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Top of the class: Former substitute teacher, MLB All-Star Steve Delabar vying for bullpen role with Cleveland Indians

By Zack Meisel • Mar 9, 2017 at 2:30 PM

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A steel plate and nine screws hold together Steve Delabar's right elbow.

The hardware serves as a reminder of how far the pitcher's career veered from a straightforward path, with stops at a slow-pitch softball league and at John Hardin High School in his native Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

He's in camp with the Indians, seven years later, vying for perhaps the only vacancy in the club's bullpen. He's 33 and a few years removed from his last proficient big-league season. But counting him out would be an ill-advised practice of ignoring his past.

Delabar was fixated on playing slow-pitch softball for the rest of his life. Five or six times per week, he manned the outfield, swung the bat and ran the bases, all of the simple joys and responsibilities that are foreign to relievers.

Someone told him he'd fall in love with softball, that he'd feel that itch.

"I sure did," Delabar said. "I was able to fill that void that I had from playing."

He had his professional baseball opportunity. It didn't pan out. He floated around the lower ranks of the minors, toiling in A-ball and the independent leagues before his elbow simply tapped out. Well, it actually snapped.

So, in 2010, Delabar was content with a potential life as a slow-pitch softball player, a part-time baseball instructor and a gym and health teacher. He already served as a substitute, teaching those wide-eyed second graders on one day, those middle schoolers buzzing with relentless energy the next, and those get-me-out-of-this-dungeon high-school seniors another day.

Delabar's career hasn't traveled a linear path, though. It's taken him for some twists and turns and has spit him out at some unlikely venues. In 2013, he found himself back on a mound, in a major-league ballpark, facing Buster Posey, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, on national TV. Just three years earlier, his elbow in shambles, he was standing in a classroom, attempting to convince a group of distracted students to pay attention.

"You get an opportunity, things fall into place and you just go with it," Delabar said.

Delabar was drawn to the Indians in part because they don't discourage the use of weighted baseballs, a training tactic some pitchers follow to strengthen their shoulders and boost their velocity. The regimen helped Delabar increase his strikeout rate once his elbow fully healed.

He was pitching for the Brockton Rox of the Canadian-American Association in 2009 when his elbow begged for mercy. He had received a cortisone shot, which numbed some pain he was experiencing. He kept pitching, though, until the bone ultimately cried uncle.

After surgery that September, Delabar spent the next year working toward his teaching degree and cherishing the softball diamond. When he didn't have class, he'd sign up to serve as a substitute.

"You get in there, you look at the lesson plan and you go, 'OK, here I go. I'm going to do it just like this,'" Delabar said. "And then you go in and you get the kids who are acting up a little bit. You tell them, 'Hey, this is what we have to do today. I'm not here for a long time, just for the day.'"

He wasn't there for long at all. He joined the Mariners for the 2011 season, and for the first time, he advanced past A-ball. Seattle summoned him that September for his first big-league cameo. Two years later, he earned his way onto the American League All-Star roster. He struck out Posey, the only batter he faced.

Delabar entered the break with a 1.71 ERA for Toronto, and Blue Jays fans stuffed the ballot boxes for the league's Final Vote initiative. He won out over four other candidates.

"That was great," he said. "You had a whole country voting for you, so that helps a lot. The experience that season -- I wasn't really thinking at all. When the phone rang, I got up and got going and went in and got the job done."

It's been a challenge for the right-hander to match that magnificent season. In three seasons since, he owns a 5.29 ERA, with a high walk rate (and a high strikeout rate). He briefly pitched in Japan last summer after the Reds severed ties with him.

He signed a minor-league deal with the Tribe in January. A quick glance around the Indians' clubhouse in Goodyear, Arizona, suggests there's plenty of competition and only one or two openings.

Delabar has faced uphill battles before, though. For a guy who has moved from baseball to softball to the classroom and back to baseball, who knows where his journey will take him next?

"For the young kids who maybe get lost in what they want to do, sometimes it takes a little bit to figure out," Delabar said. "You see people who get into college and get their degree and they get out and they don't even use that degree, because they find something else that they're attracted to. Sometimes you don't know what you want and it takes a little bit of time to mature and find out what you really want."


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