James just taking things in stride
Talented lefty never envisioned himself playing in big leagues
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If Tommy Lasorda's golf cart had passed in front of him at Dodgertown on Sunday morning, Chuck James likely would have just assumed it was just another senior citizen who had come to see the Braves and Dodgers play.
When Lasorda completed his successful managerial career in 1996, James was just some happy-go-lucky 15-year-old from suburban Atlanta who knew little about the Braves down the street and even less about the legendary baseball figures who existed thousands of miles away.
Now as James prepares to build upon the impressive rookie season he provided the Braves in 2006, he still doesn't know much about his fellow Major Leaguers. But as the statistics show, he certainly has the ability to baffle these unfamiliar figures with his talented left arm.
"He has no clue who he is facing," Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson said. "He doesn't know a name. He doesn't know anything. He just throws it. ... To him, everybody is just a batter."
Last year, many of those batters who faced James just became victims. After joining the Braves' starting rotation on June 25, the 25-year-old left-hander proved that his tremendous Minor League success wasn't a fluke.
In the 18 starts James made for the Braves in 2006, he allowed two earned runs or less 10 times and registered 11 wins to give him a .733 winning percentage -- tops among all National League pitchers who had made at least as many starts.
With 12, John Smoltz was the only NL pitcher to record more victories than James after June 25. But all of this early success has done nothing to change the country boy's easy-going, ho-hum personality.
All indications are that James is still more apt to brag about some bass that he fished out of a lake than he would be about the fact that he limited the Mets to one run in eight innings on Sept. 4.
"He comes to the ballpark just because everybody comes to the ballpark," Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez said before a recent workout. "He's out there stretching just because he follows people. He doesn't know what time we need to be out there or anything."
It's James' aloofness that some believe has allowed him to taste so much early success. After issuing a walk to begin his Major League career on Sept. 25, 2005, teammates had to explain to him that he was smart to have carefully pitched to Colorado's Todd Helton.
His response was, "Why, is he a good hitter or something?"
When James saw Mike Gonzalez throwing batting practice during the early days of camp a few weeks ago, he asked Johnson, "Who is that?" As Johnson recalls, "I had to go through the whole thing."
Not even recognizing Gonzalez by name, Johnson had to explain that the club's new left-handed reliever had been acquired a month earlier in a much-publicized trade that sent Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh.
Now with the realization that LaRoche was no longer a teammate, James' only remaining question for Johnson was, "Is he good?"
"Chuckie James just be Chuckie James," said Braves catcher Brayan Pena, who served as James' catcher at Triple-A Richmond during portions of both the 2005 and '06 seasons.
Some of James' lack of knowledge concerning baseball figures stems from the fact that his family never really followed sports until he began playing organized baseball around the age of 12. By that time, the Braves had already captivated the city of Atlanta. They'd won three consecutive division titles and advanced to the World Series twice in a span of three years.
But other than hearing his friends talk about the Braves, James knew very little about David Justice, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery or Smoltz. After gaining some interest in baseball, he would occasionally watch games. But while doing so, he never experienced the childhood ritual of envisioning himself playing in the Majors.
"It was never like, 'Oh, that's going to be me someday,'" said James, who allowed a run and three hits in two innings, while making his Grapefruit League season debut against the Dodgers on Sunday.
After finishing his playing days at Pebblebrook High School, James had to beg junior colleges to let him join their baseball program. Obviously, many were interested in gaining a left-handed pitcher. But he wanted a chance to play on a regular basis as an outfielder.
"I always did well as a pitcher," James said. "There was never a problem as far as that goes. But I always wanted to do more than pitch."
James finally found a suitor in Chattahoochee Valley Community College, which a few years earlier was ironically the only institution that had shown interest in another small, unproven pitcher named Tim Hudson.
"We're like the only two guys ever to come out of CVC to play professional baseball, and now we're in the same rotation," Hudson said.
While attempting to jump off a roof into a swimming pool a few weeks before the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, James nearly ruined his opportunity to pitch at the professional level. A weak spot on the roof foiled his leap and caused him to break both of his wrists. It was an accident that could only be trumped by that occasion that same year when he was bit twice by the same copperhead snake.
Having survived both near-tragic events, James felt fortunate to see the Braves draft him in the 20th round of the 2002 draft. From there, he began the journey that has allowed him to become one of the most likeable and successful young pitchers in baseball.
"He enjoys being out there pitching," Pena said. "He's so brave and he trusts his stuff."
Standing no taller than 5-foot-10 and weighing slightly shy of 200 pounds, James isn't exactly an intimidating physical specimen -- nor does he have a fastball that's going to shatter any radar guns. But his aggression and delivery have led to Braves manager Bobby Cox to describe his fastball as being "deceptively fast."
"He attacks you early in the count and his stuff is good enough to challenge the top hitters in the game," All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. "He keeps his changeup so far down that it keeps him off his fastball. That lets him elevate his fastball, and they can't catch up to it."
McCann's analysis is much more descriptive than the one that would be provided by James, who holds the belief that he attacks Major League hitters in the same manner that he did those he faced in the Minors.
It wasn't until James reached the Minors that he came to learn what a pitcher's ERA was. And even to this day, he doesn't really pay much attention to the game's statistical world. If he did so, he may become far too aware of the inevitable struggles produced by the game that he's so far made to seem quite easy.
"I just kind of go out there and play, and at the end of the year, we'll see where we stand," James said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.