The best pitcherin the National League likes to roam San Diego's beachfront and the swankdowntown Gaslamp Quarter in Wranglers, beat-up hunting boots, and camouflageT-shirts. Three years ago he dumped agent Scott Boras, whose hardballing styleconflicted with his own easygoing nature, a move that might have cost himmillions but bought him much peace of mind. Last year a San Diego cardealership gave him a spanking new Hummer, but he preferred the familiarcomfort of his white Chevy pickup. "It just wasn't me," Jake Peavy saysof the black H2.
The folks ofSemmes, Ala., where the San Diego Padres ace grew up, aren't surprised to heartheir town's most famous citizen still holds fast to his country-boy ethos, nordo they profess shock by how far he's come--though their recollections are of ascrawny teenager with rail-thin arms and a pair of legs brittle as twigs."Never was anything much to look at," says Andy Robbins, his middle andhigh school baseball coach. Had the kind of luck too that his favorite crooner,Hank Williams, could've turned into country platinum. Going back to his highschool days, Peavy has been sidelined with a broken ankle he sustained fallinginto a ditch during a jog; a severely cut left hand suffered while taking outthe trash; a sliced heel incurred when he stepped on an open suitcase; and acracked rib, the result of his jumping up and down during a postgamecelebration. "You name it," says his wife, Katie, "and it'shappened to him."
As if thosesetbacks weren't enough, there is this too: He is, without corrective lenses,nearly blind. "Can't see a lick," confirms Houston Astros ace RoyOswalt, one of Peavy's closest pals. Oswalt found this out two winters ago whenhe and Peavy, both avid hunters, were navigating through Pike County in westernIllinois on their way to a weekend in the woods chasing white-tailed deer.Oswalt would steal glances at Peavy, who was hunched over the wheel andsquinting into the darkness as his truck swerved unnervingly along the windingroads. "I made him pull over, and I drove," says Oswalt. "Then--andI hadn't been driving more than 20 minutes--I hit a deer."
By now the entirebaseball world should be convinced: You're in good hands when the kid fromSemmes is behind the wheel--even if he does have 20/300 vision. Three yearsafter becoming the youngest player to win an ERA title since Doc Gooden did it,at age 20, in 1985, Peavy, 26, has cemented his place as one of the game's mostdominant hurlers. Though somewhat undersized for a power pitcher at 6'1",182 pounds, he throws 97-mph heat and for most of April and May he was close tounhittable; through the first weekend of June he was sitting atop the NL injust about every statistical category for starters, including ERA (1.68),strikeouts (92) and walks and hits per inning (0.98). His seven wins was secondonly to Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels, who had eight.
That's enough toimpress even the Padres' resident four-time Cy Young winner. "He's reallygood," says Greg Maddux. After a pause he adds, "One of the best in thegame." After another pause he finally allows, "Could be thebest."
Opponents are lesscoy in their appraisals. "He comes at you with everything hard," saysAtlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox. "He's as good as it gets."
Says Mike Maddux,the pitching coach of the Milwaukee Brewers and Greg's brother, "Hecommands his fastball down and away as good as anybody. The way he's throwing,you'd have to say he's the best in the league right now."
In the summer of2000 Padres general manager Kevin Towers was sitting in the stands at a Class Aball game in Fort Wayne when a skinny teenager sat down next to him andintroduced himself. It was the kid out of St. Paul's Episcopal in Mobile whomthe year before Towers had taken in the 15th round of the amateur draft on therecommendation of scout Mark Wasinger, who had raved about the kid's moundmoxie.
"I don't getit," the kid said after a while. "Why don't these hitters ever makeadjustments? They're supposed to be professionals. I make adjustments everytime I'm out there pitching."
Recalls Towers,"That was the first time that I had met Jake--and I remember thinking, Isthis kid 19 or is he Greg Maddux?"
Peavy burned hisway through the minors in 3 1/2 years thanks to a polished repertoire thatincludes a high-90s fastball, an 88-mph slider, a low-80s changeup and anoccasional mid-70s curve. In 2004 and '05, his second and third full seasons inthe majors, he was 28--13 with a 2.61 ERA and struck out more than a batter perinning. Last year, however, he slipped to 11--14 with a 4.06 ERA as he battledtendinitis in his right shoulder. "I just could not kick it," hesays.
There was anotherreason for the regression: Peavy's worsening eyesight. Without contacts orglasses, all Peavy sees is "a big blur of colors," but his eyesight iscorrectable with the right prescription contacts. He shrugs off hisdeficiency--"It's just something I've dealt with for a long time, somethingI've gotten used to and something I'll just have to continue to dealwith"--but it became so bad last season that teammates believe he oftencouldn't see the catcher's signs. (In high school, Peavy's catchers always worewhite tape around their fingers.) Peavy was given a new prescription in springtraining of 2006, but it wasn't until August that he got new lenses. Perhapsnot accidentally, he was 5--3 with a 2.85 ERA over the last month and a half ofthe season.
This year Peavy isnot only in better health but also pitching smarter. That happens when you canlean on a future Hall of Famer for daily tutorials. Peavy first met Greg Madduxlast December, the day after the 41-year-old signed a one-year, free-agent dealwith San Diego. Peavy had been in town for the National Finals Rodeo in LasVegas, where Maddux lives, and the two got together and instantly hit it off.They are constantly talking pitching in the clubhouse, in the dugout, in theback of the team plane. During the season they golf three or four times a week,and on off days on the road they regularly dine together at the finest steakhouse in whatever city they are in. "[Maddux] is always willing to giveadvice to anyone who asks," says righthander Chris Young, who often joinsthe two for dinner, "and he's always good to have around because he knowsthe best restaurants and always picks up the tab."
Padres coachesrecognize the effect Maddux has had, noting that Peavy is less inclined to tryto get by simply on his stuff. "He's a hyper kid, wants things done,"says San Diego pitching coach Darren Balsley, "but now, more so than inpast years, when he gets into a jam, he slows down the pace of the game. Heslows down his thought process, focuses on each pitch--and I think a lot ofthat is Greg's influence. Jake's a sponge right now. He's not going to letanything get past him without figuring out if it's right for him."
Peavy marvels athis good fortune. His favorite team growing up--besides the Crimson Tidefootball team, of course--was the Atlanta Braves, with whom Maddux won threestraight Cy Young Awards from 1993 through '95. "The biggest thing I'velearned from him is that location is the top priority," Peavy says. "Healways says, 'If you locate your pitches, you've got a chance,' and I've reallytaken that to heart. He's also got an amazing memory that he can draw from. IfI'm not 100-percent sure of what I should be throwing to Jeff Kent to start thefifth inning, I'll ask him."
Maddux scoffs atthe idea that he deserves any credit for Peavy's success ("I haven't thrownone pitch for him," he says), but he doesn't hide his fondness for histeammate. "I love the way he competes," he says. "Every day hewants to do everything he can to go down as one of the best. He's a lot of funto watch."
Maddux isn't theonly Cy Young Award winner on Peavy's speed dial. Peavy considers 1984 winnerRick Sutcliffe, a former Padres broadcaster who has worked with San Diego'spitchers, one of his closest friends. Peavy also regularly text-messages RogerClemens, whom he got to know when they were teammates in last year's WorldBaseball Classic. And he has regular conversations with Dodgers' Hall of FamerDon Sutton, a fellow Alabamian. "It's amazing that the guys I used toidolize are now people I can call my friends and talk to any time," saysPeavy. "I've learned something different from everyone. From Roger I'velearned so much about having a presence on the mound, about being the guy theteam can count on. From Don Sutton I've learned to pitch to lineups, to pickyour battles. It's a continuing education."
The old guys, inturn, see a lot of themselves in Peavy. "He's old school," says44-year-old Padres lefthander David Wells. "He's got a lot of passion. Heshows his emotions on his sleeve--unlike a lot of other young guys--and I likethat. He knows he's good, that he can be one of the great ones, but still, he'sreally humble about it. He's not going to show anyone up. He knows how to dothings the right way."
During theoff-season Wells invited Peavy to his lodge near Lake Huron for a weekendhunting trip. "He's the same guy when he's out hunting--intense,ultracompetitive," says Wells. The veteran does have one complaint aboutthe kid, though. "He just needs to stop taking his damn cellphone into thetrees. He likes talking so much, and he's got so many damn people he talks to,it's embarrassing."
One of thosepeople with whom Peavy often chats is Oswalt, a two-time 20-game winner. Sincethey first bonded two years ago at the All-Star Game in Detroit, the two havegotten together regularly during the winter for hunting trips, and during theseason they swap scouting reports by phone and talk hunting, fishing and, asPeavy puts it, "other things rednecks talk about." Says Oswalt, anative of Weir, Miss., "We're pretty close as far as who's the biggerredneck. Mississippi did just pass Alabama in test scoring, so they have theupper hand on us now. I'm the educated redneck. He's the uneducatedredneck."
A self-described"ol' country boy, through and through," Peavy might not dispute Oswalt.He, Katie, and their two kids--Jacob, 5, and Wyatt, 3--spend off-seasons inSemmes, where Jake's parents, Danny, who owns a cabinet-making shop, andDebbie, a mail carrier, still live. Under every ball cap Jake wears, he writesthe letters bp, the initials of his grandfather, Blanche Peavy, who lived nextdoor and would spend his afternoons with young Jake in the yard that bridgedthe two houses. With Blanche videotaping, Jake would pitch from a mound andtake swings in the homemade batting cage until the sun went down, and then thetwo would head inside and study the video. "He's the biggest reason I wasalways so serious about baseball," Jake says of his grandfather. In 1994Blanche was working at the cabinet shop when a blade of a high-speed fansnapped off and pierced one of his eyes. Blanche ended up in a coma and diedthree weeks later. Says Jake, "A day doesn't often pass where I don't thinkof him."
Among otherthings, Blanche imbued his grandson with an SEC linebacker's competitiveness.During starts on the mound Jake is constantly shouting at himself, keeping arunning PG-rated commentary on how he's doing. Gosh durn it, Peave! Make thepitch, Peave! That-a-way, Peave! The same intensity is there every time hesteps to the plate as well. In a game against the Diamondbacks on April 19,Peavy hit a triple on which he slid headfirst into third base. "I get firedup watching him pitch," says Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes. "Iget fired up watching him hit."
"With hisattitude and his determination, he's just an animal," says Colorado firstbaseman Todd Helton. "If I didn't have to face him, he'd be one of myfavorite guys in the game."
Peavy can'timagine how life could get any better. He is the top dog of arguably the beststaff in baseball--San Diego's 2.94 ERA at week's end was 40 points lower thanthat of any other major league club--and the Padres, through Sunday, were tiedwith the Dodgers atop the hypercompetitive National League West. Back home inAlabama, he and Katie are building, on 200 acres of land they recentlypurchased, a new cabin along a beautiful man-made lake. He and Oswalt are alsotalking about buying a chunk of land in Illinois on which they can chase theregion's famed whitetail.
But when asked ifhe envisions himself pitching for the Padres five years from now, Peavy, whosefour-year, $15 million contract carries him through at least the end of nextseason (the Padres hold a club option for 2009), says he isn't sure. "Rightnow it's a great situation. San Diego is my home away from home, and we love itthere," he says. "But there are some teams that when my free agent daysare here, I'd definitely love to entertain offers to play for." He stopsshort of identifying those teams, but it's clear that Peavy longs to be closerto Semmes. "Things are going so great right now," he says, "thatall I want to do is enjoy every minute, to take things day by day."
His vision may notbe 20/20, but this ol' country boy isn't blind to the rich possibilities thatthe future could hold.
Tom Verducci profiles the next Next Big Thing in theNational League West, flamethrowing Giants' rookie righthander Tim LincecumONLY AT SI.COM.