For so many years, it seemed impossible that Ryan Vogelsong would ever see this moment: stepping onto the mound Saturday night to pitch for the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.
Fourteen years, 15 teams and three continents, from the majors back down to the minors and far abroad, made it hard to believe he had what it took. He made stops in San Jose and Shreveport, Altoona and Allentown, Nashville and Nishinomiya, Osaka and Salt Lake City. In 2010, after two Triple-A teams cut him and his baseball career was all but dead, he took off for Venezuela for one last shot at redemption.
Now, after helping rescue the Giants with the performance of his life Sunday night, Ryan Andrew Vogelsong is reaching the pinnacle of any pitcher's career. After his improbable journey around the globe, his life is finally beginning to match the storybook visions of this once tall, skinny kid, who grew up across the street from a dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania, throwing the ball against the backyard shed and dreaming he was Cal Ripken Jr. and Will Clark.
He would go to bed imagining he was playing in the big game, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs ...
"You literally have dreams in your sleep about being in the World Series," he said this week. "Growing up and playing the role ... and the fact that it's almost here."
For Vogelsong, the dream is "a lot like Game 6," the night that the 35-year-old right-hander's iron will and 94-mph fastball shut down the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series and kept the Giants' World Series dreams alive.
More than 43,000 delirious fans chanted "Vogey! Vogey!" as he left the mound with a career-high nine strikeouts; hundreds more had tweeted photos of enchilada dinners -- Vogelsong's lucky meal -- as if to collectively home-cook the journeyman pitcher a charmed night.
His wife, Nicole, who has consoled far more than celebrated during their seven-year marriage, watched on the verge of tears, her voice raw from cheering.
Now, he is taking the mound in Game 3 of the World Series as the Giants' most consistent starter this postseason, on the road once more, left to prove himself on baseball's biggest stage.
"I can't think of any players whose careers have gone that far downhill and come back to have this kind of success at this age," said John Perrotto, a baseball writer who covered Vogelsong's dismal years with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As a kid, he never made an all-star team; in college, he was a walk-on at a Division II school.
"Everything I've been through in my life was 'Sorry, kid, you're just not that good. You're pretty good, but not good enough to make this team. Keep working hard. Keep practicing,' " Vogelsong said. "The stuff in professional ball was just magnified, but the same stuff I had been going through my whole life."
His father, Harold, who has spent 45 years working for the same shoe company, remembers the painful drives home through farm country in the family's 1981 Ford pickup painted "Carolina blue."
"We would go to tryouts for all-stars, whether Legion or high school. It was so political. He would perform very well and wouldn't be chosen," he said. "There were a lot of rides home saying, 'I don't know why, either.' "
Still, he told his son, "don't fail because you didn't work at it. Never think it's because you didn't work hard enough."
When the coach at Kutztown (Pa.) University told him he would be lucky to be his eighth pitcher, the teenager told his dad, "I know I can perform. I'll be starting. I can play as well as any guy on the team."
He did. Halfway through his freshman year, he started showing the arm that led the Giants in 1998 to make Vogelsong their fifth-round draft pick. In two years, he made his Major League debut with the Giants before they quickly sent him to Pittsburgh in the trade that brought future all-star pitcher Jason Schmidt to San Francisco.
It was the one stop in his journey that is still paying off: While pitching for the Pirates' Triple-A team in Nashville, Tenn., Vogelsong met an aspiring singer who would become his wife. Within a month, he was called up to the majors, but his long road of troubles began.
In his second start, he blew out his arm, requiring Tommy John surgery. "Right out of the gate, he had to deal with a struggle," Nicole Vogelsong said.
After five disappointing seasons in Pittsburgh, the Pirates let him go. His biggest problem was consistency. He'd look strong one outing or string together a few good innings, then lose focus and control.
Getting away might help, he thought, so two years into their marriage the Vogelsongs moved to Japan to revive Ryan's baseball career. He hung on, losing more than he won for three years. "One day, I woke up in Japan and looked in the mirror and said the money I'm making over here isn't why I'm playing the game," he said. "I'm playing to be an MLB player."
And so, at 32, an age most pitchers have either made their mark or long ago got the hint and given up, Vogelsong began another journey through the minor leagues. He signed a free-agent deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, the team he grew up dreaming he'd play for. But while the Giants were making their way to the 2010 World Series, Vogelsong was stuck in Allentown, Pa., struggling with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs before the Phillies cut him altogether, then so did the Angels' Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake City.
"When you're growing up and you envision you want to be a major league player, you imagine it one way, that you're having success," Vogelsong said, "but my major league experience was the total opposite. It was very hard to take."
He was 33 now, with a wife and baby at home -- and a decision to make.
"We had so many nights he would come home and we couldn't understand why he couldn't be the pitcher he wanted to be," Nicole Vogelsong said. "As his wife, who adores him more than anything in the world, that's the one thing I know I can't help him with."
He had one last chance, he told her, but it meant packing again: winter ball in Venezuela. He needed to prove he could still pitch, and he did. The Dodgers got in touch, but Vogelsong reached out to the Giants and Dave Righetti, the pitching coach he'd stayed in touch with since his rookie year.
The Giants invited their one-time prospect to spring training in 2011 with no promises. He stepped in and shut down the Rockies in an early spring game, when ace Matt Cain was scratched with an inflamed elbow. "I've said to a couple guys, 'I feel comfortable again,' " he said after that game. "I feel like I'm supposed to be here."
After being sent to Triple-A Fresno, the Giants called him up that April when Barry Zito was injured. Vogelsong finally found himself mixing his cutter and a hard-breaking curveball with pinpoint command to become one of the league's toughest pitchers.
That July, before a game at Detroit's Comerica Park, after a lifetime of being told he wasn't good enough, Vogelsong was summoned by manager Bruce Bochy, who had something different to tell him: He was now a National League all-star.
As he takes the ball in Detroit with a 2-0 record and 1.42 ERA in three postseason starts, Vogelsong believes God has a plan. "He doesn't bring you to this point to let you fail," he said.
More than himself, he's happy for his wife and his parents, who will be in the stands in Detroit to share the moment. He's thrilled he has reached his biggest game yet with the Giants, where his success story was supposed to begin all those years ago.
"We look back now at our journey, and people say, 'Was it worth it? Would you do it all again?' " Nicole Vogelsong said. "Absolutely. Every minute of what's going on now is worth it all.
"I believe this is his time to shine, and I couldn't be more proud no matter what happens."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.