New pitching coach Foster ready to write next chapter
Former player rediscovered baseball while working as youth pastor
DENVER -- New Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster is more than happy to set straight the story of how his Major League career ended back in the 1990s, but he doesn't mind the embellishment.
The legend is that Foster, then a pitcher with the Reds, suffered his career-ending shoulder injury doing a skit on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1993. While he notes that it's not true, it's his claim to fame.
"But if it gets laughter and people can still write it, it's fine," Foster said Wednesday.
But it's not even the most interesting or telling story about his life so far. And imagine the stories he'll be able to tell if his tutelage can right the Rockies' pitching staff.
Foster, 48, and the newly hired bullpen coach, onetime Rockies reliever Darren Holmes, 48, were hired Wednesday to replace pitching coach Jim Wright and assistant pitching coach Bo McLaughlin. Wright and McLaughlin had long careers in the Rockies' Minor League system before taking Major League jobs, so this week's hires present an infusion of outside ideas.
Not to mention it gives Foster a new audience for a good story.
In his third season with the Reds, and pitching through pain since Spring Training, Foster and the Reds visited Montreal. Asked at Canadian customs what he wanted to declare, Foster quipped, "I'm proud to be an American." The unamused agent held him for two hours.
When he finally arrived at Olympic Stadium, Reds teammates greeted him with a rousing rendition of the Lee Greenwood song.
Word spread, which led to Leno's invitation.
"I did perform on the Leno show and knocked over some milk bottles doing a skit, Man vs. Machine," Foster said. "They filmed the Leno show at 2 or 3 in the afternoon. That night, I pitched one-plus against the Dodgers, did well, didn't have any problems.
"But the next day we flew to San Francisco. I was warming up in the 'pen and I could tell that my shoulder was barking. I don't remember how it happened, but maybe a reporter put two and two together that I was on the Leno show a day or two before, couldn't throw that day, and ended up going on the DL."
Foster pitched one more game the rest of the season, and never threw another pitch in the Majors.
But Foster's story didn't end.
His success story hadn't even begun.
Needing direction when what he thought would be a lengthy career was over, Foster spoke to his grandfather -- a World War II vet who, Foster said proudly, is still guiding him at age 94.
Foster recalled, "He said, 'What I would do, Steve, is I would come up with a mission statement, something for your life, for checks and balances at the end of the day when you lay your head on the pillow at night. Have you lived your life with purpose?'
"I came up at that time in my late 20s with something that I've lived my life by since then, and I call it the Five E's, and that is encourage daily, engage daily, equip others, empower others and edify others. Encourage. Engage. Equip, Empower. Edify."
It's a simple enough program that involves caring, learning and connecting with his athletes. He began his post-playing career as a scout with the Rays in 1998, and worked in pro and collegiate coaching.
But in 2003, his second year managing collegiate players in Wasau, Wisconsin, in the summer wood-bat Northwoods League, an invitation from a church minister led him away from baseball but toward growth as a person. He became youth pastor at Highland Community Church.
Foster set up weekly Bible study and counseled children who had been in trouble as well as children who had lost a parent. A church-sponsored trip with 25-30 high school students to help provide aid to the city of Jimani, Haiti, ignited him.
"While we were down there, we'd wake up in the morning and go out and play baseball on a field for kids with nothing but shorts on and a glove," he said. "It really reignited the passion I had for baseball, the purity of it. Then in the afternoons and evenings we ended up going over to Haiti and helping some people that had lost their homes and stuff in a big flood.
"A lot of young people experienced brokenness for the first time. These were kids that were leaving their comfortable homes and PlayStations and big-screen TVs and swimming pools in the backyard, and now they are in a city that has been decimated by floods."
Foster found those morning baseball games an oasis amid disaster, and a calling.
Foster came back to pro ball in the Marlins' Minor League system in 2005 understanding that he could help others through baseball. He says he wants to "breathe life" into pitchers, the way people like Rockies' director of pitching operations Mark Wiley (who worked with him with the Marlins), Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild and Royals GM Dayton Moore did for him at various points.
Now Foster takes over a Rockies staff that had the Majors' highest ERA at 4.84 and dealt with crushing injuries to the rotation and bullpen. He'll be leading pitchers in Coors Field, a place that has driven pitchers and coaches crazy over the years. Altitude pales in comparison to the heartbreaking conditions of Haiti, but his love for the game survived that.
"I needed to get back into professional baseball and share the message of faith versus fear, and living by faith and what you can do with your life when taught discipline, simply being able to do what's right, even when it's uncomfortable," Foster said.