As a young amateur pitcher, the sky seemed the limit for right-hander Jason Middlebrook. He was Mr. Baseball in the state of Michigan as a senior in high school; he threw a no-hitter against UCLA as a freshman at Stanford; he was so successful for Team USA in many international tournaments that he was in the discussion to be the starting pitcher if the team made the Gold Medal game in the 1996 Summer Olympics. There also was talk that Middlebrook could be one of the top picks – or even the number 1 pick – in the 1996 amateur draft.
But there is one problem with the lofty heights that are the result of early expectations: They also offer a long way to fall. Although Middlebrook did reach the major leagues, elbow and arm problems prevented him from realizing the potential that many felt he had. He was limited to 24 major-league games (with eight starts) in three seasons with the San Diego Padres and New York Mets.
Jason Douglas Middlebrook was born on June 26, 1975, in Jackson, Michigan, and grew up in nearby Grass Lake. As his father, Jerry, had been, Jason was a top athlete at Grass Lake High School, a small (Class D) school. The school was also the alma mater of Tim Crabtree, who pitched in the major leagues for seven years with Toronto and Texas. Jason was the first player from a Class D school to win the Mr. Baseball Award in Michigan.
Middlebrook played basketball like his all-state father, but baseball was where he found the most success. As a senior at Grass Lake in 1993, he overwhelmed opposing batters. He finished his career 27-3, and as a senior he was 11-1 with an ERA of 0.36 and struck out 181 batters in 77 innings. As a senior he was the starting pitcher for one of the teams in the annual Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association All-Star Classic at Tiger Stadium.
In the fall of Middlebrook’s senior year, Stanford University offered him a full scholarship, and he planned to attend. As the June 1992 amateur draft approached, he made it known that he would go to college unless a team offered him a bonus in the neighborhood of $600,000. That dampened the interest of major-league teams, although the Pittsburgh Pirates called to see if $500,000 and a free education would be enough to make him turn professional out of high school. Middlebrook did not give an answer, and the Pirates did not draft him. The New York Mets did draft him, in the 18th round, and offered him a $300,000 signing bonus, but Middlebrook turned it down and enrolled at Stanford, which had just produced two standout major-league pitchers in Jack McDowell and Mike Mussina.
Before that, however, Middlebrook had a full summer of baseball. First, he played in the National Amateur All-Star Baseball Tournament in Battle Creek, Michigan, and then he went to San Antonio, Texas, to try out for the USA Junior National Team. He made the 19-man roster for the team, which was to play in the World Junior Baseball Championships in Windsor, Ontario.
He opened the tournament by beating Australia, then came on in relief as Team USA beat Cuba. Four days later, Team USA and Cuba played again, this time for the gold medal. Middlebrook started against Cuban youngster Livan Hernandez, also a future major leaguer. Cuba scored three runs in the first inning off Middlebrook and won the gold medal, 5-1.
Later that year Middlebrook was named the 1993 Golden Diamond Amateur Junior Baseball Player of the Year for Michigan by USA Baseball, which is the umbrella organization for amateur baseball in the US. His reputation was enhanced before Stanford began its 1994 season when Baseball America named him its Freshman Pitcher of the Year. He proved the wisdom of the designation by pitching a no-hitter against UCLA on May 8, 1994, with 14 strikeouts. As a freshman Middlebrook was 7-2 with a 2.54 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 71 innings, and entering his sophomore season, Baseball America called him the fifth best prospect in the nation – the four others were juniors – and placed him on its preseason All-America team.
Middlebrook was the early favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft and possibly start the Gold Medal game for Team USA in the Summer Olympics in Atlanta if the team made it that far. After his freshman season at Stanford, he went to Japan and Nicaragua with Team USA to gain international experience. But early in his sophomore season he was sidelined by elbow surgery, and had to cancel his planned summer season touring with Team USA.
Even at that point, with his future somewhat uncertain, Middlebrook had no regrets passing up the $300,000 bonus from the Mets. “That really hasn’t entered my mind,” he said. “I like Stanford and the college life and all the people that I’ve met. Three hundred thousand dollars is an enormous amount of money, and I’ve never had that kind of money. I feel that if you don’t have something, how can you miss it.”
Middlebrook believed that he if came back healthy the following season, the money and the Olympics would still be there. But an elbow strain early in his junior year sidelined him again, and when he did return everything got worse with one extremely painful pitch. “I thought my career was over,” he said. “I thought for sure I’d blown my elbow out, and I was going to miss a whole year. Forget the Olympics and forget the draft, although that’s pretty much true, anyway.”
Middlebrook had Tommy John surgery, but the first thing he heard when he woke up was that the surgery had not been needed after all. It was determined that heavy scar tissue, and not a ligament tear, was causing the problem. Because of his limited time in 1996, he still was a sophomore in terms of eligibility at Stanford. But he also was eligible for the draft that June. Because of questions surrounding his health, Middlebrook was not sure how teams looked at him. He made an unusual request of major-league teams. “The only thing that I’ve made clear is that I want the team that takes me to look seriously at me,” he said. “If they don’t think I’m going to be healthy, then don’t take me. I want a team to take me with the intention of signing me and to aggressively try to sign me.”
The San Diego Padres chose Middlebrook in the ninth round, but he asserted that he was not going to sign for “ninth-round money” because he had the option of going back to Stanford to finish his education. As it turned out, the Padres signed him in September for a $755,000 bonus – the largest ever at the time for a player taken after the second round.
Middlebrook missed out on the Olympics, but he had cashed in on his potential, and he was ready to start his professional career. And just as importantly, he was ready to put his health issues behind him. He started at Rancho Cucamonga of the Class A California League, but after struggling early, he was sent to Clinton of the lower Class A Midwest League. At Clinton, he was 6-4 with a 3.98 ERA, and he returned to Rancho Cucamonga, where he stayed through the 1998 season. He was 10-12 with a 4.92 ERA, but was able to pitch 150 innings and did not miss a start, finishing with 28. “Getting my innings and staying healthy, those were the two big priorities I had for this season,” he said. “The more innings I get, the more I learn and the more it helps me perform.”
Middlebrook was back on the radar, and Baseball America listed him as one of the top ten prospects in the Padres’ organization. He was ticketed for Mobile of the Double-A Southern League in 1999, but in his last outing of the spring, he suffered a torn muscle in his right forearm and landed on the disabled list. After missing half the season, Middlebrook had one outing with the Arizona Padres of the Arizona Rookie League and then went 4-6 with an 8.06 ERA for Mobile. It was a statistical setback – not a health setback – and he went to the short-lived California Fall League, where he had 38 strikeouts in 37 innings and finished with a 4.14 ERA.
After his showing in the Fall League, the Padres put Middlebrook on their 40-man roster. But his 2000 season at Mobile was a disaster. He was 5-13 with a 6.15 ERA, and after the season, the Padres sold him to the Mets on waivers. “It’s going to be a fresh start, which is probably what I need at this point,” Middlebrook said. “The Padres are in a bit of a roster crunch, and I think they felt like they could sneak me through (waivers).”
Middlebrook may have been right about the waivers being a solution to a roster crunch. Six weeks after acquiring him, the Mets placed him on waivers, and the Padres claimed him back. It was back to Mobile, where he started the 2001 season 3-0 with a 1.20 ERA, and was promoted to Triple-A Portland. He made 15 starts for Portland with a 7-4 record and a 3.29 ERA.
Middlebrook credited roving pitching instructor Tom Brown for some of his improvement in 2001. “He laid some things out for me and made a small adjustment,” Middlebrook said. “Basically, what it did was keep me in line toward home. I kept my follow-through straight toward home instead of falling toward first base. I added a bit of deception and kept the ball down, and since then I’ve thrown it well.”
Middlebrook was called up to the Padres when the major-league rosters expanded in September. He was to make his major-league debut on a Tuesday night. It was a day to remember, not only for Middlebrook but for all Americans. The date was September 11, 2001. The terrorist attack put everything on hold, including baseball, which suspended its schedule for six days. Baseball resumed on September 17, and Middlebrook walked out to the mound to start against Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. It turned out to be a night to remember for Middlebrook, and not just because of the surrounding circumstances. He was the winning pitcher as the Padres beat the Dodgers 6-4. In six innings he gave up one run and just two infield singles, walked four and struck out two.
“I’ll forever remember it, not just because it was my first, but because of what happened,” Middlebrook said after the game. “That’s something I’ll probably always tell my kids.”
Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully was impressed by Middlebrook’s performance, telling his audience, “He’s been very, very impressive. I’m sure he’s impressing his manager.” After the game, Padres manager Bruce Bochy said, “The kid showed great composure and good stuff.”
Six days later, on the 23rd in San Diego, Middlebrook pitched in relief against the San Francisco Giants, and again there was another side attraction to the game. Giants slugger Barry Bonds was chasing Mark McGwire’s single-season record of 70 home runs, and he entered the game with 65. Middlebrook got a piece of baseball history that he didn’t want when he gave up numbers 66 and 67 to Bonds. Rich Aurilia also homered off Middlebrook, who gave up five runs on five hits in 3⅓ innings as San Francisco clobbered the Padres, 11-2.
Middlebrook probably never wanted to face Bonds again, but five days later, on the 28th, he got the start against the Giants at Pacific Bell Park, and again was tagged for three home runs, one of them by Bonds (number 68). San Francisco beat the Padres 10-5, and Middlebrook suffered his first major-league loss, four runs and six hits in four innings. One start remained in 2001 for Middlebrook, and it came at home against the Dodgers on October 4. It was the game in which teammate Rickey Henderson hit a home run to score the 2,246th run of his career, breaking Ty Cobb’s record. Middlebrook’s day was overshadowed, but he had a good one. He picked up the win with six solid innings, allowing only one run on five hits with three strikeouts and two walks. Middlebrook also had a run-scoring single for his first major-league hit.
Overall, it was a solid first showing for Middlebrook, who finished 2-1 with a 5.12 ERA. He was one of three pitchers to give up at least three home runs to Bonds in 2001. In all, he faced Bonds 11 times, and Bonds was 4-for-6 with five walks. (Middlebrook allowed eight major-league home runs; Bonds hit three and seven of the other eight were belted by members of the Giants.)
Baseball Digest in its March 2002 assessment of rookies, wrote of Middlebrook: “Right-hander with power arm and three above-average pitches. Has good life on fastball and curve with good depth and rotation. Possesses a good changeup with run. Location will be his key for success.”
But Middlebrook failed to make the Padres out of spring training and was sent back to Portland. Then on May 10 he was recalled by the Padres, and stayed through June, going 1-3 with a 5.09 ERA in 12 games, including two starts. He pitched much better in relief, however. In 10 relief appearances, Middlebrook was 1-1 with a 3.04 ERA, and he threw seven scoreless innings in relief in an 11-3 victory over Colorado on May 29. As a starter, however, he was 0-2 with an 11.42 ERA.
At the trading deadline in 2002, the Padres traded Middlebrook to the Mets in a deal that sent Jason Bay to the Padres. The Mets sent Middlebrook to Norfolk of the Triple-A International League, and there he went 2-1 with a 2.66 ERA, earning a September call-up to New York. In his first appearance for the Mets, Middlebrook was the winning pitcher in an 8-2 victory over the Montreal Expos in Montreal. Middlebrook started and went five innings, giving up two runs on three hits with five strikeouts. “It was a very impressive beginning,” Mets manager Bobby Valentine said.
Middlebrook was satisfied with his New York debut as well. “I felt like I settled down once I got through the first,” he said. “I felt a little better in the second. The third, fourth and fifth felt good, and then I ran into a wall in the sixth.” He made two more decent starts for the Mets and finished his first month in New York 1-0 with a 3.94 ERA. He seemed ready for 2003 in a new home, but disappointment would haunt him again. After allowing 35 hits in 19⅓ innings in spring training, he was sent back to Norfolk and once again faced the challenge of getting back to the big leagues. He started the season at Norfolk in stunning fashion, pitching six innings of no-hit ball before being lifted because of a strict pitch count. The bullpen continued the no-hitter until it was broken up in the ninth inning.
After another stellar outing, the Mets recalled Middlebrook after an injury to Mike Stanton. The day he was recalled he pitched in the ninth inning of a 7-2 victory over Pittsburgh, but the next day he was sent back to Norfolk. Middlebrook seemed to take the demotion in stride. “They didn’t tell me why, other than there wasn’t anybody else to send back,” he said. Two weeks later, he was back in New York when the Mets demoted Jaime Cerda. He appeared in four more games with the Mets, then returned to Norfolk and finished the season 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA. With the Mets he was 0-0 with a 10.29 ERA in seven innings.
After the season, the Mets released Middlebrook. He was out of options, so the team would have had to keep him on the 25-man roster in 2004 or risk losing him to waivers if they tried to send him down. “None of it was a shock,” he said. “There was one game in a doubleheader when I pitched and the owners were there. They watched me pitch one inning and left, so I kind of knew then that I wasn’t in their plans. When (the Mets) didn’t call me up in September, I called my agent and asked him to start looking around for another team.”
The Anaheim Angels signed Middlebrook to a minor-league contract for 2004, and he spent the season at Triple-A Salt Lake. He went 7-10 with a 6.94 ERA. He threw 155⅔ innings. The Angels released him after the season. Finally Middlebrook was healthy, bur his professional career was finished.
Middlebrook appeared in just 24 major-league games and finished 4-4 with a 5.33 ERA in 77⅔ innings. He allowed 75 hits, struck out 55, and walked 36. He appeared in 179 minor-league games (with 175 starts) and was 54-68 with a 5.17 ERA.
After he retired, Middlebrook made his home in Austin, Texas, and launched a career in real estate. With a degree in economics from Stanford, he become a vice president at SRS Real Estate Partners, which was founded in 1986 by former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. Over the years he has received several state and national awards for real-estate sales.
While at Stanford, Middlebrook met his future wife, Wendy, and they have two sons: Rylan and Truett.
In preparing this biography, the author relied primarily on clippings from Middlebrook’s file at the Jackson (Michigan) Citizen Patriot. (Many of the articles were written by the author.) Also helpful were Retrosheet.org; Baseball-Reference.com; and TheBaseballCube.com.