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View Full Version : Jack Armstrong Jr., Son of Former MLB All-Star Pitcher, Enjoying Cape League Success



savafan
07-17-2009, 10:18 PM
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http://www.capecodonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090717/SPORTS/90716001/-1/NEWS

By RUSS CHARPENTIER
rcharpentier@capecodonline.com
July 17, 2009

WAREHAM – Google “Jack Armstrong, Vanderbilt” and you’re likely to come up with the amazing video of a 6-foot-7-inch, 215-pound Vanderbilt freshman, in uniform before a game, doing a standing backflip.

“I picked that up from dad, who picked it up from Ozzie (Smith),” said Wareham Gatemen pitcher Jack Armstrong on a recent sun-splashed afternoon at Wareham’s Clem Spillane Field.

Yes, Armstrong’s father is that Jack Armstrong, the former Cincinnati Reds hurler who started the 1990 Major League Baseball All-Star Game and led the Reds to the World Series title in the same season.

But that’s not why this story is being written. The Cape League has seen many of the sons of major leaguers.

Armstrong entered Vanderbilt last fall a prized recruit, having turned down a bonus rumored to be somewhere around $1 million from the Texas Rangers, who gambled on the 36th round they could entice him to forget college and enter the pros out of high school. He was a power pitcher and power-hitting first baseman out of Jupiter, Fla., High School.

Ready to set the world on fire.

Yet at Vanderbilt this spring, he threw just 7 2/3 innings in six games.

It was not because of injury.

“Basically, we had an older, more experienced staff,” said Vandy coach Tim Corbin. “He was a kid with a big arm, pretty good change and a good spin on his breaking ball. But as far as location, he was pretty much everywhere. He’d show you glimpses of command. We put him in against Stanford in the second or third game of the season. We had a seven or eight-run lead, and we had to pull him out one inning later.”

As big a recruit as Armstrong was, he was relatively inexperienced on the mound. “He maybe threw 30-40 innings in his high school experience,” his father said. “He’s prone to be a little wild at times.” The older Armstrong makes the comparison between Rick Porcello, who he called polished out of high school and now, at 20, is in the Detroit rotation, and Randy Johnson, who at 24 was still trying to master his mechanics in a big body. His son is the latter, working to fine-tune his mechanics in a big body.

There has been little display of the Armstrong without command on the Cape. Last week in Hyannis, with plenty of scouts huddled behind the backstop, he was hitting 96 on the radar guns while shutting out the Mets. This past Monday, in Cotuit, with at least 15 scouts watching closely, he struck out eight in six innings of a 3-3 tie. He balked in one run, Cotuit squeezed in another, yet he remained cool and collected, barely showing any emotion on the mound.

“He’s the best I’ve seen down here, the most dominant,” said a scout who has watched two of his starts. “He throws a hard curve. His velocity was a little down today (against Cotuit) but was still 93. He’s still impressive.”

So what happened this spring?

“I don’t know,” Armstrong says. “I had a little rough start in that first outing against Stanford. I was a little nervous, but I wouldn’t call it that. I was more overamped. A little over-focused on just trying to prove myself and what I have, trying to earn a spot and not focusing on the mitt and the task at hand.”

The rest of the year Armstrong said was a matter of paying his dues as a freshman, despite some better outings. “Which is to be expected, but not what I expected, I guess.”

Armstrong is amazingly athletic for someone his size. He was captain of both the basketball and baseball teams in high school, and had some Division I college basketball offers coming out of Jupiter. That despite, after his sophomore year, spending his summers concentrating on baseball over hoops.

But he’s never lost his love for basketball.

“I can get up,” he said. “That’s why I love it so much. I had a great point guard in high school who fed me alley-oops and stuff like that. I could do some good stuff. Windmills, 360, reverses. I love jumping like that.”

No doubt he’s a high energy kid. Even if he didn’t get the innings he wanted, he became a focal point of Corbin and the team.

“You’ve seen me do the backflip. At school, we had an energy circle before the game. Everyone stood in a big circle around me and I’d do a big flip, and everybody started screaming. It was fun. We got on kind of a win streak, so we kept it going.”

It wasn’t just a backflip that impressed Corbin.

“He works like hell, either in the weight room or hitting in the cages every day,” the Vanderbilt coach said. “Whatever he needs to do to improve his game.”

Armstrong, whose summer job is at the Wareham library, doing the heavy lifting and working on the grounds, is keeping his hand in hitting. He takes early BP every day at school and in Wareham. He’s concentrating on pitching now, but doesn’t express a preference between hitting and pitching.

“Honestly, I love both of them. Coach wants me to keep swinging over the summer. People are looking at me more as a pitcher right now. If I got the same looks and experience (as a hitter), I could do the same in hitting.

Right now, I’m loving pitching, getting some good innings, good experience and getting some confidence built up.”

Or, as his father succinctly puts it, “If you can throw 95-100 and have a breaking ball and change, you go with that. It’s a lot harder to find.”

Armstrong said he never doubted himself even as the spring detoured from expectations.

“I knew what I had in me, what may dad’s taught me. I’d call him, he’d keep me focused. He’d say, ‘Now Jack, you’re fine, keep working, you’re getting better. When the time comes, make the most of it.’ Every time I threw a bullpen, I’d really take it seriously and know I was getting better, even if I wasn’t getting in a game. I know I have a lot of innings coming up in the future at Vanderbilt.”

His father said it is the right attitude. “He’s going to work hard, learn the game of pitching and take his lumps. They’ll bring him along as he’s ready.”

Corbin is happy with Armstrong’s Cape performance, but did leave a caution.

“I’ve seen other pitchers go to the Cape and do well,” he said. “Velocity takes care of a lot of issues with wood bats.”

Armstrong throws a fastball, curve and change. He said he has foregone a slider on the advice of his father because of the strain it puts on the arm. And he understands no matter what he does in Wareham, he’ll have to prove himself at school once again. He sounds ready.

“With the stuff I have, even at college, 96 is 96. I’ve topped at 99 at school. Some guys will turn on it. Hitters get away with a lot more with metal bats. A pitcher has to hit spots more, change speeds, be consistent with all his pitches.”

So while this is a story with an uncertain ending, no one doubts Armstrong will develop into a top pro prospect. With the interest displayed by the scouts when he pitches on the Cape, it’s easy to believe.

He said finding a way to ignore the the increasing numbers of scouts at each start is crucial.

“I find a way to zone the scouts out,” Armstrong said. “In the past, I’ve found sometimes I throw for the scouts and end up hurting myself, not making the right pitch. During the game, there needs to be a tunnel vision between me and the glove. That’s one thing I was really happy about (against Hyannis). Because before the game I could see them walking around. You know who they are.”

The curious thing here is that all sides seem OK with what happened last spring at Vanderbilt. You might think that the older Armstrong, with his major league background, might pressure Corbin to be pitching his son more. Not so, Corbin says.

“Many parents today can be a thorn in your side,” Corbin said. “They all think their kid is the second coming of Jesus. When Jack calls, he tells me he’s thankful for his son being here and he’s pleased that we’re taking care of him. There’s little mention of baseball. He can see his son is developing in a lot of ways.”

One of those is the classroom. Armstrong hasn’t declared a major, but it will probably something in the realm of biology, marine biology or nutrition. It’s part of the reason he said he loves Vanderbilt.

“There’s more to it here than baseball. That’s why I love coach Corbin. He’s different. He seems kind of like my dad. He believes baseball teaches life lessons.

“Sometimes during the college season, when I wasn’t pitching, I’d think what if I went pro, what would be happening there? Then I’d think, things happen for a reason. I think I’m in a good place at Vanderbilt. I love my school, love my coaches. Yuh, I’m not pitching as much as I want to pitch, but I’m just going to work more and in the future things are going to work out here. Three years in a row they’ve had a top-10 pick. They know what they’re doing.”

Which is why you can believe Corbin when he says, “He’s an awesome kid. He’s been raised well. You won’t see him doing anything that doesn’t improve himself as a person. He’s very focused.”

There is one more compelling piece to this complex story. You see, Jack Armstrong, “Junior” to his dad’s many friends and acquaintances, has come to the place his dad used as a cocoon during a tough time in his life.

Armstrong Sr. pitched two years at Wareham (1985-86) before becoming a first-round pick. He lived with John and Patty Wylde, and during the summer of his sophomore year – his first in Wareham – his mother was diagnosed with the same type of liver cancer that earlier this year claimed the life of John Wylde. He has called Wylde his father figure on the Cape.

“John and Patty took me into their home as a son,” an emotional Armstrong Sr. said. “I had to fly home for my mother’s funeral. If you knew John just a little bit, you were so fortunate. As the years went by, and Jack Jr. became a prospect, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if he could play in Wareham and complete the cycle. Unfortunately, John died a few months before Junior got there.”

Jack Jr. knows the story.

“I met John Wylde once, at a showcase in Wareham when I was in high school,” Armstrong Jr. said. “I’d heard so much about him and what he did for my dad. He was like a father figure for my dad. It was a real honor to meet him. He was one of the nicest guys in the world.”

As Armstrong Jr. settles into Wareham, he’s constantly reminded of his father’s legacy.

“I haven’t found it hard. People come up to me and say they’ve seen my dad play, especially up here in Wareham. He’s a big deal up here. I know how much he’s done for me, so it’s kind of neat to hear people say it was an honor to watch him play. This is an opportunity to feel the same thing he did, the next generation coming up.”

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