Sipp hopes to give back to Gulf Coast
Rookie from southern Mississippi wants to help troubled kids
CLEVELAND -- The kids of Moss Point, Miss., don't play "catball" anymore.
That was the name for the creative take on baseball that Indians reliever Tony Sipp and his friends used to play in the street while growing up in the rural town, which is located about halfway between Biloxi, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
"Basically, you just used a tennis ball and whatever bat you could find," Sipp recalled with a smile. "The crack in the sidewalk was first base. Second base was always the sewer pothole. Third base was the other crack in the sidewalk. And home plate was whatever can we'd crush."
When Sipp returns to his Hurricane Katrina-devastated hometown each offseason, he doesn't see the kids playing catball -- or anything else, for that matter.
Instead, he sees a town in which too many kids occupy their free time with drugs and shrug off schoolwork and sports. He sees a town of less than 18,000 in which whatever faint dreams a youngster might possess of escaping are too often crushed like that home-plate soda can.
"It's almost like this invisible box that traps everybody in there," Sipp said. "My city is like a crab trap. You get close to the top and they pull you back down."
The 25-year-old Sipp got out of that trap.
Five years after the Indians made him the 1,337th overall selection in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Sipp reached the Major Leagues last week, and he's made an immediate impact on the Indians' bullpen.
Now, Sipp wants to use his new platform to inspire those walking the same streets he grew up on.
"The kids there are just looking for something -- like an example," he said. "They don't have a guy they can look at and touch who did something with himself -- somebody who's going to come at 'em. They're not going to listen to a nerdy businessman type. They need someone they can relate to."
The road less traveled
When Sipp relates the story of how he made it to the big leagues, it's barely believable. His was far from a typical path.
|"I am, by far, not the best athlete to come out of my town. Some guys are really good athletes but can't make the grades to go to a D-I school in football. Or they get caught with some kind of drug. I don't know what they're doing, letting something crazy set them back. Whatever name I do make for myself, hopefully I can use it to help somebody else not make those mistakes."|
|-- Tony Sipp|
Catball taught Sipp the basics of the sport, and playing in the Dixie Youth League in his hometown became his first outlet for his competitive side. Sipp's father, Willie Fountain, coached his team, and Sipp played alongside his brother, Darius, and his cousins.
"I was more of a defensive guy," he said. "I was a shortstop. I don't know how that worked out, but that was my thing. I never really was known for my pitching, because my arm hadn't developed. I'm not a guy who'd say, 'You should have seen me when I was young,' because there wasn't much to see. I could locate, but I couldn't blow it by guys."
Shortly before he began attending Moss Point High School -- where he played baseball, football and tennis -- Sipp learned how to throw a curveball (his cousin, Derek Edwards, still takes credit for this advancement to this day). It proved to be an effective weapon.
"I knew they couldn't hit it," Sipp said. "You'd have thought the batter had seen a ghost when I threw it."
In 11th grade, Sipp noticed that he was able to throw a little harder. His pitches had velocity, location and life. But getting a Division I college coach to see them was pretty much impossible.
"Unless you were some Florida kid throwing 120 mph, you weren't going to get noticed," he joked.
So Sipp went the junior college route. He spent two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where he was a two-way player, pitching and playing in the outfield. Sipp began to draw interest from Alabama and Clemson, and he was eventually offered a full ride by each school. Sipp followed his heart and chose the Tigers, for whom he primarily manned the outfield for two seasons.
A lucky break
Sipp's baseball story very nearly ended at Clemson. He didn't have the bat to play professional ball, and he didn't pitch enough to demonstrate his true talent.
The Indians, in a stroke of good fortune for both sides, just so happened to have two scouts in attendance at an NCAA regional tournament game against Georgia in 2004. Sipp was sent out in relief with the bases loaded and Clemson clinging to a two-run lead in the sixth. He calmly struck out the side.
"We were lucky, in the sense that we stuck around at the regional," scouting director John Mirabelli recalled. "Usually, that late in the year, teams don't staff the regional. If they do, they're out after a couple days. But our scouts saw him pitch, and they really liked him."
The fact that the Tribe took Sipp in the 45th round implies that he was little more than a flyer, but the Indians had genuine interest in him. They proved as much by giving Sipp a $130,000 signing bonus -- a high figure for such a late-round selection.
Less than two years later, after dominating at the Class A level, Sipp found himself thrust into Major League camp in Spring Training. Mirabelli was among those in the organization hyping Sipp as worthy of a job in the Opening Day bullpen, but the Indians instead sent him to Double-A Akron, where he went 4-2 with a 3.13 ERA in 29 appearances and battled oblique and elbow injuries.
The elbow problem evolved to the point where Sipp had to have Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in '07. His climb back onto the Indians' radar was a slow and painful one, but his healthy and effective spring camp this year made him a candidate for an early season callup from Triple-A Columbus.
Setting an example
When Sipp talks about his desire to encourage kids to succeed, he's not necessarily talking about baseball.
"I wouldn't push anybody through the same thing I've been through," he said. "It's hard, and I've seen so many guys not make it."
Already in this early stage of his Major League career, Sipp has plenty to be proud of. Two of his first three appearances at this level saw him retire the heart of the order of the Twins and Red Sox. He doesn't use that curveball anymore, but he's nonetheless pitched three scoreless innings, striking out six, walking just one and quickly emerging as one of manager Eric Wedge's more reliable late-inning arms.
Still, Sipp said he gets greater satisfaction from what Darius, a registered nurse, has done with his life.
"I tell my brother all the time that I'm more proud of him than I am of myself," Sipp said. "This talent I have was God-given. I didn't have to wonder where I would apply myself to make a living. When it comes to intelligence, you've got to figure out what you're going to apply it to. I respect that more than I respect my talent."
Yet Sipp knows he has pushed himself to a position that can command respect from others. And he hopes they'll listen to him when he returns home.
In his long-term plans, Sipp hopes baseball becomes a rewarding enough career that he's able to help build a sports complex in his hometown where he can, in his words, "bait and reel in" troubled kids and get them on the proper path.
For now, he'd be satisfied just to talk to them about his own experiences.
"I am, by far, not the best athlete to come out of my town," Sipp said. "Some guys are really good athletes but can't make the grades to go to a D-I school in football. Or they get caught with some kind of drug. I don't know what they're doing, letting something crazy set them back.
"Whatever name I do make for myself, hopefully I can use it to help somebody else not make those mistakes."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.