- - Sunday, June 18, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mike Rizzo loves his University of Houston pitchers.

Last week the Washington Nationals general manager selected left-handed pitcher Seth Romero out of Houston with his team’s first pick in the 2017 First-Year player draft.

When he was director of scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004, Rizzo pushed for another pitcher out of Houston — Garrett Mock in the third round.

Mock makes me smile.

On his Facebook page recently, Mock posted a note remembering the first time he took the mound in the major leagues — for the Nationals on June 8, 2008, against the San Francisco Giants:

“How time flies!!!! 9 years ago today I made my major league debut for the Washington Nationals. I am so I am thankful for that season of life and the memories. I am also thankful for the season of life I am in now. Thanks to those who supported me along my career. Love y’all!”

It made me smile — so I called the 34-year-old former pitcher.

My fond memories of Mock — traded to Washington in August 2006 with Matt Chico for Livan Hernandez — have nothing to do with his pitching. His first start wasn’t memorable — four runs on seven hits and three walks in 4 1/3 innings pitched.

And his three-year career in Washington wasn’t noteworthy — in 55 appearance, 19 of them starts, Mock, who had good stuff, went 4-13 with a 5.17 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 135 2/3 innings pitched.

No, Garrett Mock makes me smile because of what he did for Elijah Dukes.

You remember Elijah Dukes, don’t you? The feared and frightening figure who arrived at spring training with Washington in 2008 after playing his way out of Tampa Bay with a long list of troubles — including fights with teammates, club officials and umpires and death threats to his wife — only to be welcomed by then Nationals general manager and franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden in a December 2007 trade.

At the time, Bowden was assembling a motorcycle gang, one of the worst rosters ever put together in baseball, a who’s who of trouble — Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Felipe Lopez, Paul LoDuca and Dmitri Young among a team that, in the year Nationals Park opened, lost 102 games.

When Dukes arrived in the Nationals clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium — with a special security guard hired by the team to keep him out of trouble — everyone kept their distance.

Not Garrett Mock. He walked over to Duke’s locker, introduced himself and shook his hand.

It may seem like a small gesture, but believe me, no one was jumping at the chance to embrace Elijah Dukes. But this 24-year-old country boy from Houston did, and I never forgot that scene.

“I just remember everyone was sort of standing around there,” Mock said. “It was like a middle school dance. The day I met Elijah I just wanted to introduce myself and let him know that I loved him and then I was there for him. When we put that uniform on we’re all on the same team.

“I don’t remember the exact things that surrounded him but there were a lot of things,” Mock said. “I don’t think too many players ever had more raw talent than that guy. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know a dad gum thing about this guy or what has been reported about him. but if we are on the field all that stuff is off to the side. I figured if I go up and introduce myself, I’ll let him know who I am as a person and hopefully earn his respect, too.”

It wasn’t a life-changing moment for Dukes, who struggled with injuries and personality problems until he was released in March 2010 and was soon out of baseball altogether. And Mock’s career came to a halt in 2010 when he suffered a neck injury that required surgery, and though he had stints in the Red Sox, Astros and back in the Diamondbacks organization, he never reached the major leagues again.

“It was tough for me to watch baseball when I got done, but now I’ve been able to watch some games, and I’m rooting for Washington,” Mock said. “It’s cool to see some of the success those guys are having.

“I was in rehab in Florida and remember seeing Michael Taylor there,” Mock said. “He had a couple of bad days in instructional ball, and I remember telling him that he was going to be a big leaguer some day and make a difference. It’s great now to watch a guy like him succeed.

“There is not a player in baseball that deserves more credit than Ryan Zimmerman,” Mock said. “He is one of my favorite players of all time. I coach kids now and show highlights of Zim and tell kids, ‘This is how you’re supposed to play baseball.’

Mike Rizzo drafted me in 2004 and seeing what he is doing with that team is great,” Mock said. “Rizzo believed in me, and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have the memories that I’ve got now. If you see Rizzo give him a hug and tell him I’m doing great.”

Of course he is.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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