Publication date: 03-15-2006

Season of grief now behind Shackelford
By Marc Lancaster / Post staff reporter

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Brian Shackelford doesn't remember the exact date last March that his younger brother, Craig, committed suicide.

"That's something I chose to forget," he said.

There's no handbook for moving on from the death of your only sibling, especially under such gut-wrenching circumstances. Shackelford believes his brother took his own life largely because he was unable to come to grips with the death of their mother, Rhonda, from cancer nearly 2 years earlier.

Is there such a thing as too much grieving? Too little? Shackelford isn't sure.

"Not a whole lot of people have been through something like that, so you don't really know how you're going to react to it," said the Reds reliever. "I feel like I'm about as tough on things like that as you can be. There are different ways people deal with it, I guess. I might be one of the guys that's just kind of got to put it behind them, I don't know. It's hard to explain how you deal with it. You don't want to linger too long on it, but you always think about it."

Shackelford, 29, has relied mostly on his gut since he got that unthinkable news last spring. He left Reds camp and went home to McAlester, Okla., to be with his father, Jerry, for a few weeks, providing all the support he could even as he tried to sort out for himself everything his family had endured.

He probably came back too soon, returning to Sarasota early last April for extended spring training, but he needed to find an outlet somewhere, and baseball was it - even if it might not have appeared that way at first.

Shackelford had been an early cut in big-league camp but had settled in with the minor leaguers earmarked to start the year at Class AAA Louisville. By the time he returned, in need of some fine-tuning to make up for the time he had lost, the minor league season already had started. Rather than falling back into some badly needed camaraderie, Shackelford felt as alone as he ever had at a ballpark.

"You don't know any of those guys," he said, "and they're scared to look you in the eye and talk to you."

He just wanted to move on. It wasn't too long before he convinced the Reds, probably prematurely, that he was ready to join Louisville and get his season going. Finally back in a comfortable environment, Shackelford concentrated on doing his job, but he found he couldn't wipe everything away just by being back on the mound.

Coming off a 2004 season that had established him as a legitimate prospect in the bullpen, Shackelford was hit hard during the first half of 2005. He went 1-6 with a 5.23 ERA in 31 appearances, and those that only saw a stat sheet and didn't know the backstory wondered what had happened.

Those numbers prompted more than a few raised eyebrows when the Reds decided to promote him to the majors last June 26 after Randy Keisler went on the disabled list, but it didn't take Shackelford long to demonstrate that he had found at least a temporary haven from everything that weighed on him throughout the spring.

"The way I looked at last year was, every time I went out there, I'd do whatever job I was out there for - if I was in there to get one guy out or eat up an inning, whatever it was," said Shackelford.

As manager Jerry Narron grew more comfortable with Shackelford, the importance of his role increased. He became a reliable specialist the Reds could throw at left-handed hitters earlier in games, saving Kent Mercker for the eighth inning and beyond.

Opposing batters hit just .204 against Shackelford in 37 major league appearances last year, all but five of which ended with no runs allowed by the lefty. Of the 16 baserunners Shackelford inherited, just three came in to score.

"He did a great job for us last year," said Narron. "The thing I love about Shack is he likes to compete, he loves being out there."

That describes Shackelford to the core. A former punter at Oklahoma University, he began his baseball career as an outfielder and first baseman in the Kansas City Royals system. He never hit his way to prospect status doing that job, collecting a .241 career average in 549 minor league games, but when the Royals talked him into becoming a pitcher during the 2002 season, he took off.

The Reds acquired him a year later, and he has established himself as a pitcher that will be difficult to keep out of the Opening Day bullpen, as tight as the competition for jobs there might be.

The Reds' decision to sign veteran lefty specialist Chris Hammond in December didn't do Shackelford any favors, but the younger pitcher has done his job in five spring training appearances so far. A quick, scoreless inning Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox lowered Shackelford's Grapefruit League ERA to 1.50 - one earned run allowed in six innings.

Shackelford is too accustomed to grinding it out to get too excited about anything at this stage in camp - "I've never made it past the first cut before," he said with a laugh - but he also has no inclination to let even the smallest failing on the baseball field grind him down. One of the most unassuming guys in the Reds' clubhouse, Shackelford has never seemed the type to let the game define him.

He can laugh away just about anything, but there are limits. That's what made last fall so difficult.

"When I went home, there's stuff you've got to deal with, there's no way around it," said Shackelford. "I'm around 25 guys (in the clubhouse) all year, so that kind of let me get away from it for a little bit. But going home in October was hard for me because it was the first time I'd been back in the house since it happened. It took a while to get used to it."

Shackelford's first priority from the beginning, he said, was maintaining closer ties with his father. The two talk every day now, and that's how the son wants it to be. Shackelford said he can tell from the way his dad sounds that he's getting better, but he knows this time of year will be difficult to navigate.

As tough as Shackelford has tried to be throughout the past year, he'll do everything he can to reach out to his dad now, no matter how long it takes.

"I know this is going to be a hard time at home for him," he said. "I'm going to stay on top of that. That's my main concern, to make sure he's OK."