You're About to Know Jack

Jack Flaherty has lots to say about the game, his upbringing and the social justice movement he's dived into, but it's his rise as an ace for the Cardinals that will get baseball talking about him.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJuly 21, 2020

With increasing regularity in recent years, Jack Flaherty has been on message. From the first stare at himself in the mirror each morning to the first glance out the window at the rest of the world, his missives are deliveredboth to himself and to others—with focus, passion and thought.

They begin with himself. His workday. How he should fill his time smartly. Efficiently. New and innovative ideas? Bring them on. Wasted time is the enemy. He moves forward from there.

He considers things he sees on the field and things he sees in life. As a biracial pitcher who identifies as Black and was adopted by a single white mother when he was three weeks old, he holds a rare point of view shaped by his background and upbringing.

And emerging from an historic run in the second half of last summer7-2 with an 0.91 ERA over his final 15 startshis reach both on the field and off is expanding.

Jack Flaherty has something to say and brings the game to back it up, which positions him squarely on the launching pad as baseball's next great ace and one of its most important voices.

"There's times to do certain things, and there's times not to," he says.

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One of those times came in the unspeakably raw hours after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Sickened, like so many others, Flaherty posted a passionate and nuanced note on Twitter that both castigated and defended the police, touched on racial injustices and pleaded with his fellow citizens to "educate yourself, to have a better understanding. Have tough conversations with those closest to you, help change the system." And he hasn't stopped since.

He is 24, still learning and still searching, working hard to effect change both from within and without.

"He's one of the most diligent, hard workers I've ever seen," says Chicago White Sox starter Lucas Giolito, longtime friend and teammate of Flaherty's at Los Angeles' Harvard-Westlake School. "He strives for perfection, big-time. He's not just content with, 'That was good, that was OK.'

"It's like, 'This needs to be perfect.' And he'll continue to work at it."

Sometimes this spirit collides with the messiness that is the real world. Like shortly after his Cardinals debut, when he called out a teammate or two for giving maybe 80 percent instead of 100 on a given play, veterans who were pacing themselves for the 162-game grind that Flaherty himself had yet to endure. There were times when veterans like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina cornered him in the dugout and told him to cool it, essentially explaining: You have to wait your turn to be that vocal player.

At 21 or 24 or, presumably, when he's 34, Flaherty never will understand things like taking it easy, even for one play in one game during a six-month season. It is not how he is wired. Given that he finished fourth in National League Cy Young voting in his first full MLB season last summer, becoming only the third pitcher in history younger than 24 to produce at least 230 strikeouts (231) while surrendering 55 or fewer walks (55) and fashioning an ERA of 2.75 or better (2.75), so far his way is working pretty well.

"I never like seeing him on the mound against us," Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says. "But whenever he's pitching, I'm tuning in."

While he may have ruffled a few feathers along the way, already it's impressive how many Cardinals are following the lead of one of the youngest players in their clubhouse.

Third-year manager Mike Shildt noticed this while talking with various players over the winter. Guys told him they learned "a lot" from Flaherty coming up through the Cardinals' minor league system.

"And these are guys older than Jack who learned from Jack in real time who said, 'He was a good example for me,'" Shildt says.

"So that's impressive in itself."


On a Zoom interview a few days before he returns to St. Louis to resume spring training, Flaherty acknowledges to B/R that, indeed, it feels odd that others come to him for advice while he's still earning his stripes.

"It surprises me," he admits. "Guys want to ask me questions. [I tell them] 'this is what it is, I don't know if it's right, I don't know if it's wrong, but this is what I've got for you.'

"I'm going to answer with what I think. Whether it's right or wrong, and if it helps somebody, it helps somebody. If you're on my team and on our side, if you are going to ask me a question, I'm going to give you an honest answer."

Authenticity. His agent, Ryan Hamill, has known him since he was 14 and has experienced it from day one.

"It took Jack a good two or three years to open up to me," says Hamill, 41, a former catcher in the Cardinals organization. "Jack is very aware and very cognizant of his personal relationships. He wants to make sure people in his corner are actually in his corner, so it takes him a long time to open up."

The two of them have what Hamill calls "very deep" conversations that frequently move into areas far beyond baseball. Social issues. World issues. Often they are in agreement, but not always.

"If you ask Jack a question, he's going to take his time to respond," Hamill says. "Sometimes I'll ask Jack a question and I'll think he's hung up the phone. There will be 10 or 20 seconds before he starts answering.

Jack Flaherty made a point of talking to Cardinals aces such as Adam Wainwright to help refine his approach to the game and his mechanics on the mound.
Jack Flaherty made a point of talking to Cardinals aces such as Adam Wainwright to help refine his approach to the game and his mechanics on the mound.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

"In today's world, when most people talk before they think, Jack thinks before he talks."

That became evident to the Cardinals going back to Flaherty's September call-up in 2017, when he made six appearancesfive startsin that season's waning weeks. Before his final start of the season, he asked Wainwright for some time.

"So after the last game of the year, we sat down in the clubhouse and just talked for two hours," Flaherty says. "I asked him everything I could. He sat there and answered all of my questions and shared."

Flaherty took notes, literally. He wrote down every nugget of insight Wainwright offered. The session lasted until, finally, the clubhouse attendants said it was time to close up shop and go home.

Flaherty also frequently tried to gain some snippets of wisdom from another former Cardinals ace, Chris Carpenter, who retired in 2013. And over the past few years, he's become close with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, to whom he first reached out a couple of offseasons ago.

"Great dude, he's been really helpful," Flaherty says. "Just questions like, how'd you do it? What went into it? How'd you throw 300 innings every year? How did you throw nine innings every time? What went through your head?

"Anything you could think of asking him, I've tried to ask. And I've pretty much gotten an answer about everything."

These are heady names and marquee talents.

Yet, ask Flaherty who inspires him, and this is one question for which there is no hesitation.

"My mom," he says. "That's a pretty easy one.

"Seeing her work ethic and the sacrifices she's made, the opportunities she's presented me with. There's no better reason to get out of bed, go through two-a-day workouts, go put in the work and compete every single day."


Eileen Flaherty is the senior director of corporate finance at NBCUniversal, mother to Jack and Grady (four-and-a-half years younger than his big brother) and has made things go pretty much from Jack's earliest memories.

"I don't think I've met a mother more organized about A, B, C, D, E, F and G and getting them all done in a day," Hamill says.

Through his younger-self eyes, Jack can still see her hard at work in the car as she waited for him to complete another practice, finish another lesson, throw another bullpen.

What he sees vividly through today's lens are the sacrifices and decisions she made throughout the years that helped give him and Grady, now a double major at Gonzaga University (Eileen's alma mater), every chance at success.

"It's impossible to put into words how much she means to me, and how much she's done for me," Flaherty says. "Impossible to put into words. She's just a special human being."

The three of them—Eileen, Jack and Grady—have been tight since the beginning. Shortly after Grady was born, Eileen had the boys in the child-care center on the Universal Studios lot in Burbank, California, where she worked, and Jack would ask his teachers if he could go see his little brother. So they'd call Grady's room to tell them Jack was on his way, and the future ace would toddle on down the hall.

"And then they'd tell me all the other babies in the room would get so excited because he was a big kid coming to visit," Eileen says. "I guess it was pretty cute."

Jack, Eileen and Grady Flaherty at a Yankees game in 2011.
Jack, Eileen and Grady Flaherty at a Yankees game in 2011.Photo courtesy of Eileen Flaherty

Growing up in this setting, Eileen believes, is part of the reason Jack matured early. She will tell you that being a single, working mom with two children is in no way unique, that many others are similar to them. And often in those situations, the older child embraces a caretaker role.

"It wasn't necessarily intentional," Eileen says. "It really was just a way to get out of the house in the morning. It was me trying to grab everything and saying to Jack, 'Can you make sure Grady has all of his stuff?' When Jack went to high school, we kind of laughed about it because Grady would literally just walk out of the house in the morning because Jack would have Grady's backpack, lunch, homework."

With a full-time job to contend with, Eileen needed her boys to help themselves quickly.

"I couldn't be everywhere at the same time, so they also were responsible for communicating to their teachers if there was a grade they didn't agree with or an assignment they didn't understand," Eileen says. "They were responsible for having that conversation with teachers and coaches. Maybe some of the maturity comes from that as well."

Always, there were actions and examples. Even today, Eileen is in the middle of a master's program at Gonzaga with a focus on servant leadership.

"So the role of that type of leadership is others are put first," she says. "You empower others, value others, raise them up."

Listen to Jack talk about the game, and these values echo. When he talks about his future, it isn't in terms of building on that sensational second half from last year, when he fashioned the third-lowest ERA in history following the All-Star break after the Cubs' Jake Arrieta (0.75, 2015) and Atlanta's Greg Maddux (0.87, 1994), or projecting future Cy Young trophies onto his mantle.

"If you're helping the team win, you're doing something right and you're bringing other guys along with you," he says. "Whatever that looks like. Some guys do it differently, but if you're bringing those guys along with you … sometimes it's leading by example, sometimes it's your voice."


Sometimes you have to learn things the hard way. Sometimes you have to experience pain before you can grow. Flaherty may be young, but he's endured, too. Following his worst season as a pro, a Class-A clunker in 2016 when he was 20, Flaherty returned home for, as he calls them, a couple of "sitdown conversations."

"I wouldn't say that I didn't work hard [then], but compared to now, I didn't do anything," says Flaherty, who had gone 5-9 with a 3.56 ERA at Palm Beach that summer. "They were honest conversations with people in my life about going forward."

One talk was with Eileen, who told her son, "Basically, 'Dude, you've got to get it together, otherwise you're going to be yesterday's news.'

"It was the first time he had truly struggled. Because he was so blessed with athletic talent and academic knowledgehe always had great gradesI don't think he knew how to struggle and how to overcome it."

So he went back to the basics: back to his high school trainer, his high school pitching coach, back to what worked for him in the first place when he played for his high school coach, Matt LaCour.

The next spring, just after the Cardinals optioned him to Double-A Springfield, they tabbed him to start in a scrimmage against the big club before breaking camp in Florida.

"He dominated for five innings," St. Louis teammate Dakota Hudson says. "After that, I was like, 'OK, what's going on here?' Ten starts later he was in Triple-A, and [15] starts after that he was in the big leagues. He's always held on to that momentat least, for me, that's where I saw the initial change."

It wasn't long before Flaherty faced a more dire crisis.

On July 2, 2019, well into his first full season in the Cardinals rotation, Flaherty took the ball in Seattle. But the Mariners lineup likely wasn't foremost in his mind. A little more than 24 hours earlier, his close friend, Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, had been found dead in a hotel room after ingesting a lethal combination of alcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone.

Flaherty struggled in a start in Seattle a day after the death of his friend Tyler Skaggs last season, a loss that prompted his mother to ask him to look within himself to recapture the skills that made him a first-round draft pick in 2014.
Flaherty struggled in a start in Seattle a day after the death of his friend Tyler Skaggs last season, a loss that prompted his mother to ask him to look within himself to recapture the skills that made him a first-round draft pick in 2014.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Mariners cuffed Flaherty for seven hits and four runs over 4.2 innings, raising his ERA to 4.90 and lowering his spirits even more.

Eileen was in T-Mobile Park that day with her old Gonzaga roommates, her own grief overflowing both for the Skaggs family and for her son working all alone on the mound.

As more Mariners reached base, the mother in her wanted to scream at Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux for not rescuing her son. But she knew they were doing the right thing by allowing him to work through his own grief and anger.

"So much credit goes to those men," she says.

After the game, Eileen and Jack made a breakfast date for the next morning. And over eggs, sausage, hash browns and toast, drizzled with Cholula sauce (Jack), mom unloaded on her son something she had been holding in since watching the Cubs knock him around in Wrigley Field a month earlier.

"I was watching at home, and it was maybe the seventh or eighth pitch of the game, and I was like, 'Oh my God, this is going to be a dumpster fire,'" Eileen says of Jack's start in Wrigley last June 8, in which he surrendered five hits, four runs and three walks in just 3.2 innings. "They did a close-up of his face, and I could tell in his eyes, this is going to be bad. So I got up and started cleaning the house.

"I knew something was going on in his life mentally, otherwise where he was, [it] was just not where he could be. That game and those eyes at that moment told me everything."

Now, at a table in that Seattle diner, Eileen reached back a month and whistled a fastball of her own right past her son.

"The gist of it was, 'I just want to share with you that I was very angry with you over that game in Chicago,'" she says, emotions from that time still sensitive enough to the point where the phone goes silent for several seconds and she asks for a moment.

Jack had no idea.

Following his two-hit, 1-0 loss to the Giants in early July, Flaherty ended the 2020 season by giving up three hits or less in 10 of his last 15 starts.
Following his two-hit, 1-0 loss to the Giants in early July, Flaherty ended the 2020 season by giving up three hits or less in 10 of his last 15 starts.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

"I shared with him that I was really angry because you have allowed someone or something to lessen your self-confidence and to lessen your self-esteem," Eileen continues. "I said, 'How dare you? How dare you!

"'There are so few things in life that we have control over. You allowed that into your mind. Only you can make that change.'"

So many voices are in my head, Jack told her. So many people with so much advice. Fine, Eileen told him. Talk to as many people as you want. But nothing is going to get better until you will it yourself. Only you can make change, nobody else.

Five days later, he was not just a different pitcher, but a different man on the mound in San Francisco. He gave up two hits in seven innings in a 1-0 loss. Afterward, Eileen hugged Shildt and told him that only the two of them and Maddux knew what that afternoon both took and meant.


Flaherty came to pitching late. At Harvard-Westlake, he started out playing shortstop and third base. As a sophomore, he was the third starter on the team behind seniors (and future major leaguers) Max Fried and Giolito and was only summoned to pitch more when Giolito injured his elbow early in the year.

He had committed to the University of North Carolina as an infielder, but when the Cardinals took him in the first round as the 34th overall pick of the 2014 draft, the Tar Heels had to go to plan B. So, too, did the Chicago Cubs, who owned the 45th overall pick and had struck a predraft deal with Hamill before the Cardinals swooped in, according to the agent.

Now, Flaherty has the makings of someone who could step into the cleats of a Wainwright or a Carpenter. In 66 career starts when he receives a minimum of two runs of support, Flaherty is 18-7. When the Cards scratch out three or more, he's 14-1.

"I don't know what's better, the stuff or the compete," Roberts, the Dodgers manager, says. "He's special. When you're talking about elite No. 1s, there's only a handful of those guys, in my opinion, and he's right there with them."

Yet two springs running, Flaherty has rejected St. Louis' contract offersas is his right under current labor agreementand the Cardinals have wound up renewing him at their numbers, as is their right. He will earn a pro-rated portion of $604,500 for 2020 after making $562,100 last year. That's barely above the MLB minimum, which this year is $563,500, an increase from $555,000 last year.

This is another message.

"In Jack's mind, this isn't against the Cardinals, it's against the system," Hamill says. "You look at the NFL, the NBA, they pay their rookies better—be it in the draft or allowing players to get to free agency quicker.

"Essentially, it's five years in the minors in baseball making no money, going through the process of [the club] having three options, then the process of three years to get to arbitration. Jack and I feel the Cardinals' system of pay is fair across the board, but the system isn't. His ability to renew is asserting his beliefs as a player.

"When Jack feels a certain way, he's going to express his thoughts. This is his way to do it. He didn't bang on the Cardinals. He simply allowed his action to speak for itself." Flaherty will be eligible for arbitration for the first time after this season and could hit free agency after the 2023 season.

Be it systemic change in baseball or in society, Flaherty keeps his eyes wide open—and, at least, this summer while baseball was on hiatus, his social media accounts sharpened, from emphasizing Cincinnati pitcher Amir Garrett's plea to, as Flaherty tweeted, "change the world, there's bigger things than baseball"…

…to retweeting the NBA's plan to allow players to use phrases that promote social justice causes on their jerseys.

"From a world standpoint, there's a lot going on," Flaherty says. "You've seen it in basketball, with [the Lakers'] Avery Bradley sitting out [the NBA restart], in the WNBA with people like [the Washington Mystics'] Natasha Cloud sitting out, because there's bigger issues going on in the world.

"So everything coming back is not to distract from what's going on but, hopefully, we can use it as a way to further go forward with this movement that is happening and further bring light to everything that's going on in the world and to everything that's been going on for hundreds of years."

We're all products of our environment, and for Flaherty, there have been many sources of inspiration. Eileen, his volunteer work in the Catholic schools he attended, a coach he met at a YMCA basketball program named Brenton Earley with whom he still talks.

"Then you come into a time when you're a young adult and you meet someone like Adam Wainwright, who is an incredible human being, and it starts to mold you," Eileen says.

And there are others.

"What Jack has said to me privately when he's deleted tweets [that he's regretted] is that, 'I want to be a model like Kobe Bryant,'" Hamill says. "Kobe Bryant wasn't on social media pounding his chest. Jack really looked up to Kobe, and he's taken that reflection of Kobe and said, 'That's who I want to emulate.'

"He'll ask me something, and I'll say: 'Be yourself, but understand there are repercussions. Think about three, four, five steps down the road. Think of yourself as a 30-year-old and ask if it's something you as a 24-year-old would have been proud of.'"

Like those early days in the St. Louis dugout, the path isn't always necessarily smooth. Passion and belief can come packaged with turbulence.

"But he is focused," Hamill says. "I've never seen someone work the way he has, with that level of intensity."

Question is, where to next? The march—on the field and off—continues.

"You can talk about the social injustice or oppression that's been going on for hundreds of years," Flaherty says. "People finally getting out and protests continuing. It's no time to stop. It's not like, 'Hey, we've done it for a few weeks, everything's good, we can chalk it up as a win.' No.

"It doesn't end because we go back and play baseball, basketball and, hopefully, eventually, football," he says. "No, it doesn't end with that.

"It ends when changes are made."

        

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.