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A lifelong dream washed away

The major league shot he chased his entire life finally arrived. Then it drowned.

In the middle of it all, the entire, emotional ordeal that would come to define his career, in the midst of the literal storm that was drenching the Eastern Seaboard on the afternoon of Sept. 5, 2006, and the perfect, figurative one that was conspiring at that moment to make him the victim of the cruelest bit of circumstance the inherently cruel game of baseball could possibly produce — in the middle of all that, Brian Mazone, anxious, restless, bored, headed to the dugout to see the skies for himself.

Out of the Philadelphia Phillies’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park he strode, past the coaches’ offices and the video room, down the steps, through the dugout tunnel, clad in team-issued, home-white game pants and a T-shirt. It was perhaps 21/2 hours before the first pitch of a game that, judging from a radar full of giant yellow and orange blobs, appeared doomed. He was 30 years old, with eight years in the minors, and that evening, weather permitting, he would be making his big league debut.

He heard the rain before he saw it, loud splatters of dream-piercing liquid darts. The dugout was flooded beneath several inches of it. It was pooling in various corners of the field. Mazone had rarely known rain like this; the nearly 21/2 inches that fell in Philadelphia that day, the biggest day of his professional life, were roughly half the total rainfall for all of 2006 in his native San Diego.

But the climb up those last few steps, from the dugout to the field of a big league stadium, was a moment he had envisioned for a quarter of a century, and now, unsure whether he would get the chance again — later that evening or ever — he braced himself against the downpour and ascended.

As long as he lives, he will never forget that rain.

Twelve years later, he doesn’t recall exactly when he first became aware of the rain and the mortal threat it posed to the fulfillment of his lifelong dream. But he had seen it out his Philadelphia hotel window when he awoke that morning, having been summoned by the Phillies the night before from Rochester, N.Y. — where his Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons were preparing for the International League playoffs, and where Mazone broke down in heaving sobs as he heard the words, “You’re going to Philly.”

LEFT: Left-hander Brian Mazone, shown in 2008, was called up to pitch for the Phillies in 2006 after eight years in the minor leagues only to have his one major league opportunity rained out. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press). RIGHT: Mazone, with his sons Braden, left, and Blake, signed to play in Korea in 2007, which likely cost him his last, best chance to pitch in the big leagues with the Phillies. (Family photo)

“I remember standing at the window, the drapes open, just watching,” he recalled of that morning in the hotel. “When you see that kind of rain, you know you’re in trouble.”

His wife, Amber, having stayed behind with their two young children while Brian hustled to the airport to catch the next flight, got up the next morning and headed south to join him. The rain began mere minutes into her five-hour drive, and it never stopped.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is not good,’ ” she said. “He had so many ups and downs in baseball, it was like, ‘Of course this would happen.’ ”

It was raining when Brian got to the stadium at around 1:30 p.m., some 51/ hours before the scheduled first pitch against the Houston Astros, walking in the home clubhouse to find his uniform — red-on-white, No. 49 — hanging at the locker he had been assigned.

And now, as he stood by the dugout railing, the ground beneath him drenched, the stands empty, the rain began to pick up in intensity. And Mazone, in the empty stadium, took the full brunt of it, squinting through streaks of rain cut with tears at a field-level view that, in the mind of someone who had been picturing it since age 5, was akin to the one from the top of Everest.

“I couldn’t even see much,” he recalled. “But at that point I really didn’t care.”

Finally, he walked off the field, drenched. Down the stairs to the flooded dugout. Through the tunnel. Up the stairs to the clubhouse. Through the doorway. To his locker.

There hung his uniform. He looked at it again. He took it down, slipped his arms into the sleeves, buttoned it up. He took a seat. And that’s where he still sat a little while later, when they came to tell him they needed to see him in the manager’s office.

Mazone, at his home in Encinitas, Calif., says he still can’t help but ask, “What if?” nearly 12 years after his scheduled major league debut was rained out. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post)

A pain few know

Why Brian Mazone? Why, when there have been more than 19,000 players to appear in the major leagues, 750 of them on active rosters at this very instant, tell the story of one of the millions who never did?

Because maybe you remembered the news story from September 2006 — “Rainout kills major debut for 30-year-old rookie,” one headline read — and felt a long pang of sympathy.

Because maybe, years later, you went back and checked to see if he ever made it back to the majors — and he didn’t. Because maybe you thought that summed up something about baseball and life and regret and the awful randomness of it all, and you needed to explore what that something is.

Because maybe, now 12 years later, the story still hadn’t left you, and you wondered how the guy, after all this time, processed his cruel fate without letting it crush him, and so you called him up, and Brian Mazone, now 42, graying and working in medical-supplies sales, answered.

“Every now and then, sitting on the couch, watching MLB Network, I always have that — not regret exactly, not any sort of animosity,” he said. “It’s more like, ‘Dang, what if I did get in that game, and what if I’d put up six [scoreless innings]?’ Just what-if, I guess.”

And because, as you would learn, those who were there that day, who saw Mazone walk into the manager’s office, then emerge, pack his belongings and walk out with two duffel bags — one containing his Phillies home and road jerseys, which a clubhouse attendant handed him as keepsakes — still fall into a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God silence at the memory.

“I’ll never forget it,” said pitcher Randy Wolf, whose spot in the Phillies’ rotation Mazone was to have taken that night, after back-to-back doubleheaders over the weekend had overtaxed the team’s rotation. The rainout meant Wolf had ample rest to start the next night and Mazone was no longer needed. “I remember seeing him and saying, ‘Congrats and good luck,’ and then it just seemed like the rain wasn’t going away. It’s brutal. You have this moment you’ve worked your entire career for, and it literally gets washed away. It’s tragic.”

“You’re there, in the clubhouse,” said reliever Clay Condrey, whose locker was next to Mazone’s, “and then suddenly you’re not. God gives you one life to live, and you’re doing everything you can to get where you want to go. That elevator just wouldn’t go to the penthouse for some reason.”

Why Mazone? Because baseball finds room to celebrate the proverbial “cups of coffee” — players whose big league careers last for one measly game, or less. Moonlight Graham, who played an inning in right field for the 1905 New York Giants but didn’t get to bat, is a folk hero thanks to “Field of Dreams.”

But few remember the ones who came agonizingly close, such as pitcher Larry Yount, brother of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who, in 1971, hurt his arm warming up in the bullpen before what was to have been his debut. Called into the game, he went to the mound to continue warming but couldn’t go. He walked off the mound and never made it back.

It’s brutal. You have this moment you’ve worked your entire career for, and it literally gets washed away. It’s tragic.
Randy Wolf, the pitcher whose place Mazone would have taken for the night

Once, in 2004, Wayne Lydon, a speedy outfielder in the New York Mets’ farm system, was summoned to Queens when it appeared veteran Cliff Floyd was going on the disabled list. Lydon dressed and took batting practice, but Floyd remained on the roster, and Lydon, having not been officially activated, was sent back to the minors, never heard from again.

“People don’t understand,” Lydon, now 37 and retired from baseball, said. “Since I was 5, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and you finally get up there 20 years later, and it passes you by. It haunts me a little bit. I’ve always had this recurring dream: I’m going somewhere, but I can’t get my socks on. I’m late. I’m stuck somewhere. And it’s funny how it kind of happened like that: I was there, I was so close, but I couldn’t get on the field.”

But it’s safe to say no fate was worse than Brian Mazone’s, his defining moment washed away by the most universal, unsparing and unpredictable of forces. For the rest of his life, he will never see another rainstorm — and living now in Encinitas, Calif., outside of San Diego, he rarely has to — without thinking of that day.

“I hate the rain,” he said.

Why Mazone? Because in his journey, and in his tears, there are universal truths.

Within the journey, from the lowest rung of baseball to the cusp of the highest, is a trajectory familiar to all who started at the absolute bottom of their profession and, through sheer effort, will and an obsessive single-mindedness, worked their way to the top.

And in the tears, deep-rooted, brought to the surface only because someone was asking uncontemplated questions — “Obviously, this is still hard for me,” he said haltingly in his living room — there is a pain familiar to those whose biggest moment was yanked away when it was nearly in their grasp.

When the hardest part, the getting there, was over.

When you already had the uniform on.

Mazone, with now 14-year-old Braden and 12-year-old Blake, spent 13 years playing professional baseball all over the world, but he never got another opportunity to pitch in the major leagues. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post)

Path to nowhere

The journey, in the barest terms — a list of Brian Mazone’s professional stops — went something like this: Eugene, Ore., to St. George, Utah, to Joliet, Ill., to Adelanto, Calif., to Norwich, Conn., to Fresno, Calif., to Reading, Pa., to Scranton, Pa., to Magallanes, Venezuela, to Ottawa to Daegu, South Korea, to Allentown, Pa., to Ciudad Obregon, Mexico, to Albuquerque to Mexicali, Mexico.

Nine minor league outposts of five big league organizations, not counting a spring spent in Boston Red Sox camp, plus two independent leagues, winter ball in two Latin American countries and a season in Korea, all of it coming in a 13-year stretch, the prime years of Mazone’s life.

But even that raw accounting can’t do justice to the lengths he went to chase the dream: the $3,000 monthly salaries at the lowest rungs, the winters spent selling sporting goods and cleaning pools, the extra months away from home in later offseasons to chase a payday playing winter ball, the untold damage inflicted by the thousands of painkillers he took over the years just to be able to throw, the shoulder surgery that cost him 18 months and the 15-game suspension in 2005 for performance-enhancing drugs — when, according to Mazone, he bought an over-the-counter bodybuilding supplement at a strip-mall GNC that, he found out later, contained a banned substance.

And it’s not to mention the accumulated mental toll of all the times someone told Mazone, a left-hander whose fastball sat mostly at 85 to 88 mph, that he wasn’t good enough — a source of motivation for years that, by the end, only embittered him. He was undrafted out of San Dieguito High, undrafted again out of the University of San Diego, nearly released in spring training by the independent Zion (Utah) Pioneerzz, picked up and discarded by one organization after another.

Mazone, pitching for the Dodgers during a spring training game in 2009, was one cut short of making the team. (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

“I was never handed the golden ticket,” he said. “Even in high school, I was never the hardest thrower. I just got things done. I was never the guy you’d go, ‘Holy crap, look at that guy.’ But it’d be the seventh inning, and we’re up 3-0.”

At the moment he got the fateful phone call of his promotion to Philadelphia — around 8 p.m. that Monday, standing outside the P.F. Chang’s in Rochester — a thin ribbon of that hard-earned bitterness tinged what was otherwise a beautiful high.

“I had that thought that everything I’d done had been validated: all those hours, all that time away from home, the sweat, the blood, the tears — it was validated to myself, to my wife and kids,” he said. “And I could stick my middle finger up at everyone who told me ‘no’ along the way.”

The tears began with that phone call, Mazone bawling outside the restaurant, the kind of tears you don’t even care if everyone sees, then walking past tables full of concerned faces until he reached Amber and the boys — Braden and Blake, ages 3 years and 6 months at the time. She thought someone had died, but soon she was crying tears of joy, and Braden started to cry because he thought something was wrong.

“No, son,” Brian said, “these are happy tears.”

There were tears on the phone, Brian calling his parents, Keith and Theresa. “He’d worked so hard,’ ” Keith Mazone recalled, anguished tears now chasing the happy ones. “It was like, ‘Son of a bitch, he finally did it.’ ”

LEFT: Mazone’s unused Phillies jersey from his lone call-up is mounted in a shadow box at his house. The Phillies let him keep a home and road jersey as keepsakes. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post). RIGHT: After a productive season at Class AAA in 2006 and his near-miss at a big league appearance, Mazone pitched in spring training for the Phillies in 2007 but left for Korea later that spring. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

Amber called her own parents, more tears, and then everyone got on the phone to the airlines. They were all heading to Philly.

It was around 5:30 the next afternoon, Tuesday, when Mazone was called into the manager’s office — the rain falling, the game called off and rescheduled for three weeks down the road, the Phillies telling Mazone they needed him back in Rochester for the International League playoffs, some of his extended family already en route — that the next wave of tears began, the kind you try your best to hide from the world.

“The hardest one of those [conversations] I’ve ever had to do,” said Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies’ assistant general manager at the time, himself a former fringe big league outfielder who lived in constant fear of another demotion. “I remember being really emotional about it. You’re basically changing someone’s life.”

The Phillies let the Mazones stay overnight at the hotel before heading back north. That night, at the same window where he saw the wet skies in the morning and felt a sinking feeling, Brian stood again and waited for the rain to stop. That would have been the ultimate kick in the teeth — having the game called off, then finding out it actually would have been playable.

But it kept raining and raining, and finally he crawled into bed and went to sleep, the only sound the steady patter of raindrops pelting the window.

Brian Mazone, with sons Blake and Braden and wife Amber, said of a 2007 contract with South Koreas Samsung Lions,“It paid for our house and everything in it.” (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post)

A dream dies

Baseball is supposed to be the purest of meritocracies: You’ll make it if you deserve to. You’ll go as far as your performance dictates. But in reality, it is far from fair, with personnel decisions influenced by everything from pedigree to politics to contract status to roster flexibility.

Mazone was 13-3 with a 2.03 ERA that season for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, by all measures the sort of season that should have earned a promotion to the majors — if not that day, then certainly after the International League playoffs. In September, by rule, big league rosters expand from 25 players to a maximum of 40. When Mazone walked out of the clubhouse in Philadelphia that evening, he fully expected to be back in a matter of days.

But because Mazone was not on their 40-man roster of protected players, and because that roster was full, the Phillies, in the heat of a playoff race, would have had to risk losing another player to make room.

Back in Rochester two days after his big league debut was rained out, Mazone took the mound for the Red Barons in the playoffs and got hammered, his season’s worst start. The season over, the coaches pulled aside the players the Phillies had decided to bring to the big leagues. Mazone wasn’t among them. Instead, he pointed his rental car west, to home.

“For me, that was harder than not pitching that [rained-out] game,” he said, his voice pausing, halting, failing. “Obviously I felt like I deserved it. But I also thought they might throw me a bone — call me up, maybe let me throw an inning here or there when it’s 10-0. It just didn’t happen.”

Two-hundred-twenty players made their big league debuts in 2006 — ranging alphabetically from Reggie Abercrombie to Joel Zumaya, and in age from Adam Jones, 20, to Takashi Saito, 36 — but none of them was Brian Mazone.

He would have two more close brushes with the big leagues before he’d had enough.

In May 2007, a rash of injuries left the Phillies scrambling for a starter, and it almost certainly would have been Mazone, who was back at Class AAA — except days earlier he had signed a contract with South Korea’s Samsung Lions, a difficult decision that ultimately was little more than a cold cash-grab. The $300,000 salary was roughly four times what he was making in Class AAA. He left the following week.

It just wasn’t meant to be, I guess.
Brian Mazone

“It paid for our house,” he said, “and everything in it.”

And in late March 2009, back in the states, he was one cut away from making the Los Angeles Dodgers’ roster out of spring training and was preparing to head west with them for a final exhibition game at Dodger Stadium — when he was diagnosed with a staph infection in his leg, which required six weeks of rest and agonizing, twice-daily flushing of the open wound. He stayed back in Arizona as the team flew to L.A.

“It just wasn’t meant to be, I guess,” he said softly.

He lasted until the spring of 2011 before grim reality and the tug of home finally extinguished the dream. He landed a real job, coached his boys through their Little League years, settled into a new daily rhythm free of buses and bullpens.

“I wish I’d sucked earlier,” he said, “because it would have been easier to walk away. If I’d gotten my face pounded in, I would’ve [said], ‘Look, you’re 29, 30 years old, maybe you don’t have it anymore.’ But every year I’d turn around in September and I’d be top two or three in every category. I knew, at 34, I’d worked as hard as I could, dedicated myself for one thing — to get to the big leagues, the thing you’ve wanted since you were 5.”

For about 22 hours in 2006 — from the phone call in Rochester on Monday night to the manager’s office in Philly on Tuesday — Mazone was, if not officially at least in his heart, a major league ballplayer. He will always have that phone call. He will always have the jersey, mounted in a shadow box. But he has nothing else. Larry Yount is in the record book, credited with one game in the majors in 1971, because he had been announced as the new pitcher. Mazone? He may as well have never existed.

In the darkened living room of his family’s home, the blinds holding back the brilliant light of another sunny day, Mazone was asked if he believes he was a big leaguer. Seconds went by, 10, 20, 30. He was struggling. Finally, haltingly, he recalled a friend pulling him aside recently and saying, “In our eyes, you’re a big leaguer.” He cried then. He was crying again now.

“Just to know that people knew the story and knew how hard it was . . . ,” he started. “That means more than actually throwing that game.”

He rose from the couch, flipped his sunglasses down over his eyes and walked to the door, stepping out into another perfect, cloudless Southern California day. The sun baked the land and turned the green hills to brown. He’d be taking Blake to baseball practice soon. By evening, the air would be crisp and cool.

No, Mazone said, come to think of it, he couldn’t remember the last time it had rained.

Brian Mazone, demonstrating his pitching form on the beach near his house, said of never making the majors, “It just wasn’t meant to be, I guess.” (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

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