Sean Doolittle is a 27-year-old pitcher two months from entering his third season with the Oakland Athletics who still gets looks from his more-tenured teammates when he performs a certain daily ballpark ritual.
“Some of the old guys kind of give me some grief about it,” Doolittle said.
It involves an absorbent cloth, a partner and a glove.
When the injury-ridden former Virginia baseball star was going through a change in a desperate attempt to save his career, it was all Doolittle knew.
It is the towel drill, a teaching staple from his days at UVa under pitching coach Karl Kuhn.
“I didn’t realize how ingrained in me it had become,” Doolittle said.
Doolittle is now a fixture in the A’s bullpen. In two seasons, he’s compiled an ERA of 3.09 with 120 strikeouts to 24 walks. He’s been called upon in each of the past two American League Division Series.
Tonight, he joins Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell as one of two special guests at Virginia’s annual Step Up to the Plate fundraising event inside John Paul Jones Arena.
It’s all a part of a spotlight Doolittle would have never imagined for himself in August 2011 when a doctor suggested another surgery, prompting the retirement thought from a player not far removed from being selected 41st overall in the 2007 draft.
But, thanks to his Cavalier roots, Doolittle is still very much in the game he loves.
“If I didn’t have the experience of being a pitcher in college like I did at UVa,” Doolittle said during a recent phone interview, “I don’t really know where I’d be right now, to tell you the truth.”
As the Gatorade New Jersey Player of the Year, Doolittle was a highly sought-after college prospect in the early 2000s, but only a few programs were offering the multi-talented player a chance on the mound as well as in the field.
“Even my home state university, Rutgers,” Doolittle said, “was only really going to let me pitch.”
Virginia and James Madison, however, liked him in various roles.
UVa had an edge because its recent history suggested two-way player success and Doolittle had done his homework.
“I knew that they were serious about it because before I came in, they had a guy there named Joe Koshansky, who was an ACC Player of the Year,” Doolittle said. “I think he was the Sunday starter and a first baseman. So I knew that they had an idea of how to handle it. They had experience doing it.
“It all just fell into place. It obviously worked out really well.”
Doolittle was able to showcase his versatility in Charlottesville, becoming a two-time All-American and grabbing ACC Player of the Year honors in 2006.
As a first baseman, he batted .312 with 22 home runs and 167 RBI, second-most in school history.
As a pitcher, he finished 22-7 with a 2.23 ERA, fourth-lowest in school history, and 243 strikeouts to 58 walks.
The A’s drafted Doolittle as a first baseman/corner outfielder. By 2009, he was playing right field for the Sacramento River Cats, Oakland’s AAA affiliate.
“The way it was explained to me was I had a chance to get called up at some point that year,” Doolittle said. “The A’s team at that time was in a little bit of a rebuilding mode, they had some older guys on the team and they said, ‘You know, with injuries at first base and right field, you could be the guy.’
“So I put myself into what I thought was a pretty good spot for having it being only my second full season in pro ball.”
But cue the first injury bug to bite.
In May of that season in Sacramento, Doolittle tore his left patella tendon. His 2009 was over. As was 2010.
In 2011, three days before heading back to Sacramento from a rehab assignment in Arizona, Doolittle tore a tendon in his right (non-throwing) wrist while swinging a bat.
Doom had struck again.
It was the newest of many recent lows for the then-24-year-old, but his organization wasn’t ready give up on Doolittle just yet.
Keith Lieppman, Oakland’s longtime director of player development, suggested to Doolittle that he start throwing during this latest rehab stint as a backup plan.
“That way,” Doolittle recalls Lieppman telling him, “we won’t have to start from scratch in four or five months if the outlook really isn’t that good.”
August rolled around and the outlook, indeed, wasn’t good. Doolittle said he still couldn’t even swing a fungo bat. A doctor brought up surgery and a six-to-eight month recovery period, but Doolittle quickly took another route.
“I pretty much just walked out of the doctor’s office,” Doolittle said, “and I called Keith Lieppman and I said, ‘I really would like to switch positions. I’m down to the end of my rope here after battling all these injuries. While I still got a little bit of fire and passion for the game left, I’d like an opportunity to switch.’
“He was on board.”
On June 5, 2012, Doolittle threw 1 1/3 innings of no-hit ball with three strikeouts in a 6-3 Oakland loss to Texas. He was a Big Leaguer.
Karl Kuhn and his UVa boss, Brian O’Connor, could take a bow.
A career was threatened — and then it thrived.
“When I got hurt, being able to call on the experience that I had as a pitcher,” Doolittle said, “I surprised myself at how fast it all came back. I think a lot of that can be attributed to the work that I did while I was at UVa under Coach Kuhn, all the drills and preparation that we did.”
Teammates’ grief be damned — Doolittle will keep at his towel drills until his suddenly extended professional baseball journey is over.
“Not only did being able to play two ways at Virginia help my career, it essentially saved it,” Doolittle said. “If I hadn’t had that opportunity to do both, like I wasn’t offered at other schools, there’s a very good chance that I would have had to retire after dealing with all the injuries and stuff.”