Cards' Miller reflects on his heroes for Father's Day
Rookie right-hander discusses the role his father and grandfather had in his upbringing
NEW YORK -- Shelby Miller is making his mark in a sport whose fans loosely throw around the term "hero." It is not a descriptor, Miller says, he wants attached to his name.
The son of a firefighter, the grandson of a Vietnam War veteran, Miller knows the makeup of a true hero. He has heard his grandfather share stories of sacrifice, watched his father serve 20 years at a Texas firehouse that saves lives. Throwing a baseball simply doesn't carry the same significance.
But who he has become as a Major League pitcher and who he has grown into as a man were shaped by his two heroes, both of whom were integrally involved in his upbringing. With Father's Day approaching -- the first that will pass with Miller as a Major Leaguer -- the Cardinals rookie reflected on the impact each has had on his life.
It is a 250-mile drive, through Abilene, from Brownwood, Texas, to Odessa, forever immortalized in H.G. Bissinger's non-fiction novel about a football-crazed town. The setting for "Friday Night Lights" could well have been in Brownwood, said Miller, whose hometown brags of its seven state titles.
So, of course, Miller played football, earning accolades as a punter and a wide receiver in high school. He played basketball and soccer while growing up, too.
But his father, Mitch Miller, also had some foresight, believing that when it came to career longevity, baseball would give his son the best chance at staying healthy enough to earn a college scholarship. It was also the sport that had been Mitch's first love.
While Shelby jokes that he inherited his athletic genes from his mother's side of the family, Mitch played Little League and summer ball growing up. Years later, he'd jump at the chance to coach Shelby's teams from ages 7 to 15. Though dissecting and teaching mechanics were not his strengths, Mitch's ability to instill passion and work ethic rubbed off on his son.
"He always made sure that I was getting my work in, and if I didn't do something right, he would be on me," Shelby said. "He always had me on time to where I needed to be. He always made sure I had a new glove every year, all the things that a kid would want. He definitely did it the right way. I don't think I would be where I am today without him and his help."
As Shelby began to excel in high school, Mitch worked around his schedule at the firehouse as best he could in order to be at all of Brownwood's games. He held a 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off schedule and had the flexibility to trade shifts, when needed. If he did have to work, he and some of his fellow firefighters would often just pull the fire truck up to the high school field.
And if there was no better option, Mitch would settle for the high school radio broadcasts.
Even into Shelby's teenage years, Mitch continued to push. He'd encourage Shelby to play catch when he came home from football practice, ensuring that Shelby stayed in baseball shape no matter what sport was in season. During Shelby's sophomore year, Mitch added a new kink to the throwing routine, too.
He had read an online article about the benefits of throwing weighted balls and so he bought a set. He'd have Shelby go out to a nearby park and throw the weighted balls at a fence. Shelby would start with the heaviest and work his way down.
"Then by the time you started throwing a regular baseball," Shelby recalled, "it would feel like you were throwing 100 mph. I think that's when I started throwing harder. I think that really might have helped."
It was about that time, too, that Mitch began to understand just how talented a son he had tutored. After a high school game that season, an opposing player from a rival high school approached Shelby insisting that he play on his summer select team. Once the high school season wrapped up, Shelby joined the team.
Playing against older competition, Shelby shined his first time on the mound. Coaches came up to Mitch afterward and poured on the flattery.
"They said he was really good," Mitch said. "I always knew he could throw the ball fast and that he got a lot of strikeouts, but in our area, the talent pool wasn't as big. I knew he could do what he could do here [in Brownwood], but once he got to where he was doing the same thing [in] other places, it was evident that he could do more."
Mitch said he still can't believe the kid he had throw weighted balls at a fence has emerged as a National League Rookie of the Year Award candidate and an NL All-Star hopeful this season. A man who once hoped that Shelby's talent would earn him a free college education now lives in a home his son purchased with his first-round signing bonus.
Father and son talk at least every other day, and Mitch hasn't missed watching any of Shelby's starts this season.
"He loves the game as much as I do," Shelby said. "I just respect him so much. He's been a huge influence on my life. He's not only a great dad to me, but he's a great person."
Charles Pruett -- a man who everyone calls Chuck -- knows to expect the phone call on the eve of each of his grandson's start. Shelby never forgets.
They'll talk about baseball, yes, but about much more, too. In a recent call, Chuck shared the story of the day he learned he had been drafted into the United States Army. He was 20 years old, and he didn't want to go. He knew, however, that willingness was not a prerequisite.
The story struck Shelby, who thought back to how he had spent the 20th year of his life.
"I was playing professional baseball," Shelby said. "I put myself in his shoes and couldn't imagine being in a war in another country."
Before serving in the military, Chuck was a star high school running back. Shelby jokes that even at age 64, his grandfather "still doesn't slow down."
While Chuck was not as hands-on with Shelby during his formative baseball years, he was omnipresent. Making the 20-mile drive from the tiny town of May to Brownwood, Chuck would take his place down the line, along the fence, never watching Shelby play from the stands. Shelby learned to expect a hug and congratulations from him when he walked off the field.
Grandpa repeated another thing to Shelby, too -- still does, actually. "Go for broke," he'll say. Shelby guesses the phrase has origins in Chuck's military days, but he appreciates the meaning. Go for it all. Don't leave anything out there. Put it all on the line.
That house Shelby purchased for his parents was designed with an apartment over the four-car garage. Shelby's plan was to make that his place. Instead, his grandfather moved in, ensuring he would be closer to the rest of the family.
"He taught me how to be an all-around good person," Shelby said. "He's just funny to be around. He's unique and he's been through a lot. He's had a lot of learning experiences. He's the proudest grandpa ever because of what I do. He brags all the time."
Chuck has not seen Shelby since his grandson left for Spring Training, where Shelby won the fifth-starter job and has since been one of the NL's top starters. That's about to change. The family has made plans to travel to St. Louis next weekend, where they'll see Shelby pitch against the Rangers -- the team Chuck used to follow most closely.
"I think," Shelby said, "he'll get a kick out of being there."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.