveses, Tim's foster parents, are also still a big part of his life. He keeps in regular touch with Rich Emard and Dennis Rogers, his two coaches at Southern California College (now Vanguard University). Angels executive Tim Mead is another big supporter.

"I know many people helped, but this is about Tim and Kelly," Rogers said. "He forced his way into the major leagues."

He took the long route, through Clinton and Uxbridge and Costa Mesa, through a brush with the law and an arm injury that nearly ended his career before it really began.

We can all relate to the challenges he faced. We can all learn from what he did to overcome them.

He has a story that can inspire others. Now is the time to make sure it's heard.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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