Charlie Furbush went from once thinking he’d never throw a baseball again to a spot in the rotation for the major league Seattle Mariners last summer. The lanky pitcher, once a hopeful Division III athlete at St. Joe’s looking to play baseball while he earned a degree, became the key return for the Mariners in the most significant Major League Baseball deadline trade of 2011 and continues to pitch relief for the team this season.
Four years ago, however, he doubted his future in the sport he loved. Within seconds of waking up from “Tommy John” surgery to treat baseball’s notorious elbow affliction, he looked down at his arm and thought to himself, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever throw a baseball again.’”
. . . . .
Head baseball coach Will Sanborn ’86 recruited Furbush while he played for South Portland High School in Maine. “We went after him pretty hard … he had a monster senior year where he was already throwing mid-to-high 80s,” says the 20-year coach. “Any time you’re looking at a lefty who throws that hard … it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the guy can help you.”
Furbush’s success over his first two years on campus propelled his rise to the next level.
“What a perfect fit for our program,” says Sanborn. “He’s a laid-back guy, nothing seems to get him too high or too low, which serves him very well in professional baseball. He has a strong inner confidence, but to meet or know him, you’d know he isn’t cocky, which is really important.”
Following a rookie season for the Monks in which he finished 7-1 with a 1.75 ERA and 70 strikeouts, Furbush was invited to try out for the Hyannis Mets of the famed Cape Cod Baseball League. Plenty of MLB talent has filtered through that league each summer –Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Nomar Garciaparra all played there.
“At the tryout, each pitcher had just six outs to work with,” says Furbush. “I struck out all six.”
From there the Mets offered him a full-time contract and named him the opening day starter.
Other colleges became interested.
“Coach Sanborn warned me about being recruited by other schools during the summer, because most of the guys I was playing with were Division I,” says Furbush. “Twenty different schools were talking to me. I didn’t want to leave SJC so soon, though, so I dragged out the transfer process….”
After receiving another invitation in November of 2005 to return to the Cape Cod League in the summer, the pitcher knew that the top-ranked schools in the country would come knocking again.
“Once the season started picking up at St. Joe’s, I wanted to push myself as hard as I could to see where I could go, knowing that I might be transferring.”
The pitcher’s hard work paid off, as he had one of the most dominant seasons in school history, going 10-1 with a 2.89 ERA and an eye-popping 115 strikeouts in just over 74 innings, a current Monks season record.
Some of the best baseball schools in the country went after him that summer. Louisiana State University won the sweepstakes, offering a full-ride after seeing him throw just one inning in a rain-shortened Cape game.
With LSU in store for the fall of 2006, Furbush closed the chapter of his two-year career at St. Joe’s. “Coach Sanborn and Coach (Corey) McCarthy got the point across to all of us to come together as a team to work hard and win ballgames …. Being a good teammate and a good person on and off the field is what they stressed the most,” says Furbush. “I still use those guidelines for daily life today.”
Once Furbush arrived in Baton Rouge, La., his numbers weren’t as strong as he had hoped, but he was drafted at the end of his junior season by the Detroit Tigers in the fourth round as the 151st pick of the MLB Draft.
“Honestly, I was just hoping to get drafted because I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world,” says Furbush. “And it was.”
He landed in the rookie Gulf Coast League in Florida and helped the GCL Tigers win the championship, but the following spring he came into camp with a weird sensation in his elbow. The resulting surgery forced him to miss all of 2008.
“You never think it’s as bad as it is until you wake up,” says Furbush. It was a tough situation to deal with …. But after training my hardest to get back stronger and healthier, I was pitching again in 11 months.”
Furbush played the next season back in Florida capped to a 75-pitch count, but in 2010, he found his way up to the Double-A Erie Seawolves, followed three weeks later by the Toledo Mud Hens, the last stop before Detroit.
After finishing the season in Triple-A, he knew that 2011 could be the year he saw major league playing time. He turned out to be right.
Furbush joined the 40-man Detroit roster prior to last season and was called up in late May. In his third game on the team, the Tigers starter rolled his ankle and the lefty got the call. Furbush’s first major league hitter drew a walk to load the bases with one out.
The young Tiger knew he had to bear down and strike out two hitters to end the inning and get out of the jam. He did, and pitched three innings of scoreless ball to pick up the 6-3 win.
“I got home from that game and realized that everything I ever wanted in life came true that night,” he said. “Regardless of how long it was going to last, it came true.”
Furbush appeared in 17 more games for the Tigers, holding a respectable 3.62 ERA in late July before learning he had been traded to the Seattle Mariners. He went just 3-7 the rest of the way, but showed plenty of promise for the future, even beating the Boston Red Sox in seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball in mid-August.
The 26-year-old trained nearly every day this offseason at the Frozen Ropes facility in Portland with his lifelong personal catcher and former teammate Andrew Wood ’08.
“To be able to ride along with Charlie every step of the way from when we were in Little League to high school, to college, to now, it’s a real cool thing,” says Wood. “He makes me feel like I’m just as much a part of it as he is. I’m just trying to help him anyway I can, so I come catch for him on my lunch breaks from work.”
This spring, Furbush pitched in six games, but started the season with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers. He’s now back in Seattle as a reliever and Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has assured Furbush that he’s a big part of their plans moving forward, as they rebuild a franchise that has failed to make the postseason since 2001.
Wherever Furbush lands, his formative years were those he spent playing for the Monks. “Given the path that I took, everyone has had a hand in helping me to where I am now,” says Furbush. “But there’s no comparison for what St. Joe’s did for me.”
by Pat DeCola ’09
Photo credit Ben Van Houten/Seattle Mariners