When new A’s right-hander Kendall Graveman was about eight years old his father, Gary, brought home a pitching rubber in order to build a mound in their backyard in Alexander City, Ala. Kendall remembers gathering dirt from the yard to form the mound, holding one end of a tape measure as Gary gauged the distance from the rubber to home plate.
“It took a couple hours and it wasn’t the best mound,” Graveman said. “But at that time, I thought it was the best mound in the world.”
The mounds Graveman throws from now are a little more official. He’s competing this spring for one of the open spots in the A’s rotation, having arrived in the Josh Donaldson trade with Toronto. The 24-year-old is scheduled to make his first Cactus League start Friday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He still smiles fondly, though, recalling that homemade mound. Gary had to keep his son away from it some days so Kendall, who wanted to pitch every day, would not overtax his arm. Gary caught, and if a pitch got past him, Kendall would have to retrieve it.
“It was a pretty far run, too,” Graveman said. “It kind of sloped downhill and into the woods. But it made me learn quickly to throw a lot of strikes.”
Graveman says he spent hours growing up behind the house with his older brother, Kyle, and his father. A longtime physical education teacher who coached his sons at several levels, Gary also built a batting cage where the boys could hit.
“All we had to do,” Gary said, “was step out in the backyard.”
Some days, it was football rather than baseball – one on one between Kyle and Kendall, first to so many touchdowns, Gary as the quarterback.
“Inevitably, whoever lost would cry, they’d be so competitive,” Gary said. “I’d always say, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ Of course, the next day they’d come home from school and say, ‘Daddy, would you quarterback for us again?’ And it never failed – whoever lost would cry again.
“They didn’t like losing. But they learned there’s a right way to lose, too.”
Kendall went on to pitch at Mississippi State before the Blue Jays drafted him in the eighth round in 2013. But it wasn’t until Single-A ball last year that he developed the pitch that helped him blaze through Toronto’s minor-league system.
One day, Graveman says, he took his normal four-seam fastball and tried “closing off” his body during the delivery and shifting his grip on the ball. He noticed some cutting action on the pitch and decided to experiment with it in a game.
The first time he threw it not only did the batter swing and miss but his catcher, Derrick Chung, was so fooled by the late movement that the ball shot to the backstop. After the inning, Chung came into the dugout and asked, “What did you do? Because we need to continue to do that.’”
Aided by that cutter, Graveman rose through five levels of the Blue Jays’ system, making his major-league debut last September.
“It seemed like every month I was calling family and friends saying, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be there anymore,’” Graveman said. “I never got used to a spot.”
Darold Knowles, the pitching coach last year in Dunedin, called Graveman’s a “meteoric rise,” but said he wasn’t shocked to see the right-hander move up quickly.
“At the end of spring training last year, when he was sent to Low-A and I was coaching in High-A, he said to me, ‘I’ll see you soon,’” said Knowles, who pitched for the A’s in the early 1970s. Knowles says Graveman was exceedingly polite and “like a sponge” for knowledge, “the type of young man I think every pitching coach loves to work with.”
Once Kendall left for college, he said, his father “laid back” from giving him pitching advice. But the two still talk almost every day. Gary Graveman is an assistant baseball coach at Benjamin Russell High School in Alexander City, where Kendall attended, so Kendall shares what happened at A’s camp, then asks about Benjamin Russell.
“(Growing up), even if it wasn’t baseball – if it was football or basketball – (father and son) would always talk and see how to improve,” Kendall said. “That’s his biggest thing, he never wants me to sit still in anything. He wants me to see how I can get a percentage better.
“I think that’s with anybody in life, if that’s your job or to be a better father or husband. We can always be better and find ways to get better. And I think that’s been huge that he’s just implemented that in me.”