In the fall of 2012, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow asked an old colleague, St. Louis Cardinals pitching instructor Brent Strom, if he might recommend someone to be the Astros new bullpen coach.
It was straight from a script you’d find in “Bull Durham” or maybe “The Natural.”
“It’s not a conventional choice, but I know a guy,” said Strom. “He’s in the Pioneer League. He coaches for the Casper Ghosts.”
Luhnow must’ve thought his friend would next recommend Roy Hobbs or Crash Davis and they’d get a good laugh out of it.
But Strom, who has been deeply involved in the science of pitching since his days at San Diego High School in the mid-1960s, was not being funny.
He advised Luhnow to interview Craig Bjornson, pitching coach of the Pioneer League’s Casper Ghosts. Can you imagine what Luhnow thought as he read Bjornson’s baseball bio?
Coaching jobs for the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Ogden Raptors, the Brevard County Manatees. An ordinary playing career, from Tucson High School to the Nicholls State Colonels, and an underwhelming three-year minor-league pitching stint in which Bjornson went 9-18.
Luhnow’s respect for Strom stretched back for years, including 2011, when they were together on the St. Louis Cardinals World Series championship team. If Brent Strom said this guy from the Casper Ghosts was worthy of a big-league coaching job, Luhnow was all in.
The Astros hired Bjornson to be their bullpen coach in January of 2012. A year later, Luhnow hired Strom to be the Astros’ pitching coach.
Two months ago, the Houston Astros won the World Series. Strom and Bjornson sprayed one another with champagne in an unforgettable clubhouse celebration.
What are the odds?
It was the culmination of two of the most uncommon baseball careers you’ll ever find, from Tucson to the World Championship. Strom, 69, pitched for the Tucson Toros in 1980 and coached the Toros from 1989-95. Bjornson, 48, who was signed by the Astros in 1991 out of a random tryout camp at Hi Corbett Field, a camp at which Strom helped to administer.
The two baseball men are at the front of the Star’s 2017 “Tucson’s Top 100 Sports Figures of 2017” list. The man who finished No. 3, Pueblo High grad Francisco Romero, the Astros’ Spanish-language play-by-play radio man, spent the last five years watching the two help build Houston into a championship franchise.
“Craig is so passionate, and Brent is like a professor, he knows everything,” said Romero, who also does UA football and basketball play-by-play broadcasts in Spanish. “He and Brent are so connected. It’s like they are thinking the same things, almost like a sixth sense. They know how to pitch to everybody. It’s fascinating to watch them work together.”
A few weeks after the World Series, the Boston Red Sox hired Bjornson to be their bullpen coach. Strom returned to Tucson, as he has for the last 28 offseasons, interrupting his brief time away from baseball to give pitching clinics in, among other places, Alaska and Switzerland.
“My wife and I will take a week or so off and visit Portugal,” said Strom, who helped USC win College World Series championships in 1970 and 1971. “Then I’ll be back for another season.”
Strom’s baseball career, if titled, would be The Wanderer. After a five-year big-league career in which he pitched for the Mets, Indians and Padres, he has coached — take a deep breath — for the Dodgers, Astros (three times), Royals, Cardinals, Padres, Expos and Nationals. His minor-league playing career was indeed a Crash Davis-type journey, from, yes, Visalia, to Tidewater, Daytona Beach, Albuquerque and, well, you get the picture.
He can tell personal stories — and he does — about baseball’s immortals, from Sandy Koufax to Tommy Lasorda. Strom is such a good storyteller, so good on his feet, that he could charge admission.
Two weeks ago, Tucson’s Centerfield Baseball & Softball Academy, a baseball/softball facility near Interstate 10 and Irvington Road owned by former UA and San Diego Padres third baseman George Arias, honored Strom at a fundraising ceremony.
As Strom narrated highlights of Houston’s World Series victory over the Dodgers, one of his old pals from the San Diego School of Baseball sat in the back row, listening intently.
That man, Glenn Ezell, a 1962 grad of Amphitheater High School who has known Strom for 40 years, was wearing a World Series ring from the 2006 Detroit Tigers. If there’s one man whose baseball career can match that of Strom, it’s Ezell.
Ezell played more than a decade of minor-league baseball, 661 games, and then managed minor-league teams for the Pirates, Padres, Blue Jays, among others, and coached 12 years in the big leagues. He can match Strom’s list of payrolls unlike few in baseball history.
“The thing about Brent is that he’s consistently persistent,” said Ezell, who has retired and relocated to Tucson. “We were together at the San Diego School of Baseball with some big names — Tony Gwynn and Alan Trammell — and that’s where we learned our trade. Brent’s done so well.”
Strom’s family relocated from Massachusetts to San Diego in the 1940s. His father, Chester, ran a florist business for almost 60 years. While Mr. Strom was selling flowers and supporting his family, Brent became fascinated by baseball and dreamed it would some day be his life’s work.
He watched the epic 1957 New York Yankees-Milwaukee Braves World Series on an old black and white television set in his family’s living room. Strom was captivated.
“I’d get in my batting stance and swing at all the pitches,” he remembers. “Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Whitey Ford. How could you not be influenced by such great pitchers? I wanted to do what they were doing.”
This time, 60 years later, Strom watched the World Series from the winning team’s dugout. Can you beat that?