May 11, 2011 at 9:28 PM
The path to the big leagues from North Dakota isn’t exactly well-worn, and Salem pitcher Tom Ebert knows that. The most recent (and most successful) of the eight North Dakota-born pitchers to reach the majors was Rick Helling, the pride of Devils Lake. But while Ebert’s not ready to become the ninth big-league pitcher from his home state just yet, the 6-foot-6 righty out of Florida International has steadily risen through the Red Sox system since being selected in the 19th round of the 2009 draft. He got off to a rough start in Lowell that year, posting an ERA of 6.00 and allowing two or more runs in all but three of his 11 games. But he broke camp in 2010 with Greenville and held his own in the South Atlantic League. Primarily as a piggyback starter, Ebert went 10-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 94 innings and earned a spot on the SoxProspects.com Postseason All-Star team. He’s had an erratic start to 2011, sandwiching a pair of games in which he allowed four runs between four impressive outings. Tom took some time after Salem’s game Tuesday in Wilmington to talk about his baseball background, his adjustment to professional ball, and his impressions of some of his teammates.
Jon Meoli: Being from North Dakota, you don’t come from as traditional of a baseball background as some of the other guys. Can you talk about what it was like growing up as a ballplayer there?
Tom Ebert: It’s not really like if you grow up in Florida, Texas, or one of those states. In high school [in those places], there’s always a chance that you’re going to get drafted. [In North Dakota], it was more about which kids are going to go to college to play. Playing pro ball isn’t a big thing. Once you make it it’s big, but it’s not like it’s really even an option. It’s one of those dream things. I remember my first year of college, my big thing was to get drafted because that was the only thing I knew out of high school. Just to be drafted was a long-term goal that didn’t seem reachable.
JM: You ended up getting a chance at Iowa Western Community College. Even though it was a junior college, was there a big difference between that and what you were used to?
TE: It seems like every single place you go, you expect that jump to be a lot more than it is. I felt like I was going to be a midweek guy, because it was a top-five JuCo at the time. I felt the competition was going to be way above me, especially coming from North Dakota, but it wasn’t that bad. I turned out to be the number two starter.
JM: After two years there, you went to Florida International University. Was that another big jump for you?
TE: Again, going to a Division 1 program, you have all these guys getting drafted from big schools, but it wasn’t that big [of a jump]. There were some things that you couldn’t get away with from the high school to junior college to a four-year, but it wasn’t that big really.
JM: At what point in your time at FIU did the draft process begin for you?
TE: In the fall, I started to get wind of it. The Red Sox area scout sat me down and we had a little meeting, but it wasn’t until the end of fall ball. It wasn’t really something that registered to me because out of high school, the Twins were looking at me and it didn’t happen. Freshman year, there were four or five teams looking at me, but I ended up having Tommy John, so that didn’t happen. I went away and sophomore year nobody knew I was coming back as quickly as I did, so [when the draft process began again] I thought it probably wouldn’t happen.
JM: Now your Tommy John Surgery was different in that it wasn’t a regular tear, right?
TE: I ripped a piece of bone off, so it started splitting the long way. Most people just blow it up and rarely will they have diagonal tears. I pitched with it from my sophomore year of high school to my freshman year in junior college. They switched some mechanics and I started throwing harder, and it kept on tearing. I think I had every single symptom of Tommy John at one point or another, from the fatigue to the numbness in different areas. I pretty much felt everything. By the end of it, I was at the Junior College World Series. In my first inning, I was throwing 91, and I remember my last fastball I threw it and it just killed. I looked back and it was a 73 MPH fastball and I thought, “Something needs to be fixed.”
JM: But ultimately, you did get drafted and were sent to Lowell. What was that first season as a professional ballplayer like for you?
TE: It was different. Just getting into the routine, it wasn’t a lot but it seemed like a lot at the time. I remember times when I just felt overwhelmed. Looking at it now, if I had just stepped back and realized it wasn’t that much of a difference [from what I was used to], I think I would have handled it better. I think that first year, just being away, I was disengaged. There were a lot of things going on that I just wasn’t ready for.
JM: Given the way you ended last season, it seems like you’ve figured that out now. How has your approach changed or improved since you arrived in the system?
TE: Well that first year, they don’t really touch you [mechanically]. They just want to see how you do things, what they can pull from and what they need to change. I think they just simplified a lot of my mechanics. In Lowell, I was hit or miss. I’d throw two or three innings and one of them I would just get blown up. I didn’t know why it was happening. But my release point was off. I had the stuff, it was just changing the mechanics and changing my mentality. Maybe I was a little afraid. I didn’t want to have that one-inning blowup, so I was trying to be perfect. I changed a lot of that. I went back to how I was thinking in high school and just throwing in the strike zone.
JM: You were used to starting for most of your career. How have you adjusted to the piggyback and relief roles you’ve seen in the system? Is your preparation any different because of it?
TE: I kind of worked everything out that year in Lowell. I closed my sophomore year in college because I couldn’t throw as many innings off the surgery, but getting into a routine is huge. I didn’t realize it was that big. I felt like you could just go down there and when your name was called, you just do it. You just turn it on. But it’s not like that. Just finding a routine, (pitching coach Kevin) Walker helped, talking to Ralph [Treuel] and finding out little things about being ready or how your mindset should be in that role has really helped.
JM: In your time so far with the Red Sox, is there anyone you’ve looked to as an example of how to go about your business or has otherwise been impressive in your eyes?
TE: [Kendal] Volz, his work ethic. The new guy, [Chris] Balcom-Miller, too. Guys like them, day-in and day-out, they come and they bring it. I don’t understand how they do it sometimes. Some days, and we’re not there yet, but the days will be coming when you just don’t want to do the work or run, and you look at them and they’re pounding it out. Just the work ethic is something I want to copy.
JM: Having had a little time to watch the hitters while you’re out in the bullpen, who’s the guy you’d least want to see standing in the batter’s box in Salem’s lineup?
TE: I’d say [Dan] Butler and [Jeremy] Hazelbaker. We’ve got three or four guys that can burn you, just go 4 for 4 on you. I’d say Butler, Hazel, and [Reynaldo] Rodriguez. He’s tough to pitch to. He stands on the plate, his hands are quick, he gets the barrel on inside pitches and fights stuff off. He’s an experienced guy. Those are the top three. I haven’t really seen [Kolbrin] Vitek too much. I didn’t face him in spring training, but how he handles the pitching and gets balls to different areas of the field, he has to be tough to pitch to.
JM: Lastly, (Salem broadcaster) Evan Lepler told me that you and your wife relocated down to Florida. Are the winters there as big of an improvement as I’d expect them to be from the ones in North Dakota?
TE: Well, we still go back, so we usually catch a couple weeks of it. Last year, we went back for ten days. The year before that, we got married so we were there for a few weeks. But those Novembers, and Januarys and Februarys [in Florida] are nice. I wish we could be with our families, but that’s the way the situation is. It’s nice, beautiful weather and it’s easy to do my throwing. Easy to do stuff like that and get ready for the season. I can see how it would be pretty tough [back home]. It was tough the ten days that I was there, I threw six of them. It was tough to get gym time or find a former coach who was available, and it’s Christmas time too, so that was tough.