The beauty of being Mark Buehrle

Mark Buehrle doesn’t watch tape, go to pitchers’ meetings or wave off signs. He just wins games.

THE LAST TIME MARK BUEHRLE felt uncomfortable being Mark Buehrle, he was a 20-year-old rookie getting his first taste of professional baseball. It was 1999 and he had just graduated from Jefferson Community College in Hillsboro, Mo., with a two-year diploma in law enforcement. The school was just 45 minutes south on I-270 from his home in St. Charles, a St. Louis suburb, but initially Buehrle wasn’t sure about going even that far. He was recruited there with a friend from high school, and in his mind it was very much a package deal. “I’m like: I’m not going by myself,” he says. “I’m not going to a new group of guys without knowing somebody.”

Even then, Buehrle commuted back to St. Charles on weekends for a part-time job as a delivery driver at Pizza Hut, making bank in his late-’80s-model blue Mercury Cougar, Garth Brooks booming from the subwoofer he had built into the trunk.

But this was different; this was pro ball. As a 38th-round pick in 1998 by the Chicago White Sox, he was on his own, away from home as the newest member of the Burlington Bees, the big club’s class-A affiliate in Burlington, Iowa. And Buehrle, the Toronto Blue Jays ace who is honing in on 200 career wins, wasn’t sure the pro life was for him. “I remember my first week. I mean, I’m old, but I feel even older saying this: We didn’t have cellphones. And I remember standing in line to use the pay phone at the hotel just to call home.” There wasn’t a lot of email access back then either, so he wrote letters, too. “I was just going on like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this.’ I was going into a new group of guys. I don’t feel like I’m that outgoing and talkative, and I didn’t think I would just go and fit in.”

The feeling lasted about a week, maybe two. He got a two-bedroom apartment with three other guys in a complex dominated by aspiring baseball players. He adjusted. And when he took the mound it was the same as it ever was: four pitches, all thrown with command to all edges of the strike zone and with varying speeds. Hitters couldn’t handle him. His manager loved him. His new teammates came to be in awe of this guy who never seemed to waver. “That’s what set him apart,” says Eric Fischer, his roommate during that year in Burlington. “He was the same guy every day, and his performance reflected it.”

Which is the beauty of being Mark Buehrle: Being himself has always come easily. “Once I got out on the field it was just pitching,” says Buehrle, who made it to MLB in just 14 months and has never left, not even for a day. “It was what you love to do.”

His skin has fit perfectly ever since. And for his entire career he’s been a beard-wearing, country music–loving, deer-shooting, dog-doting object lesson that throwing is to pitching as staining the deck is to art. In the midst of his 14th and quite possibly best season, Buehrle remains Christmas in summer for baseball purists—a fine carpenter in a league where too many pitchers try to solve every problem with an axe. He’s never thrown hard, but now his fastball averages just over 83 miles an hour, the second-slowest in MLB ahead of only his teammate, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. And yet he led the majors with 10 wins on June 1st—the earliest he’d ever reached double-digit wins in his career—and has pole position on his first Cy Young Award. Barring something unforeseen he’ll pitch 200 innings for the 14th straight season, a level of consistency matched only by Greg Maddux and Phil Niekro—Hall of Famers both—in baseball history. Through the beginning of June he’d made 438 consecutive starts, a run that goes all the way back to 2001. “In some ways that streak is as impressive for pitchers as what Cal Ripken did as a position player,” says Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos, referring to the Baltimore Orioles Ironman.

In that time, Buehrle’s thrown two no-hitters—including a perfect game—has won a World Series and earned four Gold Glove Awards—yet Anthopoulos acknowledges that if he was draft eligible this summer there’s a pretty good chance he’d go in the 38th round—or thereabouts—again. “If he was coming out of a small school and had that kind of velocity, yeah, he’d probably go pretty late again.”

The thing is, Buehrle’s gifts are more subtle than a letter-high 98-mph fastball with movement. Primary among them is his ability to hit a spot on command, the product of achieving something close to pitching’s Holy Grail—a repeatable delivery. Blue Jays bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos says he’s really only seen two pitchers come close: future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay and Buehrle. He jokes he could catch either of them with his eyes closed—a bet Halladay once offered him but he never took up. What does precision look like? The evidence is right there in the bullpen’s red clay: “You look at the mound after the warm-up and there’s three little spike marks there; he’s [landing on] the same spot every time,” says Andreopoulos. “Everyone else, there’s a mark a little left or right or ahead. Not Buehrle. There’s one print.”

Has he mastered the art of pitching? Maybe—just don’t ask the guy painting the black. “It’s a gift,” Buehrle says. “I don’t want to talk about it too much. I don’t want to question it because whatever is going on, I just want to leave it as is, and continue to ride it.”

Family legend has it that when he was a toddler he’d go to school picnics and county fairs, and draw a crowd by dominating the bean-bag toss. “My wife and I would be asked to leave,” says his dad, John. “He was two years old and everyone thought he was a ringer. We’d have an arm full of stuffed toys and they’d tell us to go rob someone else.”

By the time he was six or seven, a local Little League coach was advising John to get his smooth-throwing lefty some more expert training than they could get in St. Charles, and so he began making the trip to St. Louis on weekends to attend baseball clinics put on by former Cardinals pitcher and 1983 Cy Young winner John Denny. It was Denny himself who pulled Buehrle’s dad aside and told him his son had a special talent, and asked to work with Mark privately, which they did for a few years until he was perhaps 13 or 14. But since then? “What you see now isn’t any different than what I’ve been watching for 20 years,” his dad says.

But of all Buehrle’s gifts, perhaps the one that is most enviable and least transferable is his gift for being absolutely, resolutely himself. It is the ultimate goal of anyone, really, but for a major-league pitcher, alone in the middle of the diamond with only his skill and instincts to draw on to advance the interests of a team, franchise and city, it’s more important than any single pitch or any radar-gun reading. “It’s the key to success in this league,” says Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “Guys come in here with great stuff and great expectations, but it comes down to believing in your stuff and not trying to do too much at any moment during a game. He doesn’t try to make his sinker better or his curve nastier. It’s his stuff, and he owns it.”

The Blue Jays are paying Buehrle $18 million this season and $19 million next year, and part of the way they justify that investment is the long-term impact his example might have on younger pitchers in the organization. It’s not an accident that Drew Hutchison’s locker is adjacent to Buehrle’s. “He’s the ultimate professional,” says Anthopoulos. “The No. 1 thing is his results, but part of the appeal of him being here is that Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman and our younger guys have him as an example. You’re influenced by the company you keep.”

Buehrle’s primary message to the next generation is to embrace a certain brand of fatalism: Once the ball is gone, the only pitch you can control is the next one, which is why you’ll never see him take a soul-searching stroll after giving up a home run—something he’d done 324 times before this season. “I was talking to [former Blue Jays starter] Ricky Romero about this and he would say he’d make a bad pitch and be thinking about that, walking off the back of the mound,” says Buehrle. “I’d say to him, ‘What does that do for you? That pitch is already over— who cares? You walk a guy, hit him, give up a home run? That’s over, you have to focus on the next pitch.’”

But can you teach personality? J.A. Happ’s locker is kitty-corner from Buehrle’s in the Jays’ cavernous, wood-grained clubhouse, and their baseball experiences are also at opposite ends of the spectrum. Happ is a lean, muscular, six-foot-five lefty who looks like he could have played college basketball had he not stuck with baseball. He was a third-round pick out of Northwestern, finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2009 when he broke in with Philadelphia and can still touch 96 with his fastball. But for all the tools, his career has had a roller-coaster quality to it, marked by injuries and a struggle for consistency. He looks across the clubhouse where Buehrle sets up shop in front of a flatscreen tuned to his beloved hunting and fishing channels and sometimes wishes he could be more like the guy who can’t break a pane of glass. “To be able to trust your stuff like that would be the ultimate goal,” says Happ. “Throw four pitches where you want to throw them and trust they’ll get the job done? That would be a pretty good feeling.”

It’s a time-saver, too. Where the rest of the Jays’ pitchers meet to go over analytics and opposing teams’ tendencies, devouring scouting reports, Buehrle has a 30-second chat in the outfield with Dioner Navarro before beginning his warm-up by playing catch. He never throws side sessions between starts and, during starts, he spends less time between pitches than any other hurler in baseball, which serves both to rush hitters and keep his own defence in the game. Happ sees the merit of the Buehrle way, but isn’t sure it’s replicable. “Less is more” is a proverb relevant to nearly every category of human endeavour, but being confident enough to actually live by it is harder than it looks. “You can work toward it in your own way, but I think it’s more of a personality thing,” Happ says. “I think with him, he just figures it’s going to be good or it’s going to be bad, but either way it’s going to get over with quick.”

According to his wife, Jamie, the Zen of Mark Buehrle transcends the ballpark. The two went to the same St. Charles high school, but never met until he was already playing for the White Sox. (That they first crossed paths at the gym in the off-season is proof he’s not quite as easygoing in his approach as he loves to let on. “In some ways it’s a facade,” says Walker. “Everything that needs to be done to make that start every five days is done.”) They had several friends in common and quickly hit it off, but on their first date she told him: “If you’re the type of guy who has lots of girlfriends, I’m not your gal—let’s not waste each other’s time.”

He didn’t, but that doesn’t mean that life with Buerhle didn’t require other accommodations on her part. A self-professed Type-A personality, Jamie took a while to come around to her husband’s laid-back ways. “Mark is very much on beach time, all the time, and I’m not,” she says. “I’m the person who gets everything done and always has lists and takes care of the finances and all that stuff because if we were both his way, Lord only knows what our house would be like. But if we were always my way, I don’t think I’d be able to enjoy some of the things I’ve been able to enjoy over the years. We complement each other very nicely.”

He in turn tried to get her interested in hunting, a passion passed on to him by his father, a former Marine who is retired from his job as the city’s water-systems manager. His son’s favourite place on the planet is a 1,500-acre stretch of land in rural Missouri he’s been adding to in bits and pieces throughout his career (“I’m like: ‘How much do you need? Do you need to own the entire town?’” says Jamie, laughing. “He always tells me he’s squaring it off, but it’s becoming a pretty big square.”) It’s where the Buehrle clan has their version of Thanksgiving every fall on the opening day of deer season, and where he will go to fish or ride four-wheelers or just sit in a tree with the excuse of waiting on a deer, but for the real purpose of hearing nothing but the wind: “I love the peace and quiet; not hearing traffic or horns or sirens or anything to do with traffic or people . . . you don’t have kids yelling, just you and the wildlife.”

Jamie, a devoted animal lover, never succumbed to the charms of hunting—she could never quite get over how a day seeking deer often ended—though she accepted that it remained her husband’s passion, that his land remained his sanctuary. It’s part of who he is and where he comes from.

And while Buehrle would much prefer to talk hunting than struggle to explain the nuances of pitching—what good does it do anyone to expound on the fact that you’ve simply always been able to throw a ball at a tiny spot, nearly without fail?—when he does make the effort, he turns to nurture over nature. His was a home where baseball caps were taken off at the dinner table, doors were held open, “Ma’am” and “Sir” were well-used honorifics, and he was taught to recognize both what is in his control and what isn’t. He accepts the results, and the results have almost always been good. “Why am I the way I am? I don’t know who else to try to be,” he says. “I was raised the right way. Respect others, do the right thing.” He might have added: throw strikes and avoid walks, but there was no need.

These traits were on full display from the first days Buehrle spent in Burlington with Fischer. A film producer in Los Angeles now, Fischer shakes his head at the idea that his old teammate was ever out of sorts on a baseball diamond; that he ever wrote letters home wondering if he was cut out for a life in professional baseball. Fischer remembers a guy who would go out for beers if he got rocked or relax in front of the TV after pitching a complete game shutout. “Nothing ever fazed him,” says Fischer. “He was stable. He knew himself. He had a good sense of who he was at a young age—you could see it. The rest of us? We were learning to be professionals. It seemed like he was a professional when he got there. He was consistent. He had a pro mentality from day one.”

That’s the thing about Mark Buehrle. Some things never change. Some things don’t have to.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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