Matt White is aTriple A pitcher bidding to become the Los Angeles Dodgers' left-on-leftspecialist, the guy who strides out of the bullpen to face Mr. Barry Bonds orMr. Carlos Delgado. In the sixth inning of a somnolent spring training game,however, White encounters Detroit Tigers utility infielder Mark Haske, who hit.239 with one home run in A ball last year and is no bigger than Ryan Howard'sthigh. Still, a lefty hitter is a lefty hitter. White, who has been loweringhis arm angle to broaden the bend on his curveball, gets ahead 0 and 2 withFrisbee curves, misses with two overhand fastballs, induces a weak foul ballwith a sidearm hook and finally strikes out Haske with over-the-top, 92-mphheat. "He could have been Bonds and the pitches wouldn't change," Whitesays later. "It's a 3--3 game. I'm not worried about velocity. I'm lookingfor location and execution of pitches." He throws two hitless innings,striking out three, the type of airtight outing that, if it came in the chillof October, might get White on the cover of a magazine other than GeologyToday.
Yes, he's that MattWhite, the lucky dude who bought 50 acres from his great aunt in 2003 to helpcover her nursing-home care, hoping one day to build a house there. He laterfound some rock--well, not just some rock, 24 million tons of highly prizedrock--that sells for around $100 a ton. On paper, and in the papers, he becamethe "baseball billionaire."
Certainly theestimated value of the quarry in Cummington, Mass., has a line of zeroes anypitcher would envy. Forget for a moment the huge cost of excavating the stuffand stick to the fantasy math. White's $2.4 billion windfall would place him131st on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans in 2006, $100 millionahead of Mark Cuban. He could buy the A's, Angels, Mariners and Rangers andturn the AL West into the AL White. Or he could purchase the Dodgers, asteammates suggested this spring, and pay himself to be the closer. The rock isworth almost 10 times more than Alex Rodriguez's record 10-year, $252 millioncontract. "White," Los Angeles pitcher Randy Wolf says, "should beA-Rock."
The mica schistrock that formed some 400 million years ago during the DevonianPeriod--predating the Mesozoic and Julio Franco Eras--belongs to asquare-jawed, 29-year-old bachelor from Windsor, Mass., who thought he wasgetting a $50,000 plot of land and wound up with the Lord's lottery ticket.Still, $2.4 billion and middling stuff won't buy you a big league roster spot.After allowing just two hits in 9 1/3 innings during the spring, the Dodgersassigned him to the Triple A Las Vegas 51s. "We like his makeup and hisarm, but something has to make him stand out," L.A. pitching coach RickHoneycutt says. "If we have issues with our pen, he's a guy we'd consider.But to get here and stay, he has to dominate lefthanders."
White is with hiseighth organization and hasn't had a cup of coffee in the bigs as much as a fewsips: 9 2/3 innings, in which he allowed 17 hits and eight walks. His 16.76 ERAlooks like the APR on a lousy credit card. White can now squeeze money from astone, yet it is still the game that enriches his soul. If he never pitchedanother big league inning, he says, "I wouldn't be happy. When you go up tothe big leagues and see how awesome it is and get sent down to Triple A again,you realize this isn't where you want to be. I want to get called up and make acareer out of this thing, be known as a big leaguer and not a rock-quarryman."
To White, his timein the bigs, however shaky, is the residue of unwavering commitment. As forwhat made him famous ... well, sometimes mica schist happens.
White and his LasVegas teammates were wolfing down sandwiches and salads before an exhibitiongame against the Double A Jacksonville Suns last week when Ken Huckaby, a36-year-old journeyman catcher, said, "Hey, Whitey, where's thelobster?"
Considering thatmoneybags jokes have been making the rounds since MLB.com reported the story inmid-February, they'd seem old--except for White's delight in the people whohave told them. Outfielder Luis Gonzalez, for example, often sang the themesong from The Beverly Hillbillies when White was in the room, prompting thepitcher, unfamiliar with cultural imperatives like the cee-ment pond, to buythe movie DVD a week ago. "It's neat being in the big league camp andhearing the perspective of guys like Gonzalez and Jason Schmidt, who've beenaround and made good money," says White, who will earn $12,000 monthly inthe minors. "You get to know people by talking about the stone. The guyswere interested."
In the spring,high-number hopefuls are segregated less by race or language than by status.But with the ultimate conversation starter White had an equalizer--even if hefound the media attention embarrassing. He wouldn't make the club, but he hadmade, well, the club.
White usually hasfound a niche. He graduated from the regional high school in Dalton (which alsoproduced major league pitchers Jeff Reardon and Turk Wendell) in 1995 as a150-pounder with a fastball that traveled at speeds that barely turn heads onthe Mass Pike. His plans to attend North Adams State were derailed when aClemson coach attended his no-hitter that summer in an AAU tournament. Whitewas hardly a headliner as a freshman on a Tigers staff that included KrisBenson and Billy Koch, but he gained enough weight and miles per hour that theIndians drafted him in the 15th round after his junior season. White servedthree tours in the Cleveland organization but never pitched for the Indians.His major league debut came with the Red Sox in New York on May 27, 2003. GradyLittle, now the Dodgers' manager, summoned him in the eighth inning with Bostontrailing 5--2. "I don't remember running in from the bullpen," Whitesays, "but there I was pitching for the Red Sox against the Yankees. Beingfrom Massachusetts, it was a dream come true."
Jim and June Whitewere received warmly by the neighboring fans in Yankee Stadium. "They gaveMatt a standing ovation," his mother says. "I don't know if it'sbecause he gave up so many runs."
White allowed sixin two thirds of an inning. He recalls the walk to Derek Jeter as clearly asthe hanger that the Cardinals' So Taguchi poked for a two-run single in White'sonly career start, with Washington in 2005. But then, when you've faced only 53hitters in the Show, you recollect almost every pitch. In hopes of buildingmore big league memories, White has pitched four years of winter ball in theDominican Republic and Venezuela and flown to Japan to audition for the OrixBlueWave in 2005. ("They said I was too short and my fastball wasn't fastenough," says the 6-foot, 200-pound White.) If he finds that somethingextra--maybe with his sidearm release--then maybe he can, as Honeycutt says,separate himself. He can put down roots.
He couldn't putdown roots on those 50 acres, which was the plan when he bought them fromJosephine Howes in 2003. (She died three years later.) Jim, a self-employedlogger by profession, was trying to build a road to the top of the property andkept excavating perfect, flat sheets of rock. "We didn't know what itwas," Matt says of the mica schist, often known in landscaping as Goshenstone after the quarry on the other side of the hill from White's land."But we thought it was pretty good." In 2005 he started a business,Swift River Stone, to sell the rock used to build patios and hearths. Lastyear, as a Phillies' minor leaguer, White even brought some samples to springtraining to drum up business from his more deep-pocketed teammates. "I'mlike, 'Whatever. It's a rock. Great,'" recalls Wolf, a former Phillie.
White didn't knowhow much stone he owned until last August, when Peter Panish, an adjunctprofessor from the UMass department of geosciences, whom he had hired to surveythe land, told him it was rich with mica schist. White was thunderstruck. Hesays, "I'm driving to the park in Scranton when I got the call, and myteammate, Jeremy Cummings, starts punching the calculator on his cellphone andwhispering, 'How much do you sell that stuff for?'"
The quarry wasempty last week while Jim, June and Matt's grandfather, Lincoln Howes, visitedVero Beach. Jim planned to start excavating again this week. Given the start-upcosts--heavy equipment, diesel fuel--the "baseball billionaire" hasbarely made any money in his other career. "Takes a couple of years to getit set up," says Jim, who won't let his son handle rocks because they mightpinch the fingers on his pitching hand. "Barely scratched thesurface."
Matt White onlyhopes the same can be said of the lode of potential in his left arm.
Matt White's windfall, on paper at least, would place him in some richcompany:
|MAGNATE||EST. NET WORTH|
|Sources: Forbes, Seattle Times|
White bought the 50 acres from a great-aunt so that she could pay her medicalbills; only later did he unearth its true value.