Biddle savoring first taste of pros

The Phillies are getting rookie Jesse Biddle acclimated to their system in Clearwater. "I'm a quick learner," he says.
The Phillies are getting rookie Jesse Biddle acclimated to their system in Clearwater. "I'm a quick learner," he says.
Posted: July 18, 2010

CLEARWATER, Fla. - When you are 18 and you live in a Florida motel 1,000 miles from your parents but not too far from the beach and you get paid for playing baseball and you can watch all the ESPN you want and eat as often and as much as you like, life is sweet.

That's been Jesse Biddle's happy existence this past month, ever since the wide-eyed, 6-foot-5 Germantown Friends graduate arrived here from Philadelphia, where his hometown Phillies made him their No. 1 draft pick a month ago.

Too young for the local night spots that tried to snare Cole Hamels, too old to admit to homesickness, the ingenuous Biddle has begun his Gulf Coast League career with all the enthusiasm of a college freshman.

"I'm having a great time. It feels like I'm having as much fun as I possibly could," Biddle said recently as he sat in a Carpenter Complex locker room. "I hear that it's a struggle and a real grind, but to me it's just, 'Hey, I play baseball for a living.' That's phenomenal. That's the way I look at it."

As the lanky lefthander begins the journey he hopes will lead to Citizens Bank Park, he is on his own for really the first time. And he is gobbling it all up as fast as he consumes the clubhouse food and the breakfasts at Lenny's, where, thanks to an agreement between the famed Clearwater restaurant and the Phillies, he and his teammates can eat all the eggs, home fries, and Danish they want for $5.

"The Phillies feed us so much. It's like all-you-can-eat every single day, which is incredible," said Biddle, who, in his royal-blue shorts, red T-shirt, and knee-high red socks resembled a member of the French national soccer team. "I wake up each day about 6. At 6:30 or so, I eat. I get to the weight room about 7:10 and lift. Then at 8 I eat another breakfast because I'm really hungry."

Biddle's dietary fervor actually pleases the Phillies, who have asked him to add some weight to his 220-pound frame. He eats and lifts and practices and plays with his teammates, most of them former college players or Latin Americans. Some of them arrive at the complex on bikes. And in the evening, when there is no game and the sun is setting over the Gulf of Mexico, they walk back together to their La Quinta Inn home.

It hasn't entirely been a summer-camp experience for Biddle as he takes his first tiny, professional steps. For the first time, in his four brief rookie-league starts, the teenager from Mount Airy is learning what it's like to struggle.

Limited to three or four innings until he builds arm strength, Biddle had pitched 131/3 innings through Thursday. He had allowed 17 hits, six walks and 15 runs - nine earned - while striking out 13 and compiling a 6.08 ERA.

But at this level, numbers mean little. "They say they like all four of my pitches - fastball, curve, slider, change-up," Biddle said. "They want me to focus on fastball, slider, change-up, and mainly to throw fastballs for strikes. They want me to get ahead with it, and then I may have an opportunity to strike them out with the slider.

"But right now it's not about striking people out. It's about pitching to contact, learning how to pitch. . . . They're going to take their time with me. As a first-round pick and a high school guy, they need to make sure they protect me and get me acclimated to the system. I'm a quick learner."

"Some day," he laughed, "they might let me go as high as six, seven innings."

Chuck LaMar, the Phillies' director of professional scouting, said Biddle, like most high school draftees, was being eased into what often is a difficult transition.

"These kids have to be indoctrinated slowly," LaMar said. "For a lot of them, it's the first time they've played for money, the first time they've been away from home, the first time they've competed against this quality of players. But we couldn't be more impressed with how Jesse has handled himself on and off the mound. He's got a great work ethic and he really competes on the mound."

Unusually thoughtful for an 18-year-old, Biddle arrived in Clearwater last month with the confidence of someone who always overmatched his competition. If his No. 1 draft status implied any pressure, he swore he didn't feel it.

"I've done a really great job of keeping the pressure off myself," he said. "I really didn't feel any of it. It's baseball. If it was something I wasn't good at, then maybe I'd feel pressure. But this is something I'm very good at."

Just as Biddle is learning to adjust to pro ball and his own sizable talents, he also is learning to manage his time. Possessed of a puritanical streak and an alarm clock that's set for 6 each morning, he is limited right now in his leisure options.

"There's not a lot to do as far as the social scene goes here in Clearwater," he said. "We played at the Disney [Complex] in Orlando, and I talked to some of their players. They said there's a lot to do around there.

"But I think it's probably a good thing. I can walk to Target or places like that and buy stuff. But for the most part there's not a lot of clubs, stuff I'm not interested in anyway. We kind of hang out together. Most of the time I'm in bed by 9:30, 10."

He's not reading as much as he did at Germantown Friends. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, he said, is his all-time favorite book.

"It's the only real novel he ever wrote, but I don't think you can write a better one," he said. "That was incredible."

And though he isn't keeping a diary either, Biddle loves to write.

"In school I was always able to do it," he said. "If I struggled with reading comprehension or something like that, I knew if there was a short story the next week, I'd be able to do really well in that."

As he spoke to a reporter in the busy room where generations of Phillies have lockered, Biddle was very aware of his teammates' whereabouts. When one would pass, his eyes would be diverted and he would either lower his voice or briefly cease talking.

He clearly is trying to fit in on a team of mostly older players. And Biddle, who on at least one occasion in high school struck out every batter he faced, has learned to rely on them in the field.

"Once I threw a pretty good inside fastball and the guy got jammed and just fisted it out there. As soon as he hit it, I was like, 'Oh, no, that's going to be a base hit.' But my shortstop is fast. He got back and made a nice little play. I was like, 'Wow!' In high school ball, that's a base hit."

So Biddle's summer adventure drags on.

His family and friends are coming down soon to visit. Ideally, he will be able to take them somewhere other than Target and Lenny's. In the meantime, wearing around his neck the thunderbird amulet his father gave him - "it's for inner strength" - he will continue to learn.

"This is just the beginning. I've only been here a few weeks," Biddle said. "But it feels like I've been here a lot longer."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or Ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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