It’s a hot, September afternoon in San Marino, but Bob Drew finds refuge from the sun as he relaxes on a shaded bench near the entrance of the Crowell Public Library. A few hundred feet away sits Michael Nesbit Field, the longtime home of District 17’s San Marino National Little League. Drew spent 15 years coaching young players there during the late 80s through the early 2000s, including a lanky 11-year-old pitcher named Jared Hughes.
“Jared was clearly one of the outstanding players,” says Drew, who remains on the district board. “I wouldn’t say he was the best player I saw, but he’d be in the top 10 or top 15.”
Although Hughes may not have been a little-league legend back then, the kid was good.
And he only got better.
While Drew reminisces with a smile on his face, Hughes, now 30, prepares to make his annual return to Southern California as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates when they invade Dodger Stadium later that night.
“I don’t think anybody said he’s guaranteed to make the major leagues,” Drew recalls. “There’s so much that happens between little league and high school and college.”
Hughes was born in Stamford, Conn. two years before his father’s bank job transferred the family across the country to San Marino. He attended San Marino Community Church Nursery School followed by Valentine Elementary School and then Huntington Middle School for the 6th grade.
“I remember riding my bike around the circle in Lacy Park,” Hughes says while sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Chavez Ravine a few hours before the second game of a weekend series against the Dodgers. “Boy Scouts was at Lacy Park as well. I would bike down Monterey Road and go to Lacy Park and spend most of my time over there.”
Hughes participated in San Marino National Little League from tee-ball to majors, a division for players 11 and 12 years old. Hughes, though, was 10 when he reached that level. Some of his fondest memories include the contests between him and his friends to see who could swat home runs to the “Short Stop” snack stand well beyond the outfield wall.
“No one would hit it that far,” Hughes admits now.
Each year, Drew would coach both a personal team as well as an all-star squad comprised of the best players from around the league. Hughes landed on Drew’s Cubs for the 1996 season.
“He probably has one of the greatest baseball mentalities I’ve ever been around,” Hughes says of his former coach. “He would fit right in at the major-league level in that sense. He totally understands the game. He’s a very smart baseball guy. But he also understands how the game should be played and it should be played with fun.”
The pair continued their partnership later that summer when Hughes was selected to the San Marino all-star team that wound up capturing the tournament championship for District 17 — which includes leagues from Pasadena, Altadena, Arcadia and Sierra Madre.
“[Drew] was a major influence on my career,” Hughes says. “My dad taught me the game and he got me into it, but Coach Bob was a major influence in my game. In a time in life where as an awkward kid — I was tall, goofy, I was good but I wasn’t great and I was trying to kind of find my place — playing on Coach Bob’s team made it very comfortable to play the game of baseball. He helped me develop my passion for the game and he’s a big reason why I am where I am now.”
Where Hughes is now is atop a notable leaderboard at the game’s highest level. As a relief pitcher for the Pirates, he is a key cog in a bullpen that boasts the best earned run average in Major League Baseball. He doesn’t pitch every day, but on occasions when he is called upon, it’s usually to protect a slim lead in the late innings. The MLB quantifies success in these high-leverage situations with a statistic called a hold. Hughes’ 22 holds so far this season rank 10th in the league and they are a big reason why Pittsburgh is headed to the playoffs for a third straight year.
“When your team is succeeding, it’s a great feeling,” Hughes says. “It just makes you want to succeed more. The relationships I’ve made with the other guys on our team is something that’s truly special. We’re all friends down in the bullpen… We call ourselves the ‘Shark Tank’ down there. It’s this really close-knit group of guys that just want to go in there and compete. If another guy needs to come get your back, that guy’s going to come in and get your back.”
This type of supportive philosophy resonates with former Flintridge Prep athletic director Alex Rivera, who remembers Hughes from the brief time he spent at the La Cañada Flintridge school during 7th and 8th grade. Back then, Hughes was still experimenting with other sports besides baseball. Basketball seemed like a natural fit because of his burgeoning height. Hughes now stands 6-foot-7.
“Jared played center and power forward as he was one of the tallest athletes on the team,” Rivera, his middle school hoops coach at Flintridge Prep, wrote in an email. “He had a sweet turnaround jump shot from the post and a good mid-range shot from wing spot. Like most kids his age, I’m sure he would have liked to play away from the post, but he always did what was best for the team. It was a big loss losing Jared at Prep, not because he was a great athlete but because his heart [was set] on helping and giving back to others to make them better.”
Hughes transferred to Rancho Santa Margarita High School for the 9th grade because his family had moved to Orange County, the midpoint between his father’s job in Los Angeles and his mother’s workplace in San Diego. Hughes later enrolled at Santa Clara University before finishing his collegiate career at Long Beach State for baseball reasons. Although he only spent two years at Flintridge Prep, Hughes hasn’t forgotten how the school shaped him as a person — or the embarrassing time he scored a layup on the opposing team’s basket while playing for Rivera.
“I just remember it being really difficult academically,” Hughes says. “But the San Marino schooling and going to Flintridge Prep really helped me out in high school and then it helped me out in college. I was able to get into Santa Clara and I mean it really — along with baseball — made me realize that I need to get good grades in order to keep being able to go on the field and play baseball at higher levels.”
Growing up in San Marino, Hughes regularly attended Dodger games. He leans forward and points down the right field line, toward the visitors bullpen where he’ll spend the majority of tonight’s game waiting for a potential summons.
“We had partial season tickets and I’d sit in the field level toward the walking area up there,” he says.
Hughes’ father, Bill, watched just about every pitch Jared threw during his San Marino days. He would bring a folding chair and post up directly behind the backstop in order to get as close to the action as possible. When they went to Dodger games together, Bill looked out toward the perfectly manicured grass and gave his young son words of encouragement.
“He’d say ‘Jared, if you keep working hard and believe in yourself, you could be out there someday,’” remembers Hughes. “It was just so special. I came back here for the first time in 2011 [with the Pirates] and running out on the field out of the bullpen, it all came to fruition in that sense where he was right. I was able to play on the field where I grew up watching baseball. I definitely skipped school at Valentine a few times to come to Dodger games.”
Nowadays, friends and family come to Dodger Stadium to watch Hughes whenever the Pirates are in town. He usually leaves tickets for 12 to 15 people, and others sometimes just show up to the ballpark to reconnect with their childhood buddy.
“Friends that I grew up with will just kind of come out or come down to the bullpen and they’ll yell at me like, ‘Jared! Do you remember me, man?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Well, we haven’t kept in touch but I definitely remember you,’” Hughes says with a laugh. “They’re guys from all over the place. I’ve had people from Flintridge Prep, Huntington Middle School, Valentine. Everybody kind of reached out and I’ve seen a bunch of them at the Dodger games.”
Drew won’t end up making it to the stadium to see Hughes this particular weekend because he doesn’t want to leave his dog at home alone in the sweltering heat. This dog has taken the place of Buck, Drew’s old pet who was once a fixture at San Marino National Little League practices. When Buck died, Drew’s team at the time helped spread the dog’s ashes throughout the baseball diamond.
“Buck would be running around the field and [Drew would] be hitting us ground balls and we’d be practicing,” Hughes says. “Buck was like the ultimate baseball dog and Bob was the ultimate baseball coach. It was a great way to start my young career.”
Hughes’ professional career took off when the Pirates selected him out of Long Beach State in the fourth round of the 2006 draft. He and his future wife — the couple now lives in Plano, Texas, during the offseason — were following the proceedings on a computer at his parents’ house in Laguna Niguel when Pittsburgh called and his name appeared on the screen.
“We were excited because the Pirates were an organization where I was going to have an opportunity because they were in the middle of a rough period,” Hughes recalls. “So I thought ‘Hey, I could definitely come to this organization and help out.’ It was a great day and I didn’t have to change colors because Long Beach State was black and yellow.”
Hughes had been a starting pitcher in college, but struggled with that job while bouncing around the lower levels of Pittsburgh’s minor-league system for five years. The Pirates decided to convert Hughes to a reliever full-time in 2011, and one of his catchers suggested he change his approach on the mound. Instead of trying to conserve energy as a starter might, the teammate encouraged Hughes to give everything he had for the one inning per game he would work as a reliever.
“I started doing that,” says Hughes. “I just started going crazy. I’d sprint in, I’d grunt when I threw. That aggressive intensity with not pacing myself was a reliever’s mindset. It helped me out a ton. I turned into a completely different pitcher. My sinker moved more, my fastball was faster and I got called up to the majors at the end of that year.”
Hughes hasn’t been back down to the minors since.
The five-year veteran owns a pristine 2.80 earned run average for his career and the past two seasons have been statistically his best as a pro. Hughes’ recent run of consistent resourcefulness will likely equate to a bump in his $1,075,000 salary. Per MLB rules, he is eligible to renegotiate the terms of his contract with Pittsburgh this winter.
“There’s a guy who turned things around for himself because he had some tough times in the minor leagues and then all of a sudden, bingo, man. He got that sinker going and success breeds confidence,” says Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage while leaning against the dugout’s padded railing. “… He believes in himself and we just got to keep him in line when he gets offline every now and then. But he is definitely a competitor with capital letters all the way through.”
Searage, who pitched seven years in the majors once upon a time, first worked with Hughes during the Arizona Fall League in 2008. Hughes has come a long way since then, not only on the mound, but also with his off-field antics. Searage credits Hughes with possessing the best robot impression on the roster.
“It’s almost like looking at the Terminator or something,” says Searage. “It’s really good and I think he’s going to have a voice for announcing later on.”
While Searage likens the trusty relief pitcher to a menacing movie character, someone else on the team who spends even more time with Hughes has a different nickname for him.
“I call him the ‘caballero’ in Spanish. It means gentleman,” says Pirates bullpen coach Euclides Rojas following an instructional session with some of Pittsburgh’s relievers before the game. “He’s always willing to help anybody and always willing to serve the people. That’s something that really makes him a great part of the bullpen and great part of the team. He’s a great teammate. He’s a great human being. But more than anything, he’s a true gentleman and I really appreciate that.”
Drew, 74, believes that MLB players make too much money. This year, the average individual salary on Opening Day broke the $4 million barrier for the first time ever, according to a study of all major-league contracts by The Associated Press. It’s why the old coach’s fascination with the professional game has steadily diminished over the years — save for a certain exception.
“When I get the sports page,” says Drew, “there’s only one thing I’m interested in: Did the Pirates play and did Jared pitch?”
Chances are Drew will find Hughes’ name in the morning box score more often than not. The Pirates’ iron man has appeared in 73 games this season, tied for fifth-most in the league among hurlers.
“I’m just so happy for him,” says Drew, his voice trailing off into a moment of nostalgic silence. “It’s talent that found a good receptor in Jared Hughes. He was a wonderful kid and I’m sure he’s a wonderful man.”
The sentiment is clearly mutual.
Although Hughes’ services won’t be necessary on this night — a 3–2 Pirates victory — he doesn’t know that yet. As the pitcher heads back to the visitors’ locker room to begin his pregame routine, he too pauses to reflect on where it all started.
“When I tell people where I’m from,” Hughes explains, “I don’t say I’m from Orange County. I don’t say I’m from Long Beach State or Santa Clara. I say I grew up in San Marino. That’s what I say.”
Originally published for the San Marino Outlook Newspaper on Oct. 1, 2015.
Nick Ostiller can be contacted on Twitter
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