John Skinner came out of California in 2001 with a penchant for pitching, a glittering college resume and the professional baseball world wide open in front of him.
The native of Dublin in the East Bay was drafted by the Houston Astros out of high school in 1997, but instead climbed the college ladder from Chabot Junior College to San Diego State University.
His reward came in the form of a 24th-round selection by the talent-savvy Florida Marlins in the 2001 draft.
On Tuesday night, Skinner, now 36 and a resident of Wethersfield, was still making hitters look foolish with a full array of pitches that he could throw from three different release points.
But the dream of plying his craft against the world’s best players has long since dissipated. Skinner’s four-hit shutout performance was turned in as a member of Star Auto in the Wallingford Twilight League and it catapulted the team to its second consecutive title.
There are no paychecks, but he still loves the competition.
“It’s hard,” Skinner said. “I’m fighting with myself right now because my body’s breaking down, but my mind still wants to go.”
Skinner tore his MCL pitching in the Manchester Twilight League last year. He enjoys hitting, too — he batted .486 as a high school senior — but swinging the bat is tough.
He continues to savor the mental challenge that pitching offers, and passes on his labor of love to his 7-year-old son and many other youngsters through lessons at Baseball City in Hartford’s South End.
“Now that I’m working with my kid and now that I’m starting to think I should get out before I really hurt myself, I kind of made a deal with the wife that I might be retiring after this year,” he said.
But when Star Auto’s athletic outfielder Josue Lopez and manager Kevin Weir spoke of future get-togethers while toasting a championship Tuesday night, the “kind of” and “might” in his statement indicate the final decision is still pending.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said with a lilt in his voice that changed to congenial laughter, a personality trait that serves him well in the occupation that pays his bills — home and business security sales. “I’ve retired four times. I’m trying to beat Favre’s record.”
A SEA DOG
Skinner pitched in the minors for two seasons, logging a 2.81 ERA in 64 games, all in relief.
Upon signing with the Marlins, he reported to the Utica Blue Sox of the short-season New York-Penn (Rookie) League. He was soon promoted to the full-season Class A Kane County Cougars in the Midwest League.
He posted a 3.00 ERA in 36 games for what he said was the only minor league team to ever clinch a championship by the All-Star break. The Cougars were 88-50. For Skinner, taking the mound for a team with future MLB All-Stars Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Willingham was the experience of a lifetime.
He started 2002 with Kane County, advanced to the Jupiter Hammerheads in the high-A Florida State League and wound up finishing the year with the Portland Sea Dogs.
The Sea Dogs ended the season with a weekend series in New Britain and destiny intervened. A torrential downpour forced postponement of the Saturday and Sunday games. After the Friday night game, many of the Sea Dogs went to a popular night spot in Cromwell when Suzanne Beauchemin walked in.
Her last name would soon change to Skinner.
“I met her on Friday night, we hung out Saturday and we took off on Sunday morning,” he said. “Next thing I know, I took off for San Diego and we had a long-distance relationship for about seven months.”
They met on a rainy day. They were married on a rainy day.
“I think rain is the theme of our life,” he said.
In 105 2/3 professional innings, Skinner yielded just 89 hits and 28 walks while striking out 91 — numbers that would indicate his career was on the rise. But he got caught up in the controversial 2002 sale of the Marlins from current Red Sox owner John Henry to Jeffrey Loria.
Loria, who gained majority control of the Montreal Expos in 1999, was permitted by Commissioner Bud Selig to sell the foundering franchise to the other 29 MLB teams. Loria then purchased the Marlins, freeing up Henry to pursue the Red Sox.
Loria’s management team fired the entire minor league staff and a large portion of minor-leaguers were sent packing. Skinner sensed it was time to get on with his life.
“When spring training hit and all of us got let go, it was one of those things where, ‘Well, I have all my stuff in the car. What am I going to do?’ I took the next step and I moved up to Connecticut,” he said. “It was easier than one person starting over than both of us starting over back in San Diego. Our plan was three to five years in Connecticut and then move to San Diego, but then the economy tanked and we stuck around.”
When Skinner didn’t attract any attention from clubs on the open market, he approached the transition philosophically.
“I just think I was a product of bad timing. I wasn’t the only guy that got let go. At first I thought I got the rug pulled out from under me, but after I got to digest it …
“When you [play baseball] all your life and that’s what you do and someone tells you that you just can’t do it anymore, it hurts. It took me a couple months to realize I can’t have sour grapes over it because I made it. I got to where 99 percent of the kids don’t. For me to get to that level was a blessing and opened the door for me to do other things that most people can’t do, just because I played Double-A.
“They want me to be involved with their programs. If I said I played high school baseball, I have no stock. I’m still a nobody when I tell them I played minor league ball, but it gives me a little validity.”
Skinner was in command from the very start against Executive Kia in Tuesday’s final.
At the point where a 92-mph fastball once exploded from his arm came an assortment of pitches and releases that limited the foe to a few scratch singles. He didn’t help them along with free passes. His Star Auto teammates were one error away from flawless. The result was a 10-0 thrashing.
“I’ve gotten creative over the years,” he said. “I used to use a three-quarter arm slot until I got to pro ball. Once I started to lose [velocity] I had to get a little creative, so I’ve gone sidearm, three-quarter, over the top. When you’re not throwing 92 anymore, [the fastball is] easier to hit.”
When the days of rearing back and firing seeds come to an end, the mental nuances of getting hitters out become of ultimate importance. Perpetuating his craft evolved into disrupting a batter’s rhythm rather than blowing it by them.
Then again, Skinner always has pitched intelligently.
“What got me to the [professional] level was I never walked people,” he said. “I always put the ball in play. [Tuesday] was a prime example of how I used to pitch: ground ball, ground ball, pop-up, scatter a couple hits here and there.
“I’ve always relied on my team to do the work for me. I’m not trying to overpower hitters. I want them to hit the ball. In my mind, if I throw 90 pitches in nine innings, that’s a great outing. If I throw 120 in seven, but have 15 strikeouts, I’m sore.”
He floats an interesting theory that fielders who have to stay on their toes become better hitters.
“If I’m striking everybody out or walking everybody, they fall asleep,” he said.
Tuesday proved the theory has roots. The Automen rapped out 14 hits, four by Skinner’s battery mate Jim Cox, three by Tim Bickford and two each by Mike Thomas and Juan Batista.
The transplanted Californian was glad to be there.
“I never thought I’d be up in the Northeast,” he said. “I was living in San Diego and that’s where I thought I was going to end up. It was a twist of fate. I met my wife. Everything is good now.”
Now maybe she’ll let him play next year.