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Hometown of Defiance still wowed by Billingsley

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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DEFIANCE, Ohio

Around here, the land is flat, the soybean fields are omnipresent, the General Motors foundry is smaller but surviving, and sports matter more than they do pretty much anywhere else. The nearby state lines tug at the town's rooting interests. Michigan is 30 miles to the north, Indiana about the same distance to the west. Detroit and Cleveland are less than three hours away, Cincinnati a little more. The Browns are the favorite NFL team, and there are Steelers, Bengals and Lions followers, too. Ann Arbor is a shorter drive than Columbus, so there are some Michigan supporters in this part of the Buckeye State. Baseball fans generally choose between the Tigers and Indians, with a small percentage picking the Reds. Right now, though, there are two teams that enjoy near-universal support: the Defiance High School Bulldogs and the Los Angeles Dodgers, particularly on those nights when Chad Billingsley, the strapping local hero, is their starting pitcher. At least, that's how it appeared on Friday inside a restaurant along State Route 66. Around 7:45 p.m., all seven big-screen televisions were tuned to that night's Tigers-Indians game. At the top of the hour, five switched to the Dodgers-Brewers telecast, live from Milwaukee. As the cameras showed Billingsley warming up, applause crackled at a few tables. "Dodgertown overnight," Steve Zeigler said. Zeigler was Billingsley's history teacher at the local high school. Like a lot of people in town, he hasn't forgotten about the strong-armed kid who graduated six years ago and has proven to the kids here that they, too, can Make It. Billingsley, 24, spends his winter between residences in Pennsylvania and Arizona, but Defiance still claims him as its own. And there's no telling what sort of excitement will surge through town on Tuesday, when the right-hander makes the first of what could be many All-Star appearances. "It was a thrill for me to be on the radio and announce, 'We've got an All-Star in town,'" said Rick Small, morning host on the local WDFM-FM (98.1). "It's one of those goosebump-type things. It really is. In a town like this, we sort of ride his shoulders to the major leagues. It's our eyes to the world." A cynic would wonder if folks in Defiance — a town like so many others in the Midwest — would be jealous of someone enjoying wealth and renown while others struggle economically. But that doesn't seem to be the case here. Every fifth day, a good number of people trade their royal blue Defiance hat for a royal blue Dodgers hat. It's no different from the innate emotion that comes out on all those autumn Fridays: They just pull for the local guy. "People are willing to go out to Buffalo Wild Wings, stay up for the West Coast games and watch him pitch," said Mark Scott, a classmate who caught two of Billingsley's no-hitters as a senior. "That's a pretty cool thing." "There's a hometown feeling you get there," Billingsley said from Milwaukee, during a weekend telephone interview. "The people there love their sports, love their football. It's like in that movie, 'Friday Night Lights,' when the whole town shuts down to watch the high school sporting events. It's a great feeling to have that support." Some pitchers on the National League All-Star team were born in places more associated with an ability to nurture major league talent. Heath Bell, Dan Haren, Trevor Hoffman and Ted Lilly are from California, Francisco Rodriguez and Johan Santana from Venezuela. But Billingsley hails from Defiance, with its fleet of combine harvesters and population near 17,000. The local college has roughly 1,000 undergraduates. Sam Hornish Jr., the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, is probably the best-known non-ballplayer from the area. Even more remarkable, it's within the realm of possibility that future NL All-Star teams will have two Defiance High School graduates on the pitching staff. Left-hander Jon Niese, one of the New York Mets' top prospects, is 4-1 with a 1.09 ERA over his last seven starts at Class AAA Buffalo. The two were varsity teammates in 2003, Billingsley's senior season. They even played on the same Little League team, Baker-Shindler Ready-Mix and Contracting, in 1996. "All the pitchers wanted to be like him, ever since we were in Little League," Niese said by telephone on Sunday. "The pitchers looked up to him." Ask Billingsley who is most responsible for the development of his golden arm, and the answer comes quickly: his father, Jim Billingsley. "Everybody thought my dad was crazy for the stuff we did," Billingsley said. "Everybody talked down on him, but that ended up being one of the better things for me, as far as creating arm strength and durability. A lot of parents and coaches said, 'You're stupid. You're going to throw that kid's arm out.' But he was very smart about it. He knew when to back off. "We'd throw softballs to make my arm stronger. When I was in Little League, the mound distance was 46 feet. But I would throw with my dad at 60 feet." Defiance baseball coach Tom Held, a former minor league pitcher, also credited Jim Billingsley for helping to build his son's endurance at a young age. Billingsley had a heavy workload in high school — at least until the first-round projection demanded a more cautious 75-pitch limit during his senior year. Held describes himself as an "old-school baseball guy" who doesn't believe in rigid pitch counts. He said Billingsley threw seven-inning complete games on a regular basis in high school. "Until his senior year, he'd throw a complete game and come in the next day and close," Held said. "It was nothing. He would go on two days' rest. He would go Tuesday-Friday." So far, at least, those pitches have seemingly served him well. Billingsley has never spent a day on the disabled list in his big league career. He finished the first half with a 9-4 record, 3.38 ERA and 119 strikeouts, fifth-most in the National League. There is little doubt that he earned his way to St. Louis. His parents, who still live in Defiance, will join him there, along with his wife, Tiffany. Held is very happy to remind the town's current ballplayers of what Billingsley has done. Once one player makes it big, Held said, it's easier for the younger kids to believe that they can, too. On the back of one dugout at the school's ballfield, Held has posted a list of the Defiance pitchers who have hit 90 mph or above on the radar gun. ("Every little kid wants to get on the 90 Club," Held said.) The latest entry is Dace Kime, Class of 2010. "It's a legacy for the kids to follow," said Small, the local radio host. On Tuesday, though, you can expect the aspiring pitchers and pretty much everyone else to stop work roundabout 8 p.m. local time, as the town anticipates its latest bit of local sports lore. First, there was Billingsley's big-league debut in 2006, when people skipped work and crammed into the restaurant to watch the afternoon game. Now this. What could be bigger? Well, maybe Billingsley versus Niese.
Tagged: Tigers, Brewers, Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, Padres, Diamondbacks, Johan Santana, Ted Lilly, Francisco Rodriguez, Dan Haren, Heath Bell, Chad Billingsley

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