ARLINGTON, Texas — The telephone rang Wednesday evening. They called out his name. He uncoiled his 6-5 body from the chair, and it was time to go to work.
The phone rings often for him these days, but it's not those early-morning wake-up calls in the dead of winter in Minnesota anymore.
Gone are the days of grabbing a toolbox and hoping his car would start, then going to do roofing, lay carpet or gut bathrooms. Nowadays, he only needs a glove.
Nick Anderson, who gazed into the crowd earlier in the day at Globe Life Field, knowing his parents and sisters were sitting somewhere in the stands, started to warm up in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen in the fifth inning of Game 2 of the World Series.
With Los Angeles Dodgers fans screaming and trying to rattle him, Anderson took the mound for his first World Series game, facing slugger Justin Turner in a key spot with two runners on base.
"Come on," he said to himself, "You really think this is pressure?"
Ball 1. Ball 2. He walked around the mound, exhaled and decided to go with the best he’s got, his four-seam fastball. He threw a 95.7-mph fastball that Tuner swung at and missed. Came back with a 94.4-mph fastball that was fouled back. And then a 95.5-mph fastball that Turner missed again
Strike 3. Inning over. Soon, game over, 6-4.
The winning pitcher: Anderson.
“I know people think I would be nervous,’’ Anderson said, “but to tell you the truth, I was calm.
Nick Anderson had a 0.55 ERA 19 games with six saves in the regular season. (Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports)
'A wild ride'
Pressure is sleeping on an air mattress at your buddy’s house, working eight hours a day in Brainerd, Minnesota, as a home remodeler, then going through rigorous workouts at night in pursuit of your dream.
Pressure is having to report to your probation officer to get permission every time you need to cross the state line to play a summer baseball game.
Pressure is pitching your heart out and making $600 each month in an independent baseball league, praying someone notices, and if they do, pardons your past.
Pitching in the World Series, with finally enough money to move out of your mom’s house, and even buy your own car? Sorry, that isn't pressure.
“It’s a little crazy when you think about it,’’ Anderson told USA TODAY Sports in a telephone interview from his hotel. “It’s been a wild ride to get here. And believe me, there were a lot of rough spots.
“But I never gave up. I never quit. I really believed one day I would get here.
“I just didn’t know it would take the crazy path it did.’’
This is a man with a DWI conviction and felony assault charge while in college for which he received seven years probation. He pitched three years in independent leagues, a summer in an amateur league, four more years in the minors, was signed by his hometown team, traded twice in nine months, only to become one of the game's best relievers.
Anderson has been a lifesaver for the Rays this year. He was nothing short of phenomenal in the regular season, yielding a 0.55 ERA and .091 batting average. He gave up only five hits the entire season, striking out 26 in 16⅓ innings.
“He’s been as good as any reliever in baseball from the day we acquired him," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Nick is invaluable to us.’’
The only thing greater is the story of how he got here.
And here, at Globe Life Field with Anderson, were his dad, Russ, an airbrush painter in Brainerd and a die-hard Kent Hrbek fan; mom, Barb, a supervisor at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and a Kirby Puckett fan; sister, Alyssa, a server at a country bar in Bloomington; and Matt Gaeta, his agent from New York.
They spent an hour talking about Anderson’s childhood, his perseverance and his refusal to give up on his dream.
“That’s all he ever wanted to do growing up,’’ said Russ Anderson, “was to be a major league pitcher. Kids around here love hockey. Nick loved baseball. Nick was doing a high school video on how to throw different pitches. I was catching, he threw a changeup to me, it hit my left knee, and it crippled me pretty good. I never caught him again.’’
Said Barb: “At the age of 13, he was already throwing hard. I remember one of the umps for Nick’s game, Mike Brown, we went to church with. He told me one day, 'You better pray for me, because if I get hit by one of Nick’s fastballs, I’m going to get hurt.' "
Classes were about to start for Anderson's senior year at St. Cloud State University on Aug. 13, 2011, when he went out with a few buddies to a local bar.
At about 1 a.m., Anderson's cellphone rang, with one of his old roommates on the line. A fight had broken out in the house, and they needed help.
Anderson, 205 pounds, was the type of guy you wanted on your side. He put down his beer, hustled over to the house and found himself in the middle of a college brawl.
He jumped in the mix and grabbed a baseball bat when he saw someone holding a knife. He was shoved, knocked off-balance, and struck a student over the head with the bat.
Anderson was charged with second degree assault with a dangerous weapon and spent eight days in jail. He eventually received seven years probation and was ordered to pay restitution for the injuries, take anger-management classes and attend an Alcoholics Anonymous program.
“It didn’t start with me,’’ he said, “but I got the worst end of the stick."
Anderson transferred to Mayville State University, an NAIA school in North Dakota, where he went 5-2 with a 1.95 ERA his senior year. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 32nd round.
Only he never heard from the Brewers.
They found out about his arrests and lost interest.
So did everyone else in baseball.
“That was a life-changer,’’ said Anderson, whose probation was reduced and ended after three years in 2014. “It makes you grow up. It makes you reflect on life. It takes years for people to overlook those things and trust you again.
“I wish that had never happened, but if it didn’t, I don’t know where I’d be right now.’’
Nick Belmonte, a Chicago Cubs scout who runs the Indy Pro Showcase and lives in Tampa, Florida, remembers the date, Feb. 15, 2015, the first time he laid eyes on Anderson..
“This tall lanky kid strolls in from Brainerd, Minnesota, and he hasn’t played in a year,’’ Menhart says. “It’s February. He comes out and he’s throwing 92-94 mph. I said, 'Whoa, what’s this all about?' I asked him, 'Where have you been? Why didn’t you play last year?' He tells me his story about those incidents but that he learned from it.
“I called up Vinny Ganz, who was the manager of the Frontier Greys, a traveling team in the (independent) Frontier League. I told him, 'You’ve got to see this kid.’ He signed him that day.
“I mean, here’s a kid that is out of baseball, rolls into camp, and is now one of the elite pitchers in baseball. You talk about an amazing journey.’’
Billy Milos, the Minnesota Twins scout who spent three months trying to persuade his team to finally sign Anderson, talks about his hour-long, heart-to-heart chats that frequently lasted into the wee hours of the morning and his belief and faith in Anderson as a person.
“I worked harder to sign him than any player in my career,’’ said Milos, who discovered Anderson with the help of veteran scout Bill Bryk. “I was pounding the table for this kid. I kept fighting and fighting and fighting for him.
“It was tough to get past the battery charge that was on his record, but it took three months to get to know who he was and what he was about. You saw the drive in him. I mean, he has no money. He’s working manual labor jobs just so he could train and take care of himself with hopes he can make it.
“The odds were so stacked against him, but I knew he could do this. I’d be lying if I said he’d be this good, and have one of the best arms in the game, but I’m not surprised he’d have success in the big leagues.’’
'The path meant to be'
It would be easy for Anderson to be bitter, wasting years of pitching development in independent ball.
Sure, he didn’t have the knee-buckling curveball in his arsenal until developing it at the age of 27. He didn’t always have the pinpoint control, commanding the upper part of the strike zone, Cash said, as well as any pitcher in baseball.
Yet, when you have a 2.25 ERA and 232 strikeouts in 183⅔ minor league innings from 2015-18 and still aren’t called up, you wonder if you’ll ever get a chance.
Anderson, considered too old to be a prospect, was finally given an opportunity when the Twins traded him to the Miami Marlins in November 2018.
The Marlins gave him his first taste of the majors in 2019 but dealt him to the Rays at the deadline in July.
“Stuff happens. I never got mad; I just kept waiting for my chance,’’ said Anderson, who struck out 15.2 per nine innings in 2019. “I don’t know how much of an impact those incidents had, but I definitely think it took a few years of a good track record for people to overlook those things. What do they say, 'time heals old wounds?'
“I think everything happens for a reason. I mean, what if I had gotten drafted out of high school and made it earlier, who knows what would have happened? You put a lot of money in a young man’s hands, you could have trouble. I don’t know if I could have handled it.
“In a way, this was the path meant to be.’’
Anderson’s phone is buzzing nonstop these days. He’s hearing from old high school classmates who wonder if he’d be interested in joining their summer softball leagues when his career ends. Former teammates from the Tri-City Shark, the Rockford RiverHawks and the Frontier Greys are calling to offer congratulations, proud to see one of their own make it.
Sorry, there’s no time to call back. When the season ends, he simply wants to exhale. He’ll travel back to Minnesota to see family and friends. He’ll stop by his sister’s restaurant to drop off a Rays jersey. But no, he doesn’t want to go back to Costco with his dad, where he once worked. He’ll help out on home repairs, if needed. And yes, he plans to bring back some souvenirs too.
“We don’t even have any Rays jerseys yet,’’ Barb Anderson said. “We had just bought some Miami ones, and he got traded. So, we decided to go ahead and wait.’’
Nick Anderson's father, sister, mother and agent at Globe Life Field for the World Series. (Photo: Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports)
Anderson, who is making the most money he has ever earned in his life – $768,000 over the past two seasons – laughs, saying he can afford to spring for some early Christmas presents. But really, he can’t wait for normalcy again: leaving the bubble life, and hugging his parents and sister again.
He just hopes the new normal begins with his eyes burning from a champagne celebration, in a wild World Series celebration party.
“I ain’t holding back, we’re spraying champagne,’’ Anderson.
"It’s been a long time coming. A real long time.’’
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