THE HAGERTY HOUSEHOLD, located in a small Ohio town named Defiance, operates under a short but firm set of tenets. The first involves work. Hagertys work. Hartsell Dodrill, Bretta Hagerty's father, worked afternoon shifts in a coal mine when he was playing college football and basketball. Gene Hagerty, John Hagerty's father, worked in the steel mill in Steubenville. John Hagerty still works, the past 23 years as a journeyman millwright at the GM plant. Nothing he and Bretta taught their three children was as important as how work -- and the honor of it -- carried the family from generation to generation.
Luke Hagerty, the eldest of the siblings, learned about work through sports. He played everything, though baseball came most naturally. When other kids struggled to throw strikes, he feathered the ball over the plate with uncanny ease. He didn't exactly love the game, and he knew next to nothing about it. Before his senior year, when Hagerty was going to quit and focus on basketball, his high school baseball coach, Tom Held, told him that standing 6-foot-7 and throwing left-handed was unique. "Really?" Hagerty responded.
He could play baseball in college if he worked, Held said, so Hagerty did, and Ball State offered him books and a spot on the team. And when he got there, someone told Hagerty he could be a first-round pick if he threw 94 mph. His fastball sat at 82 mph at the time, so he spent the next three years building up his arm, adding a tick here or there. By his junior year, he threw 94. The Chicago Cubs chose him with the 32nd pick in the first round of the 2002 draft and gave him more than $1 million to sign.
Hagerty went to the Cubs' affiliate in Boise, Idaho, and dominated, and it was supposed to be the start of a meteoric rise, with team officials telling him he could be in the major leagues by the next September. He chuckles at that now, the salad days, before he lost the ability to do what was so fundamental: throw a baseball. Before he really learned what it meant to work, and before he had any idea what he could be, and before he was 37 years old, sitting in a hotel room on the outskirts of Seattle, 12 years removed from his last pitch in organized baseball, unable to sleep, his mind racing at 2 a.m., wondering if he actually could convince a room of scouts that he wasn't just some crazy old man who thinks he can still pitch.
EVERY DAY, LUKE Hagerty woke up and said the same thing: "I'm going to be fine." This was all a bad dream. Opening his eyes would end it. He forgot how to pitch in an instant. He would remember just as quickly. He said this in 2005, and then in 2006, and on into 2007, and for the last time in 2008, when baseball gave up on him.
Hagerty had gone to spring training with the Cubs in 2003 full of promise and left on a plane to Alabama, where Dr. James Andrews diagnosed him with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Tommy John surgery kept Hagerty out for 2003 and most of 2004. His arm hurt throughout the rehabilitation. He forged ahead, When the Cubs did not add him to their 40-man roster that offseason, the Florida Marlins acquired Hagerty during the Rule 5 draft, in which teams poach young, usually flawed players. Hagerty's fastball had lost its zip upon his return. The Marlins wanted him anyway.
Early in spring training, before he was set to throw a live batting practice session, Hagerty surveyed the field. He saw Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Delgado, Mike Lowell, Paul Lo Duca, Luis Castillo. All of them were All-Stars. Typically prior to throwing, Hagerty would visualize what he wanted to happen. When he closed his eyes that day, he saw himself hitting the batter with a pitch.
Just like that, his ability to throw a baseball over a 17-inch-wide plate vanished. Whatever you want to call the malady -- the yips, the thing, the monster -- it attacks like a snake that coils itself around its prey. It squeezes and squeezes and squeezes, and then it swallows what's left whole. It consumed Steve Blass, Mackey Sasser, Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel, countless others no one knows because, like Hagerty, they never made it.
"I usually tell people it's like your signature," Hagerty says. "You know how to write your name. Someone gives you a piece of paper and a pen and you can write it. Maybe there's variance. It was like someone gave me a pen, and it was scribble all over the paper. It made no sense."
The yips are an exercise in loneliness. Nobody is quite sure what to do, what to say.
"I don't know if somebody told me how to act -- just act like everything's normal," says Mark Reed, one of Hagerty's catchers in 2005 with Class A Boise, where Hagerty went after the Marlins sent him back to the Cubs. "I remember having to stay in the squat. The ball is flying over fences and into nets and onto fields. I knew I had to be ready to be a hockey goalie but also be ready to jump up and dive for something.
"I never wanted to show it. I just wanted to be prepared to make him look like, dude, it's no big deal. I wanted him to feel like, You're not that far off. You're not that far off. It was preparing for the worst, but when he'd throw four or five balls to the backstop, getting it to him and making it seem like it was all good -- he knew exactly what he was going through. You see the guy trying as hard as he can and not having a clue where it's gonna go. I felt so bad for the guy. All I heard about him was greatness."
That year, Hagerty threw 6⅔ innings. He walked 30, allowed 14 hits, threw nine wild pitches and hit four batters. He turned himself into a test subject to conquer it. Coaches set up targets behind Hagerty's back, and he whirled 180 degrees and tried to hit them. They wanted to detach his thoughts from learned physical behaviors. That didn't work. Neither did the conversations with sports psychologists or private throwing sessions away from teammates in batting cages or anything else. One time, when he was starting a game, Hagerty threw two warm-up pitches and then waved off the catcher. "I'm good," he said. "I'm ready." His left hand was shaking. He was scared to throw any more warm-ups.
The next season was no better. With Class A Daytona, Hagerty threw three innings and walked nine batters. The Cubs stuck with him anyway. There would be days, Reed says, when the wildness would abate. The misses wouldn't miss by as much. Hagerty would leave throwing sessions upbeat. This is it. This is the turning point. This is where the work pays off. And then he would be so wild pregame he worried he was going to hit a hot dog vendor with a ball.
"I usually tell people it's like your signature. You know how to write your name. Someone gives you a piece of paper and a pen and you can write it. Maybe there's variance. It was like someone gave me a pen, and it was scribble all over the paper. It made no sense." Luke Hagerty on the yips
During the offseason, Hagerty returned to Defiance. Held ran a fall-ball camp for local kids in which he taught the fundamentals of throwing. Hagerty attended. Next to middle schoolers who looked half his size, he did drills on one knee, trying to remember how to throw. In 2007, the Cubs suggested he play independent ball with the Rockford Riverhawks. He walked eight in 1⅓ innings. The next year, he went into camp with the Chicago White Sox. They cut him mid-spring. Hagerty latched on with the Schaumburg Flyers, an indy-ball team about 30 miles west of Chicago. He lasted eight games.
"As long as they're not telling me to go home, I'm gonna come," Hagerty says. "We did early work. We did late work. We did all kinds of stuff. Working's easy when you know how to do it. People would've quit. I just couldn't quit. I didn't care. Of course I was embarrassed and everything, but I couldn't quit. I'm going to figure this out. I don't know what it is. I'm gonna get this. It's gonna be fine. We'll be back to normal. We'll be good."
Hagerty tried to find logic where it didn't exist. He called his mom one day. He was sitting on a hot curb, holding a sack lunch, waiting for a van to pick him up and take him to a game. Bretta never allowed her children to feel sorry for themselves. If there's a problem, she always said, work through it. "You know what, Luke?" she said. "If you want to get to the good stuff, you've got to crawl through that muck. There's a lot of ways to go. Apparently yours is digging a tunnel to China and back."
After Schaumburg released Hagerty, the calls stopped. So did the bromides. Nobody was telling him he would figure it out anymore. He had taken solace, or at least as much solace as someone so broken can take, from those words. He remembers Oneri Fleita, then the Cubs' farm director, telling Hagerty sometime around 2006 that when he beats the yips, Fleita simply wants to be in the movie about it.
"You feel so bad for people like that," Fleita says now. "Your heart bleeds when someone is dealing with that. Anything to motivate him. Anything to make him feel like he can see that light.