Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 40: Catching Up With Billy Traber

As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the greats who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.

Countdown to Opening Day – 40 days

When the Indians traded All-Star and future Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets following the 2001 season, they received back what was thought to be quite a haul.

The Tribe acquired starting outfielder Matt Lawton and relief pitcher Jerrod Riggan, as well as infield prospect Earl Snyder and two super-prospects in outfielder Alex Escobar and pitcher Billy Traber. At the time, Escobar was seen to be the shining star of the deal, but Traber was the prospect who made the biggest impact on the Major League club.

Traber – who donned #40 on his back during his lone season with the Indians – was a left-handed starter who was ranked as one of baseball’s top 100 prospects. Drafted out of college in 2000, the Mets were prepared to offer Traber a contract of $1.4 million. At his physical, however, an MRI showed damage to Traber’s pitching elbow and the Mets were able to get their guy for just $400,000.

“My signing was a pretty turbulent and eye-opening affair out of college,” Traber said. “Needless to say, I learned that baseball was a business at the age of 20 the hard way.”

After such a long process of signing, a trade was the last thing on Traber’s mind. “After my first season with the Mets in the minors I was pretty hurt when I was traded away from them,” Traber added. “I would’ve loved to stay and work my way through to Shea but it just wasn’t in the cards.  After what happened during the previous summer during my signing period I was definitely taken aback when I was traded to Cleveland. Being traded for Mr. Alomar was an honor but at the time, selfishly, I wanted to stay in New York.”

Looking back on his experience now, the 36-year-old southpaw realizes that being traded was a blessing in disguise. “I was young and didn’t understand the bigger picture.  It didn’t really matter how I got to the Majors. All that mattered was having a better chance to get there. Cleveland changed the way I looked at baseball in a more positive light. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Indians. They took care of me.”

While the Indians were taking good care of Traber, he was busy taking care of business for the Tribe’s minor league squads. In 26 starts between the AA Akron Aeros and the AAA Buffalo Bisons, Traber compiled an impressive 17-5 record with a 2.94 ERA. He was also voted by Baseball America to possess the best control and best curveball of any prospect in the league and the Indians could keep him in the minor leagues no longer. Traber was called up to the Major Leagues at the start of the 2003 season and he made his Indians debut out of the bullpen on April 4.

Traber pitched well for the rebuilding Indians and seemed to be a big part of their future. He worked as a reliever for the better part of April and May before joining CC Sabathia, Jason Davis, Brian Anderson and Jake Westbrook in the rotation at the start of June. “That season our record wasn’t that great…and it was tough to string together some wins,” Traber remembers. “As a rookie, I was just trying to find my place in a new environment that demands success constantly. Not the easiest task when you’re trying to find your way.”

Traber was able to find some success despite being a young player and all of his successes came to a head during one almost-perfect night at Jacobs Field on July 8.

Heading into the game against the eventual American League Champion New York Yankees, Traber was 4-3 with a 4.89 ERA. He had made seven starts at that point and was coming off of his worst start of the season. What he did, however, was show the Yankees, the Indians and the rest of baseball just what made him such a great prospect.

The Yankees were stymied by Traber all evening long en route to a 4-0 shutout of the Bronx Bombers. What was most impressive, however, was that aside from a John Flaherty single to lead off the top of the third, Traber did not allow a base runner the entire evening. He had thrown a complete game, one-hit, no walks shutout against the mighty Yankees and he had done it in Cleveland where beating New York means so much.

“I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about that game to be honest with you. I’m glad it happened, but for other reasons,” Traber said. “I believe that was the first game of a three-game set with the Yankees at home and (we knew) it would be tough for us to win the series. Starting off that series without using the bullpen was huge for us creating a better chance to win the series outright…and I believe we did. It was nice to be a part of that because winning series were few and far between for us that season. That made it special.”

Now a school teacher, Traber does not reflect back on his special night against New York very often.

“I don’t think about it that much anymore,” Traber said. “I actually have the game on DVD and showed it to my senior class two years ago because they were curious. It was the first time I’d watched it in over ten years.”

After finishing out the 2003 season with a 6-9 record and a 5.24 ERA, Traber was certainly on the Indians radar for the future, but was also hampered with some arm problems. The issues were so bad that the young and promising Traber was forced to sit out all of 2004 and rehab all of 2005, just as the Indians were starting to get good again. Traber found the mental rehabilitation much tougher than the physical.

“(It was) a very humbling experience,” Traber said. “I was lucky to have my good buddy Brian Tallet with me who was going through the same process at the time. Physically the rehab is easy. Mentally it’s a grind. You’re constantly staving off negative emotions and feelings that permeate you daily. I couldn’t have gotten through it without the support of T-Bird (Tallet) and Cleveland’s medical/training staff – with special shout outs to Lee Kuntz and Jim Mehalik. Those two, with all due respect to everyone involved, were with me at my lowest points and built me back up physically; but more importantly mentally.”

The experience also gave Traber some new respect for those behind the sports scene.

“Strength training staffs and training room staffs are the unsung heroes of professional sports,” Traber said. “These people put in long hours to put players back on the field and sacrifice so much to get the job done. After seeing how much time they invested in me coming back from injury, I felt that I owed it to them to push on and fight my way back to the Majors. Worrying about what my career could’ve been before and after the injury would’ve been counter-productive. I just tried to move forward and stay positive. Not the easiest things to do though when you’re out for 18 months. Overall, it was a great character building experience.”

Traber did eventually make it back to the Major Leagues, but he never again pitched for the Indians. During his time with the Tribe, the most memorable moment for the city is unquestionably his dominant performance against the Yankees, but Traber has a much more surprising memory that sticks out in his mind.

“(My favorite memory is) probably just living in the city during the winter during the early stages of my rehab process.” Traber recalls. “It was a pretty mellow time and was nice to experience something else other than Southern California. That might not make much sense weather-wise but the opportunity to get away from everything and experience the city during the snow season was appealing. I just felt that I needed to experience Cleveland in the winter to appreciate it. I’m glad I did. I think I went to every Browns home game that season including a rare Monday Night game. It was awesome. Cleveland fans just get it!”

Traber caught on in Washington for the 2006 season and pitched two years for the Nationals – mainly out of the bullpen. Traber was never really the same after the injuries and the star-promise that he showed as a young Indian phenom was all but gone. Looking back, Traber refuses to blame the injuries, however.

“Injuries didn’t derail my career,” Traber said. “I had a better constructed elbow after the rehabbing than prior to it and a better idea of how my body operates than before. I feel that my inability to adapt to the game at the big league level consistently was more responsible for my ‘derailment’ more than anything else. It would be easy to blame lost time and successes on injury but that wouldn’t be the case for me. I had more than enough chances to make it stick but struggled to do so.”

Traber signed with the Yankees before the 2008 season and pitched 19 games out of the bullpen that season. He then signed with the Boston Red Sox for the 2009 campaign, making only one appearance in the Big Leagues that season. The appearance out of the bullpen would be his last ever in a Major League uniform.

“If I had to think of a ‘final blow’ I’d have to say it was when I was with the Red Sox pitching against the Yankees in my last outing in the Majors at new Yankee Stadium,” Traber said. “I came in for John Smoltz to provide long relief and it was anything but that. I got hit around the park every inning and pretty much got it handed to me the entire night. John Farrell was the pitching coach for Terry Francona at the time and I can remember myself having a feeling of disappointment for letting him down that day. I’ve always admired John because of how he treated myself and other players in the Cleveland organization – with respect and encouragement throughout his time there. They could’ve called a roster player from AAA Pawtucket but they rewarded me with a chance. I’ll never forget Boston for doing that. Class act!”

Traber was granted free agency after the ’09 season and signed as a free agent with the Seattle Mariners for 2010. He pitched in seven AAA games out of the bullpen before being released in July and thus ending his career as a baseball player. When this interview was originally conducted, Traber was working as a science teacher at Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles. His students already knew who he was before he had ever met them in his first year as a teacher, causing Traber to call his first day in the classroom more nerve-wracking than his first day on a Major League mound.

“(It’s a) tough call, but probably the first day of classes – with all due respect to the game – (made me more nervous),” Traber said. “My students already knew more about me than I thought, but I knew nothing about them. That put them in a position of advantage because they were already used to how things worked in the school environment. I was learning on the fly how all of it worked. Both jobs are actually very similar. Your first day in the Majors, and in front of the classroom, you’re considered an expert in your job. Pretty daunting, but cool at the same time.”

With Traber’s students already knowing who he is, he tries to keep his baseball talk to a minimum.

“I’m pretty careful to talk about that in the correct light. I keep it pretty close to the vest,” Traber admitted. “Students ask sometimes but I don’t always give them the goods. I usually try and spin my experience with something that might be useful to them so that it’s not just about me. My biggest goal is for the students to see the work that needs to be done in order to get to where they want to go. They can do it, but only they can put the work in. It’s rewarding, but can be challenging at times to solidify the message.”

Even with the opportunity to be involved with coaching baseball as a teacher, Traber was not involved with the game. “Not really. My focus is on getting my Masters in Education so I can become a better teacher,” Traber said. “Teaching is very similar to coaching. Encouragement, accountability, and responsibility are all factors that help students become successful. That’s the goal. At some point I might start coaching again but teaching is the focus.”

So what else does a former Major League phenom turned science teacher do in his free time?

“(I’m) just enjoying the weekends,” Traber admits. “I forgot how nice it is to look forward to Fridays and having weekends now. It’s great.”

Photo: Associated Press

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