Long before Zach Britton was a major league baseball player, and well before the left-handed pitcher used his devastating power sinker to emerge as one of the few bright spots for the Orioles in an already-challenging 2011 season, he was a California teenager who nearly paralyzed himself running full speed into a stadium light support because he refused to stop chasing a meaningless batting-practice foul ball.
The Britton family could tell countless stories about Zach's hyper-competitive nature growing up. As the youngest of three brothers, Britton grew to hate losing so much, he would occasionally storm into the house on the verge of tears, vowing to his parents that his elder siblings, Clay and Buck, would never beat him at anything again. Ever. He didn't care that they were older, stronger and faster. Losing - it didn't matter whether it was in basketball, baseball, football or motorcycle racing - drove him a little bit insane.
Britton made it to the big leagues. Along the way, there were other kids who might have had more talent, but none was quite as fearless or competitive as Britton.
"It was really one of the worst days of our lives," said Greg Britton, Zach's father. "When we were in the hospital, the doctors showed us his scans, and he had a bubble on his brain about the size of a quarter. They told us: 'If this doesn't go down in a day or so, we're going to have to drill through his skull to relieve the pressure. And if we do that, it may affect his motor skills.' At that point, you just drop to your knees and start praying."
To this day, Britton, 23, remembers very little about what happened, but he does have a very specific memory of lying in his hospital bed and overhearing the doctors tell his parents that his brain was bleeding.
"When you're young like that, you really have no idea how serious things are," Britton said. "I just wanted to get out of the [intensive care unit] so I could play that next week."
When the swelling subsided after a day and Britton was allowed to go home, he waited a few days, then told his baseball coaches he had been medically cleared to play - something that was not true - and he expected to see action again. His family was not amused when his coaches called to verify what he was saying.
"He's scared us a few times with his intensity," Greg Britton said.
Without that intensity, though, Britton isn't sure what kind of pitcher he would be. He certainly wouldn't be the guy who is 3-1 with a 3.16 ERA as a rookie. He's scheduled to take the mound tonight against the Boston Red Sox, trying to help the Orioles halt a three-game losing streak.
"Kennie Steenstra, my pitching coach [at Double-A Bowie], he always told me that what made me successful on the mound is that I really wanted it more than anyone," Britton said. "I wasn't going to stand for anything other than being successful."
Explaining Britton's success, however, requires a technical explanation as well as an emotional one. Because as far as he's concerned, it has a lot to do with both. If you want to understand why Britton looks like the kind of pitcher who could anchor the Orioles' staff for years to come, you need to hear the story of the accidental sinker, and also the one about Sandi Stephens.
From the technical side of things, Britton was obviously a good pitcher in high school, especially when you consider how rare it is to find a left-hander who can hit the mid-90s on the radar gun.
His family moved from California to Texas when he was 16, and, in time, he fit right in on the Weatherford High baseball team, one of the state's best programs. But it's probably a stretch to say he was a great pitcher. All he really knew how to throw was a fastball. He was actually a better outfielder, and that's what he planned to primarily play at Texas A&M, which offered him a scholarship his senior year.
"I don't think anybody expected me to be in the big leagues early on," Britton said. "There's no chance. I was just playing to get a scholarship."
The Orioles decided to roll the dice with Britton, grabbing him in the third round of the 2006 draft and handing him a $435,000 signing bonus to keep him from playing for the Aggies. But it initially didn't look like the wisest investment when Britton got smacked around in Rookie ball, going 0-4 with a 5.29 ERA in 11 starts for Bluefield.
He acknowledges now that he didn't handle it well. His anger got the best of him. He wanted to smash water coolers after every bad start. Even when he did rein in his temper, he sulked instead.
By the time he got to short-season Single-A Aberdeen the following year, his confidence was a little shaken, to say the least. But one day during a bullpen session, while experimenting with a cut fastball, one of baseball's great accidents just happened to unfold. IronBirds pitching coach Calvin Maduro noticed that instead of cutting, Britton's pitches were sinking like an anchor tossed into the ocean. Britton had just stumbled into throwing a power sinker, one of the toughest pitches to hit.