Jake Peavy is younger than you think. He's only 30 years old. But he's been around long enough to know the difference between "LOOK, IT'S JAKE PEAVY!" and "Dude, remember when you were good?"
Peavy won the pitching Triple Crown in San Diego five years ago. In one of baseball's quaintest outposts, he was the most popular figure not named Gwynn or Hoffman. But then came a fluky ankle injury, a trade to the Chicago White Sox, two underwhelming seasons -- and boos.
It was not supposed to be that way. Last year, after his close friend Adam Dunn joined the team, Peavy hoped to return from a rare surgery and pitch the White Sox into the playoffs. Instead, he posted the worst ERA of his career and pitched only 111 2/3 innings. Dunn fared even worse after switching leagues, batting just .159 while his power numbers fell by more than 50 percent.
"Not being who we once were, we were in the same boat," Peavy told me over the weekend. "You'd rather be the one going through it than watch your buddy go through something like that. I recall his family coming to the games, his little boys. I didn't want my little boys coming to the game, because of the obscene stuff fans would yell.
"They pay their money. That's their prerogative, to come and yell and tell you how bad you blankety-blank suck. But at the end of the day, Adam's got his two little boys and his wife sitting there in the stands. That's what killed him and killed me through it all: Your little boys and your family have to go through that, and you feel responsible."
This is not a call for sympathy. Peavy ($17 million salary this year) and Dunn ($14 million) are well aware of how fortunate they are to earn so much money while playing a game.
But if we stop counting the zeroes, we can understand why the dual resurgence of Peavy and Dunn is one of this season's most relatable stories: They were excellent at what they did. Then they weren't. Suddenly, they saw fewer smiles when they arrived at the ballpark. They experienced self-doubt. Their families heard the criticisms. Their work wasn't rewarding anymore. Money can't fix that.
Peavy and Dunn did that part on their own.
Peavy, who starts Wednesday night in Cleveland, ranks third in the American League with a 1.99 ERA. Among qualifying AL pitchers, he has the lowest WHIP (0.75) and ranks among the top 10 in strikeouts. The numbers suggest his fast start is more than a mirage.
Dunn, meanwhile, looks more like the player he was for so many years in the National League. If he maintained his current OPS (.945) over a full season, this would become his best year since 2004. Dunn has clubbed nine home runs -- only two fewer than he had all of last year . "He looks much more relaxed," Tigers manager Jim Leyland observed.
Based on his production to date, Dunn could finish with 40 or more homers and close to 200 strikeouts.
In other words, he's back.
"Now when me and him have a steak dinner, you feel like you're somebody in the town," Peavy said. "The steak dinners last year were at the house."
We can't call this a storybook season for the White Sox. Not yet, at least. They entered Wednesday with a 14-17 record, third in the AL Central. They have scored 121 runs. They have allowed 121 runs. They are the definition of mediocre.
But the organization is in a better place than it was one year ago. The White Sox have traded turmoil (Ozzie Guillen) for tranquility (Robin Ventura). Philip Humber threw a perfect game. Paul Konerko, hitting .345, remains one of the game's consummate professionals. Alejandro De Aza looks like a legitimate everyday center fielder. If the pitching staff stabilizes -- Chris Sale just moved from the rotation to the bullpen -- then this team could play meaningful games in September.
Dunn, 32, believes he can play better. "I'm striking out at an ungodly pace, even for myself," he admitted Sunday. In general, though, Dunn said he feels "normal." And there was nothing "normal" about 2011. Dunn underwent an emergency appendectomy four games into his debut season with the White Sox and never recovered. Asked about his physical state one year ago, Dunn said, "There were some things that were maybe hindering some things." Translation: He wasn't entirely healthy.
Now, he is. He also knows the American League. As we are seeing with Albert Pujols, unfamiliarity breeds outs.
"It's tough," Dunn said. "You see the same pitchers for 10 years. You go to the same ballparks. You eat at the same places. It sounds so (silly). Why does it make a difference? I didn't think it did, either. But it's that comfort level: 'We're playing the Cardinals today. OK. I know how they're going to pitch me.' Now, you go to a bunch of American League parks, you don't know what gate to go in. It's an adjustment. It takes time."
Peavy's move from the NL was made more difficult by a succession of injuries. Actually, it's remarkable that he is pitching at all. Peavy suffered a detached latissimus dorsi muscle behind his right shoulder during a start on July 6, 2010. Three doctors were needed for the surgery that reattached the tendon; it was believed to be the first procedure of its kind on an active big league pitcher.
Peavy made 38 starts from the White Sox from 2009 through 2011. When asked if there were any starts over those two and a half years in which he felt like himself physically, Peavy said, "No, really not at all."
The numbers say Peavy is healthy now. Another number -- the team's $22 million option on him next year -- suggests Peavy could be moved at this July's non-waiver trade deadline if the White Sox are out of the race. "I'm not worried about any of that," Peavy said. "I've been traded before. If that comes about, I'll welcome that and do what I'm asked to do. But I'd love to be in Chicago. It's a great place to play. It's just a good place to be."
It's a particularly good place to be as a thriving professional athlete. Jake Peavy and Adam Dunn are learning that for the first time in 2012.