MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Perfect storm: Humber focused on now

One of 23 to throw a perfect game, veteran seeking job in Padres' bullpen

Perfect storm: Humber focused on now

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ceremony doesn't count for much in baseball, at least not for an active player. Your status has to be earned, and your past accomplishments bring no guarantee of future participation.

This isn't golf, after all.

Because they won the Masters, golfers like Mike Weir and Trevor Immelman will always have a place in the Champions Locker Room at Augusta National, and until they can no longer break 85, a chance to tee it up every April.

Were baseball operated similarly, Philip Humber would have an annual victory lap coming his way. He's one of only 23 men to throw a perfect game. So what's he doing among the non-roster players in camp with the Padres, working his hardest to win a job in the bullpen?

"This is an exclusive club,'' the 33-year-old Humber said on Tuesday morning, speaking about the Major Leagues. "This is where everybody wants to be. But it's not accepting members all the time.''

For every veteran like James Shields with a $75 million contract or ascendent stud like Tyson Ross, there are scores of players on the fringe -- talented enough to get a taste of the possibilities but not consistent enough to have one of the permanent spots. The chasm between the Major Leagues and Triple-A has always been huge, but it gets deeper every time the average big league salary increases.

"I think that's one of the harder things to deal with mentally -- knowing you're so close to where you want to be but you're also so far away,'' Humber said. "Spring Training is the biggest example of that. Guys are getting sent to Triple-A every day. Triple-A's right down the hall [in the same facility], but it seems like you're 100 miles away. You're not allowed in this clubhouse anymore. You're not allowed in this training room anymore. There are just so many things that change.''

Ticketed for success after being taken with the third pick of the 2004 Draft by the Mets, Humber has accumulated a little more than three years of big league service time. The right-hander hasn't thrown a pitch in the Majors since 2013, but he is receiving serious consideration for one of at least two vacancies in San Diego's unsettled bullpen.

After spending all of 2014 at Triple-A for Oakland, Humber reluctantly signed with the Kia Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization last season.

"Going to Korea was a business decision,'' Humber said. "It was guaranteed money. As much as you want to say, 'I'm a Major League baseball player,' the checks cash the same.''

Humber traveled to Korea with his wife, Kristan, and their toddler, John, who was born 10 days after Humber's perfect game for the White Sox, thrown April 21, 2012, in Seattle. The language barrier was difficult for all three of them and Humber disappointed on the mound. He had a 6.75 ERA in 50 innings when the Lions released him in late July.

I asked Humber about the hitter-friendly nature of the KBO, which over the past two seasons has sent sluggers Jung Ho Kang and Byung Ho Park to North America, and he didn't spare himself with his answer.

"I helped 'em out with that,'' Humber said, smiling. "The whole time there wasn't easy, but I'm glad we went. Like my wife said on the airplane home, 'If we can get through that, we can get through anything.'"

Humber, who along with fellow first-round arms Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend helped Rice win the College World Series in 2002, briefly considered returning to school to finish his degree, but he decided he wasn't ready to find a new career.

Humber grew up watching his father, Greg, work 12-hour shifts for a power company in the small town of Tatum, Texas, while his grandfather, Calvin Hancock, made himself available 24/7 to the congregations of the Baptist churches where he was a pastor, and Humber knew there were times they put aside their disappointments.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity, thankful to have the talent to play baseball,'' Humber said. "I want to do it as well as I can for as long as I can. Probably the No. 1 factor in any decision I make is my family -- how am I going to support them? What's best for us? Those are the things that keep me going, that drive me.''

The Padres signed Humber after seeing him make four starts in the Dominican Republic.

"It's been a crazy last year,'' Humber said. "If you asked me six months ago if I would be standing in a big league clubhouse, I probably would have doubted you. But what a great chance. They've given me a good opportunity here, and I've really enjoyed the atmosphere created here.''

Humber had worked five scoreless innings over three appearances before being charged with three runs on Tuesday, all when the Cubs' Jason Heyward doubled off teammate Blake Smith. But it wasn't a bad day for Humber, as he warmed up in a hurry and pitched the Padres out of a jam when Ross retired only one of the eight hitters he faced in the first inning.

Mixing his low-90s fastball with a hard slider, Humber had worked 2 1/3 strong innings before the Cubs loaded the bases with two outs in the third. He retired Dexter Fowler, Heyward and Anthony Rizzo in order in one stretch, demonstrating his usefulness.

"He's been great,'' said Andy Green, the Padres' rookie manager. "He's mixed in very well. He's coming back from a tough year in Korea, [but] has pitched very well in the Major Leagues before. ... Those type of swing role guys are very valuable. His type of experience, the character he has, that figures into it. He's a tremendous person.''

Humber looked like a late bloomer back in 2012, when he put his name alongside Cy Young, Don Larsen, Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter and Randy Johnson in throwing his perfect game. He had made 26 starts for the White Sox the previous season, ranking third on the team in Wins Above Replacement, and seemed to be in the process of establishing himself by continuing that success into 2013.

Humber's perfect game

But baseball has a way to get the last laugh, and it sure did with Humber. He got pounded by the Red Sox in his first start after the perfect game, then by the Indians in early May and went on the disabled list with a sore elbow in June. Humber lost his spot in the rotation in August, a first for a pitcher in the same season in which he threw a perfect game.

Looking back, Humber wonders if he experienced a fear of success when things started going so well for him. He says he was pitching without fear when he was his best, and he lost his focus.

"Before that, I didn't have anything to lose,'' Humber said. "Then you throw a perfect game, and that season would have been [my first year of salary-arbitration eligibility]. You start thinking that finally after all the ups and downs, I'm going to be a Major League pitcher, and I think I started to try and grab that. Any time something would go wrong, instead of just saying, 'That was a bad game, but I know I'm good.' Probably in my own mind, I didn't handle things right. I know I didn't. If I could go back, I would change the way I approached the games. I was just anxious about it. At the same time, baseball's hard. Even if I had the perfect mindset, maybe it wouldn't have mattered.''

In the Humber home in Texas, there's a plastic storage box filled with souvenirs from the perfect game -- the lineup card, the jersey he wore, his spikes, some game balls and even all the unused balls that were rubbed up beforehand. There's nothing displayed in a trophy case or on a wall, in public view.

"I don't think I'll do that until I'm done playing,'' Humber said. "Pretty much every day, on a new team, somebody will mention the perfect game. I'm fine with that. But it's not something I think about. It already happened. That would be like me picking out a game from August of that year where I gave up eight earned runs in an inning. It's the past, man. It's a moment in time.''

Humber says there will be a time when it's fun to look back on the perfect game.

"But right now, I'm trying to think about today and tomorrow and what's going to happen then,'' he said. "Who knows? I might throw another one.''

Humber was kidding. Wasn't he?

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.