Ventura, California —— There are two truths to writing about baseball: you have to get to the ballpark very early, and you have to stand around and wait.
If you’re smart, as you stand around and wait and ponder why it is you continue to show up so early just to stand around and wait, you observe the stories all around you. Sure, game time shows a player’s capabilities against an opponent, but that’s the easy stuff. It’s the early activities most people never get to see—pre-game infield drills, early batting practice rounds, pitcher’s side sessions in the bullpen, even those perfect moments listening to a pair of teammates razzing each other about the girls they like—that give color to the players you cover.
It’s how I really learned about Texas Rangers prospect Jose Trevino’s work ethic, by watching his early hitting routine day after day in the batting cages four hours before game time. It’s how I learned what the Seattle Mariners have in outfield prospect Gareth Morgan, after watching him hit ball after ball over the massive center field batter’s eye at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark during early batting practice.
And last week in Ventura, it’s how I learned about Justin Friedman.
When you Google Justin Friedman, you learn he pitched at George Washington University for a season before transferring to Ventura College; next year, he’s set to pitch for the University of San Diego. A New Jersey native, he’s 5-1 right now for Ventura with a 2.29 ERA in six starts. Even better, he’s whiffed 32 batters in 35.1 innings while allowing just 30 hits and walking only 13 more. Watch him pitch in a game and you’ll see a good, hard fastball with some run, a curve with consistent break that he can throw for a strike or turn into a swing-and-miss pitch, and a developing changeup that fades arm-side with depth.
But when you show up early to the ballpark, you learn so much more about him. As Ventura’s top assistant coach Steven Hardesty likes to put it, you learn about Justin Friedman, workout warrior.
It’s customary for a starting pitcher to begin their warm-up maybe 45 or 50 minutes before game time. They’ll hide in the dugout, or down the tunnel in the clubhouse, listening to music and trying to get in a good mental space right up until the last possible moment they have to come out to stretch, and then throw, and then play.
Not Justin Friedman. Show up early to one of his starts and you’ll see him out on the field with his teammates during batting practice nearly two and a half hours before the game. He’s already stretching, already sweating, already going through a light workout designed to figure out what his body needs on that particular day.
“I like to take my time with the warm up, because every day I’m going to feel a little different,” Friedman told me in a post-game interview after his most recent start, a win at home against Cuesta College in which he allowed three runs in six innings. “Some days, I’m a little sluggish, and I can work beneath that and start off really slow. But it’s a choice how I feel every day, and when I take my time, I can figure out where I am and bring myself into alignment with where I feel I need to be. And if I feel like I need to do a bit more, well, I have the room to do it.”
Talk to an athlete about the importance of bringing himself “into alignment” and you’re liable to think yogi rather than pitcher. But this is who Friedman is, and he comes by it honestly. He’s meticulous and well thought in his warm-up and preparation because that’s how it has to be. Everything he does seems to be on purpose, everything he asks of his body is by design, and everything he puts in his body is a conscious choice: either it helps with his greater baseball goals or it’s unnecessary.
“I like to call Justin the self-made man, because everything he has gotten is through his work ethic,” Hardesty offered up the day after Friedman’s start against Cuesta. “I can relate on a personal level to Justin, because I was never a natural talent when I played. I had to work for every little thing I ever got. So when Justin and I talk, he says, ‘I like talking to you, you approach me in a whole different sense, you approach me from a work ethic perspective,’ and it’s like, yeah, because that’s what I know. That’s what I had to do. I had to out-work everybody to play college baseball. And for Justin to get to the next step of his career, he’s going to have to outwork everybody, too. He’s not 6’5”, and he doesn’t naturally throw 95 miles an hour. He’s had to teach himself everything, and he’s had to work for every little thing he’s ever received.”
Friedman knows that. Against Cuesta in that last start, he put the Pirates in an early hole by allowing three runs in the top of the first inning thanks to mistakes of his own making: a hit batter, a walk, a few balls left in the hittable part of the zone. No matter how self-made, or how self-aware, there’s still growth to be done here. But an analytical mind like Friedman’s can slow the game down enough to finish a bad inning, walk to the dugout, hit restart, and then throw five straight scoreless frames, allowing Ventura to climb back into the game and win.
“It’s a beautiful thing, really,” Friedman quipped after the game when I asked about that ugly first inning. “I’ve learned to witness instead of judge. Witness as in, ‘OK, that happened, now let’s come in tune with what happened, and why it happened.’ You have to smile in the face of adversity, especially when you’re doing it to yourself.”
Everything means something, and as with anything worthwhile in life, there was a universal truth at play in that three-run frame against Cuesta. You don’t really think this is just about a bad inning, do you?
“Baseball is mimicked in life, the moment you get that first ‘no,’ the first time you get turned down,” Friedman continued. “This game has humbled me a lot. I’ve been told ‘no’ a lot. I’m used to things being difficult. But there’s never really been anything that could stop me, and if there was, that’s just me beating myself. Even that bad inning is something I created. It wasn’t outside of me. And when you know you’re in the driver’s seat, when you have that kind of internal locus of control, it’s always in your grasp to decide what to do with it.”
There’s a third truth to writing about baseball—or there was, until I interviewed Justin Friedman: ballplayers don’t use the phrase “internal locus of control” in interviews.
In that sense, Hardesty knows his starting pitcher is unique.
“You’re talking about a guy who got into George Washington with an academic scholarship,” the coach explained. “That’s one of the premier academic institutions in the country. Both parents are doctors. Both parents very much value education. He is extremely cerebral. And yet he’s smart enough to take instruction, and he’s driven enough to apply that instruction. When you ask him to change something, he doesn’t take it as a slight. He takes it in that workout warrior mentality. It’s as if he says, ‘perfect, now I have another thing to work on that can make me better.’”
A few days removed from our interview now, I still can’t shake how similar Justin Friedman is to Charlie Blackmon. The Ventura College pitcher and the Colorado Rockies’ outfielder are worlds apart in baseball, but the similarities are staggering—and far deeper than a mutual appreciation for the fine art of facial hair.
There’s a mesmerizing, zen-like quality about Charlie Blackmon. He has a meticulous focus in his work that almost seems like it’s rendered him unable to mindlessly go through the motions. Never, I found out last year, will he just show up to the ballpark, hit through a few rounds of batting practice, and play a game that night. There’s intentionality to every one of Blackmon’s swings, purpose in every regimented moment of his preparation, and—most critically—a thought process behind why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Friedman carries himself in the same way. You can read it in his thoughts about work ethic, motivation, and meaning, or see in the way he carries himself during a game.
But it’s most evident when he “takes the dog for a walk” before every start.
When you write about baseball, the most interminable slog of time is the hour between the end of the visiting team’s batting practice and the game’s first pitch. The field is cleared of the batting cage, and the BP screens, and the mats. Fans file in to the stadium—always the autograph seekers first, who hustle down the foul lines looking for players. They’re followed in to the park by families, and kids, and any scouts that didn’t show up for batting practice. The foul lines get chalked, the infield dirt gets raked and watered, and each team’s starting nine slowly heads down their respective foul lines to stretch, run, and throw.
There’s precious little for a writer to do in this hour. It’s too close to game time to interview a player, and so you’re in limbo until first pitch. In the California League, I usually use the hour to transcribe pre-game interviews and stake out a good spot to take pictures during the game. In High Desert, I’d talk prospects with the Rangers’ video operations staffers. In Bakersfield, I used to drink beer and wax poetic about life with the public address announcer and official scorekeeper up in the press box. The culture was a little different there.
In Ventura, I decided to stay on the field and stationed myself on the third base side of home plate near the Pirates’ dugout. After standing around aimlessly and checking Twitter on my phone a few times, I glanced out to right-center field, where I expected Cuesta’s starting pitcher to be throwing under the scoreboard and giant tree overhanging the outfield wall. But when I looked, it wasn’t Cuesta’s starter throwing under the scoreboard: it was Justin Friedman.
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Many (most?) starting pitchers don’t long toss on start days. They work their way 90, or 120, or maybe 150 feet out from the foul line to loosen up before opting to “save bullets,” as they say, for the game mound.
This is not how Justin Friedman operates.
I found him all the way across the field from Ventura’s left-field bullpen, nearly 300 feet out from his poor throwing partner. Friedman was so far out that after he threw a ball in, he’d walk forward fifty feet to get the return throw coming on a couple hops before walking back out to his original spot and throwing again. He looked very tiny and very alone that far out in the outfield, dwarfed by the big scoreboard and the bigger tree—a man on his own with the day’s challenges entirely laid out before him.
And as with everything Friedman does, there’s a reason for this extreme long toss.
“I like starting things out on purpose, and I like airing my arm out like that,” he said after the game about the routine. “Long toss opens up the day, and I think it’s the biggest thing for me in terms of arm strength and endurance. And in long toss, you figure out your mechanics. On the mound, you might miss by a couple inches, but if you do it wrong in long toss, you’re going to miss by ten feet.”
“And I always go into a game feeling good, because I really believe that’s a choice,” Friedman continued, admitting there’s as much a mental component to start-day preparation as a physical one. “There are going to be days when you’re sore, and days when you don’t have it, and days when you’re out of rhythm. But how you feel should always be the same. Long toss helps me establish that, and it allows me to be alone with my body to listen to what it needs that day. Being alone out there by myself really helps with that, without all the noise.”
And yet in pure Justin Friedman form, in that zen-like way that just so perfectly fits everything he’s about, even pre-game long toss won’t go unexamined in its continued purpose and usefulness as the season wears on.
“As long as I’m in control of what I’m doing, and it doesn’t become ‘oh, I need to long toss,’ as long as I’m only just feeling it out, it works,” he cautioned. “If we rely on one thing too heavily, in some sense it starts to use us.”
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And so it shall go for Friedman, who’s due to step foot on campus at the University of San Diego in a few months’ time. He’ll be well equipped to pitch there—that is, unless his name is called in June’s Major League Baseball amateur draft.
“When [fellow Ventura College pitcher] Austin [Rubick] won a player of the week award [earlier this season], Justin was kind of like, ‘hey, what do I have to do to get one of those,’” Hardesty recalled about a moment with his young pitcher. “And I was like, ‘forget about all that, that’s not the goal for you. Your goal is trying to get drafted in the top ten rounds. Your focus doesn’t need to be about winning awards. You know what you’re trying to get.’”
The way he’s pitching now, Justin Friedman is going to get a long look from scouts before the draft comes in June, and maybe more than that depending on how things transpire between now and then. His self-starter attitude and introspective maturity make him a prime candidate for professional baseball’s inwardly-focused world. He should thrive there if—or when—the time comes.
But Friedman won’t go so far as to admit he’s thinking about the draft, or about San Diego, or really about anything other than what he has to do today to get better for tomorrow. All the cliché ideas every athlete talks about—trust the process, control what you can control, minimize distractions—really do make up what Friedman tries to live out every day.
Watch closely, though, because you’ll find Justin Friedman having a little fun, too.
“That’s just me taking the dog for a walk,” he quipped about his long toss routine, flashing a grin gone nearly as soon as it lit up his face. “Frankly, I like going all the way over to the other side of the field. I think it’s a little bit of a statement. I like starting off the day like that.”