By Rob Rains
Of all the trophies, medals, plaques and other awards Jack Flaherty has won playing baseball, there is only one which is visible in his family’s home in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
It’s the first trophy he ever won, when he was 7 years old, and sits on a shelf in his bedroom.
The trophy wasn’t even for an individual accomplishment; it was presented to the Sherman Oaks All-Stars for winning a tournament.
“We were just a bunch of kids from Sherman Oaks,” Flaherty said. “We didn’t have a name; we were just Sherman Oaks Little League. We wore T shirts with numbers printed on the back. I closed the game out, pitching the last few innings.
“It’s cool that I’m still close with four or five guys on that team. My mom tells the story about when they opened the boxes with the trophies the look on our faces was just priceless. We were just a bunch of little kids and to us the trophies were huge. It was gold and shiny and just one of those things you never want to forget.
“It was the first one, it was special, and that’s why it stays out.”
Says his mother, Elieen, “That’s the story of Jack Flaherty. He’s just really humble.”
The presence of the trophy in his bedroom also illustrates that to Flaherty, who along with his younger brother Grady was raised by their single mother, baseball when he was growing up was just a part of his life – but it was not his life.
“Baseball to us had always just been baseball,” Flaherty said. “It was just a game.”
Neither Flaherty nor his mother had any idea back then of what was to come, and how his life would change, as he continued to play the game because it was fun.
“After games it was just a hug and a kiss,” Eileen Flaherty said. “We would get home and it would just be ‘great game, by the way go get your homework or your chores done.’ We didn’t spend hours talking about the game.”
Said Flaherty, “I don’t know when it all clicked that any of this was a possibility.”
The game becomes more serious
Fourteen years after he won that trophy, baseball is a lot more serious for the 21-year-old Flaherty. His status as one of the Cardinals’ best prospects is reflected by his selection to represent the organization in the Futures Game on Sunday, part of the All-Star game festivities in Miami.
“It’s a really cool opportunity and something I don’t think will really sink in until I get there and get the chance to go through it,” Flaherty said. “A buddy of mine (Lucas Giolito, his high school teammate) was able to do it twice. Watching him I thought if I ever get the opportunity to do it I would absolutely love it. I’m looking forward to it.”
This will be the third time Flaherty will have the chance to pitch in a major-league stadium. The first two times came in Dodger Stadium, once as part of a tryout for Team USA and the other in a high school championship game when he was a junior at Harvard-Westlake High School.
That game, when Flaherty allowed just six hits and won 1-0, was part of a string of wins that saw Flaherty go 23-0 during his final two years in high school. The win gave Harvard-Westlake the southern California championship and also a national title, based on the team’s overall ranking.
It remains, four years later, the best memory Eileen Flaherty has of watching her son playing baseball.
“After the last out, he threw his glove high in the air and there was a huge dog-pile on the mound,” she said. “Everybody was crying. Some of these boys had been together since Little League and ironically went to the same high school.”
Flaherty knows why it was such a special moment for his mother, part of the bond between mother and son.
“She knew how close our team was and I think her favorite moment actually came after the game,” Flaherty said. “Every time she was at my game, after the game I would go over and give her a hug. She was trying to push her way down through the stands toward the field and security wouldn’t let her. I had to go into the stands to give her a hug.”
It was performances such as in that game and others during his senior year which prompted the Cardinals to use a first-round draft pick on Flaherty in 2014, a reality neither mother nor son expected. Up until the moment when the Cardinals announced his name as the 34th pick in the country Flaherty was planning to go to the University of North Carolina. He had a plane ticket in hand and was enrolled in summer school classes beginning in two weeks.
“I honestly didn’t realize until Jack was in high school how truly blessed and talented he was athletically,” Eileen Flaherty said. “He was very intelligent and always made very good grades. He was a sophomore when the coach told us he was getting calls from college coaches, and my response was to tell them to go away. He was 15 at the time, leave us alone. That’s kind of when it began.
“The draft was the night before he graduated from high school and his brother was graduating from eighth grade. We didn’t think he was going to get drafted that high. The television was on and I heard it in the background while I was talking with one of his friends. It was like everything was in slow motion. I looked at the television and there was my son. Everybody had a delayed reaction. Very honestly we were not prepared. We thought he was going to get drafted but we were completely shocked he got drafted in the first round.”
Instead of heading to North Carolina, Flaherty was on a plane to St. Louis a few days later to sign his contract, then off to Florida to begin his career in the Gulf Coast League. One of the pictures in Eileen Flaherty’s office at NBC Universal, where she has worked in corporate finance for 24 years, is of her son’s first pitch as a professional baseball player.
Flaherty moved steadily through the lower levels of the minor leagues as his career began, reflecting both his ability and his age. Still, the thought he could do better led to a decision last winter to try to make that happen.
Going back to high school
Part of the reason Flaherty believes he was chosen to pitch in the Futures Game is because of his success this season, beginning with Double A Springfield and continuing at Triple A Memphis. That success has come after some changes in his approach to pitching he made last winter.
He wanted to get back to being the type of pitcher he was in high school; the reason the Cardinals drafted him in the first place.
“It’s one of those things where everybody is trying to help you get better when you get in pro ball,” Flaherty said. “You’ve got to be able to take what works for you and what doesn’t and not just say yes to everything. I wanted to get back to doing what I do best and really just simplify everything.
“Mentally I wanted to go back to pitching how I pitched versus trying to do a bunch of other things.”
There were times the last couple of seasons when Flaherty did not think he was aggressive enough on the mound, and was not attacking hitters, and he thought he was not pitching as well as he could because he had gotten away from doing that.
“If you make a mistake and they (hitters) do what they’re supposed to do with it, then hats off to them,” Flaherty said. “I’ve just been trying to go out there and work quickly and get ahead of hitters and pitch my game. I want to try to be my best coach and be able to make the adjustments myself before somebody else tells me what they are.”
To do that, Flaherty enlisted the help of his pitching coach from high school, Ethan Katz, who is now the Double A pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners affiliate, the Arkansas Travelers.
Katz first worked with Flaherty when he was a freshman in high school, and that direct connection lasted through Flaherty’s junior year before Katz took a job in the Angels organization prior to going to work for the Mariners.
He has remained in touch and has monitored Flaherty over the years, in part because he was with teams in the same leagues as Flaherty when he pitched for Peoria and for the first part of this season with Springfield. In three games against the Travelers, Flaherty allowed a total of three runs in 17 innings.
Katz was not surprised.
“I saw a kid with a very high potential with a very, very high baseball IQ as a freshman,” Katz said. “He had the feel of pitching as a freshman and pitched big games and fit right in with high level varsity games. He was very advanced from a young age.
“He had barely been at the high school for about 2 months when we had a fall practice game. A team tried to squeeze on him and on his own he elevated the fastball to see if the kid would bunt it up in the air. That’s kind of how he thinks. He’s really ahead of the curve. His baseball IQ is one of the best I’ve ever been around.”
What Katz tried to help Flaherty with last winter was just to remind him of what he needed to do to be successful.
“We were focusing on the stuff we focused on in high school,” Katz said, “getting him to make the quality pitches he can, attacking, understanding what a good quality pitch is and where he wants the pitch to go in certain counts … use his four pitches to his advantage.
“He’s had that ability … we were just getting back to doing the small things with intent, a higher sense of focus on the details. He’s always been very focused with everything and driven.”
In 10 games for Springfield, Flaherty was 7-2 with a 1.43 ERA, recording 62 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings while walking only 11. By the end of May, the Cardinals knew he had nothing left to prove at the Double A level.
One thing that has not changed about Flaherty is his calm demeanor. When he got the news that he was being promoted to Memphis, he sent his mom a late-night six-word text message: “Leaving for Memphis in the morning.”
“I knew what that meant, but that was typical Jack,” Eileen Flaherty said. “Even as a very young child he has always been a reflector and an observer. He’s always been very humble. I’ve always been that mom at the game who has always cheered for everybody. When he got promoted I was like, ‘What about the other boys?’”
Those teammates will no doubt miss the care packages of homemade baked goods Eileen Flaherty has sent to them when they are on the road.
While she had a typical mother’s reaction to her son’s promotion to Memphis – and to his subsequent selection for the Futures Game – Flaherty took the news in stride.
Flaherty admits he has never been one to show a lot of emotion, having the ability to almost detach himself from whatever situation he is in.
“I’ve always been kind of quiet, mellow, and never get too high or too low,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m able to enjoy it and take it in for what it’s worth. I’m not the most out-there kind of person. I might get excited for a little bit, but I still enjoy all of the experiences. Some people tend to show their excitement a little more. I tend to show it just a little bit less; not for any particular reason, that’s just how I am.”
Flaherty knew how his mom would react to the news and he was happy he could share it with her. He actually called to tell her about the Futures Game, knowing she was planning on being in Nashville that day, when Memphis was playing there, because Grady – who will be a senior in high school this fall – was going to be visiting Vanderbilt.
She was walking on a busy street in Los Angeles at the time.
“I was like, ‘OK I can’t freak out, I can’t start crying,’” Eileen Flaherty said.
“She is the strongest person I know,” Flaherty said. “She’s always been everything for me and my brother. We have a very good relationship. She is unbelievable and has always been there for me.”
Eileen Flaherty watches all of her son’s games that she can’t attend in person. She will be in Miami on Sunday for the Futures Game.
Following the game on Sunday, Flaherty is expected to return to the Memphis rotation. He knows what he needs to keep working on to be ready when the next promotion comes – the one that will bring him to the Cardinals and the major leagues.
“The big difference from Double A to Triple A is guys seem to take more advantage of mistakes,” Flaherty said. “They (mistake pitches) don’t get missed as often. My best game was when I was able to go out and attack the zone and get ahead of guys. When I’ve fallen behind and gotten into hitter’s counts and am not able to throw my off-speed pitches for strikes, they are able to do damage with it. Guys are more patient and are smarter hitters.
“I just need to improve my consistency. I think that’s what you see out of the best pitchers in baseball. For me I have to be able to change speeds and throw my off-speed pitches for strikes and really locate the ball. I’m not going to be a guy like (Alex) Reyes who can throw the ball by everybody. I have to pitch my game. I am going to continue to work hard refining what I do.”
One person who sees Flaherty doing exactly that is Memphis pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd.
“One of the things I know he does really well is his preparation between starts, especially for his age,” Eversgerd said. “He’s just continuing to hone his skills. It’s impressive how he goes about things for as young as he is. It’s great to see.”
Flaherty has made six starts for Memphis, going 1-1, with four no-decisions as he has come out of some starts early as the team tries to limit his pitch count.
Another trophy on the shelf?
Flaherty is on track to reach the major leagues by next year if not later this season. When that happens, it’s possible he could one day win another trophy or two.
Will it be meaningful enough to join that trophy from the Sherman Oaks All-Stars on display in his room, or will it be like the trophy he won for being named the Gatorade high school player of the year in California? That one is still in the box, stored on a shelf in his closet.
“That’s the story of Jack,” Eileen Flaherty said. “The trophy that is still present in the home is the one he won when he was 7 years old. We have all the others, but they are not out on display. He just doesn’t want the home to be all about him. He’s a really good boy and a great big brother, and he always has been.”
Said Flaherty, “It’s our home. It’s not a place to show off all your stuff. Pictures hanging around can lead to stories but I don’t want it to be the first thing people see or ask about.”
Flaherty might make an exception about one picture, taken this spring in Jupiter, Fla., and yes, it leads to a story.
When Flaherty told his mother last winter that he had been invited to the Cardinals’ big-league camp for spring training, she expressed her hope that he would get a chance to throw to catcher Yadier Molina.
For the first few times he threw bullpen sessions, he told his mom he had been assigned to another catcher and had not had a chance to work with Molina.
She was at work one day when her phone buzzed, indicating she had a new message. It was actually a picture, from her son – showing him standing next to Molina after his first time throwing to the All-Star catcher.
She responded immediately. “I love Yadi, and oh yeah, I love you too Jack.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains