Brewers pitcher Michael Fiers has an uncanny ability to sidestep adversity.
By RYAN KARTJEFS Wisconsin
MILWAUKEE — It was nearing 2:30 a.m. in early January 2008, as Michael Fiers fought to keep his eyes open. He stared into the darkness of the Florida Turnpike ahead of him, continuing to drive on while his vision grew ever hazier.
He already knew this had been a bad decision, choosing to avoid traffic by driving through the night, rather than waiting until morning to begin his journey from his family's home in Pompano Beach, Fla., to Cumberland County (Ky.) College, where he was set to start the second leg of his collegiate baseball journey. But there was no turning back now.
Soon, the dim lights lining the turnpike began to fade. His eyes slowly closed, the highway lulling him to sleep.
Michael Fiers, now a promising rookie starting pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers, was taught from a young age that if he wanted something in life, he'd have to earn it himself. He didn't come from much — his father was a construction worker and his family never had money to throw around — but it was the only life he knew.
"I never had the huge house or the fancy cars," Fiers said. "It wasn't the easiest life, but I think it was good for me growing up."
Fiers had a dream of playing professional baseball, but his high school in Deerfield Beach, Fla., didn't offer much in the way of a baseball pedigree. And with a fastball that topped out in the mid-80s, it was clear Fiers had a long way to go if he planned on fulfilling that dream.
But one coach from Broward County (Fla.) Community College, Felipe Suarez, had heard a few positive things about Fiers from a friend who had seen Deerfield Beach play. Suarez couldn't help but be intrigued by the raw product he saw in Fiers, a pitcher who — unlike many of the big-time pitching prospects in the state — never had his own pitching coach because he couldn't afford one.
Suarez could see Fiers had a stubbornness about him, an edge Suarez described as "a permanent chip on his shoulder."
"His competitiveness was something you could identify right away," Suarez said. "It didn't take you long to realize that this kid competes. There was never any fear in him."
So when Fiers didn't receive many offers to continue playing baseball after high school, Suarez told him to come to Broward. He believed he could bring something out in Fiers, and soon the coach had taken him under his wing. And Fiers, who had shied away from relying on people in the past, began to listen and internalize Suarez's lessons.
Several obstacles still blocked his path though, as Fiers was deemed ineligible in his first season at Broward. He continued to fight through his redshirt season, though, and saw some success in his remaining time at the school. But when it came time to find a four-year-college, Fiers received only a few offers.
Frustrated, Fiers chose the school that offered him a near-full scholarship, Cumberland. Even more determined than he was at Broward, Fiers began to alter his delivery, hoping somehow to raise his velocity. Soon, he had hit 90 on the radar gun, and he called Suarez with the news.
Suarez didn't believe him at first. "You're throwing 90? Or you're driving it down the highway?" he joked.
He headed home for Christmas break that year with things finally looking up. And after watching the BCS National Championship game at home with his family, Fiers decided he would try to get back to Cumberland by early morning, hoping to beat the traffic.
Suarez called him before he left that night. "Drive safe," his former coach warned him.
The impact forced Fiers' eyes wide open.
Asleep at the wheel, Fiers had allowed his car to drift off the highway and directly into a guardrail. The collision ejected Fiers from the driver's seat and through the windshield of the car. His body flailed toward the guardrail, as everything went black again.
In severe pain, Fiers regained consciousness a few minutes later, hazily making out the lights of passing semi-trucks. He was stuck between the two guardrails that formed the barrier, his leg dislocated and hanging over the rails.
Immediately after regaining consciousness, just one thought crossed his mind. He checked his right throwing arm for serious damage, praying that nothing had happened to it. After all he had fought for and earned already, his baseball dreams couldn't end like this. Luckily, his arm proved to be fine.
The rest of his pain, however, was severe. He tried to raise himself up on the guardrail and noticed the aching in his back. He had fractured four bones and was lucky not to be paralyzed.
"At that point," Fiers said, "it was pure adrenaline."
With the darkness engulfing Fiers and the rest of the turnpike, he tried to signal trucks to stop, to no avail. It was too dark. But soon, about a half hour after Fiers' accident, an ambulance found him on the highway, not too far past Orlando.
The pitcher didn't spend long in the hospital, but wearing a back brace for nearly a month proved to be as difficult a challenge as Fiers could remember. Forced to forego his season at Cumberland, Fiers was alone most days at his parents' home — his friends at school and his parents working all the time. But he had to make it back, he told himself. Once he had regained some abdominal motion, he began loosening up his arm by throwing with a friend's dad.
True to the rest of his life, Fiers wasn't going to be given an easy route back to pitching again.
"I never thought it was over," Fiers said. "At the time of the accident, I didn't know the severity of my injuries, but after I got back home and could feel that I was going to get better from this; I knew I had to just take some time. I had to get ready for summer ball to play in June. I had four months to get ready for that, and I was able to play that and I thought to myself, ‘OK, I can do this.' "
Nearby Nova Southeastern University had toyed with the idea of giving Fiers a scholarship but was concerned Fiers hadn't fully recovered from his January accident. So Suarez did his best to assure Nova Southeastern, his alma mater, that Fiers would be worth the risk.
"I told them he was a competitor that could throw any pitch at any time for a strike," Suarez said. "They said it was a high risk, and I told them it wasn't. I'd vouch for Mike any time."
Sure enough, halfway through the season, Fiers called Suarez with a grin his former coach could hear through the phone. As the single-season strikeouts leader at the Florida school, Suarez learned his record was in trouble. With a sense of deception greater than any other pitcher in school history, Fiers was on pace to blow past Suarez's 126-strikeout mark that he set in 1996. "I'm coming after your record," he told his mentor over the phone.
A little more than a year had past since Fiers' accident — a mistake that could have claimed his life — and Fiers was suddenly one of the most dangerous pitchers in college baseball. He led the nation in strikeouts with 145 in 108 2/3 innings that season, enough to intrigue the Milwaukee Brewers to take a closer look.
And in the 22nd round of the 2009 MLB draft, Milwaukee took a chance on Fiers.
He had fought his way to this point. He had recovered all on his own from his accident. Changed his delivery. Pushed himself to get stronger. And willed himself to becoming a 22nd-round pick. He knew the work wasn't done. But finally he had been given something: a chance.
"All along, he had to be tough to survive," Suarez said. "I think by the time he got to Nova Southeastern, he was so tired of being an underdog. He pitched better and had more success than others around him, but those guys were getting further because of velocity and stature. It was motivation for him.
"For him, it was always about survival. He'll find a way to survive out there."
At every level in the minors, Fiers continued to succeed. In 2011, he was named Brewers minor league pitcher of the year. And in 2012, his goal has finally been reached. He is a major leaguer, and there is no doubt in his mind — or anyone else's — that he has earned it.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke didn't have very high expectations for Fiers, who he knew will never be known for his stuff or his velocity, when the team called him up for an emergency start in late May. But there was something about the right-hander — the same something that had intrigued Suarez. It continued to show through as Fiers began to blaze his way through major league hitters.
"I don't think you're ever sure when a guy goes out coming up from the minor leagues," Roenicke said. "What kind of start is he going to give you? … When you know a guy can give you length and can keep you in ballgames, it's huge."
His first half included a 2.31 ERA and 3-3 record in seven starts and a streak of 21 1/3 scoreless innings. He struck out more than a batter per inning despite his lack of a dominant fastball.
"He's been unbelievable," Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said, "one of the few bright spots in a dark and ugly season to this point."
It wasn't so long ago that things were dark and bleak for Fiers. And it's clear that those experiences and his beginnings have noticeably humbled him.
He even has a running joke with his friends back at home, kidding that they live off of the numerous instances of God testing them. He still remembers all the challenges: the lack of college offers, the accident and the questions of whether he could recover. To Fiers, who has pushed through so much adversity and navigated so much darkness, the joke isn't so much a joke anymore.
He recently walked off the field after seven more strong innings and stretched his arms into the air. Miller Park erupted in a standing ovation, only acutely aware of how hard he had battled to get there.
"Knowing Mike," Suarez said, "there was no doubt in his mind, even after he'd broken his back and was in a half-body cast that he was going to pitch again. Just knowing him, I know that's true. He's one of the more stubborn individuals I've ever met. He's a fighter. That's the type of mentality that will make sure he succeeds in the majors.