As sentimental as it may be, Chris Bootcheck isn’t all that concerned about completing the 360-degree circle in the Detroit Tigers system his father started 46 years ago.
At 33, LaPorte product Bootcheck is far more concerned about taking a straight-line approach — back to the major leagues, wherever, because he’s nowhere near quitting, body and soul.
“I love the competition. I love the game,” the right-handed reliever said. “I never want to be a guy hanging on. ... But I feel like I have a 25-year-old body. I’ve been resilient. It’s not like I’m 39. There are a lot of guys in the big leagues the same age. I feel I’m still effective and my heart’s still in it.
“I feel I can help somebody, if the timing is right. You hear it 100 times a year, the right place at the right time. If not here, then somewhere else.”
Bootcheck resolutely keeps pursuing his dream. He’s gone from the Angels’ No. 1 draft pick (20th overall) out of Auburn in 2000 to parts of six seasons’ big-league service in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, to status to pitching the past two years in Japan and Korea.
Now, as closer for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens with nine saves and a 2.53 ERA, Bootcheck is just a phone call away from another big-league stop just an hour’s drive away with the Detroit Tigers.
And if Bootcheck got a summons to help the shaky back end of the Tigers’ bullpen, he will indeed have gone all the way around in the multi-generational journey.
Father Dan Bootcheck was a left-hander in the Tigers system from 1966 to 1972, with two years’ interrupted for Army combat service in Vietnam. While a bush leaguer, the elder Bootcheck threw to two catchers named Jim Leyland and Gene Lamont.
“My best memories of Jim and Gene, you couldn’t put in the paper,” Dan Bootcheck said. “They were excellent receivers.”
If Chris Bootcheck is called to Detroit, he’ll be pitching for manager Jim Leyland and third-base coach Gene Lamont, a former White Sox manager.
No doubt baseball past, present and future was a topic of conversation for father and son Wednesday at the former’s LaPorte home.
Just a three-hour drive away in Toledo, Chris Bootcheck was able to visit overnight on a Mud Hens’ off-day after a morning game the previous day. Mom Pat Bootcheck has some stress relieved being able to see her son both at home and in visits to games in Toledo and Indianapolis, another International League city.
The feeling is mutual. After becoming a free-agent from the Pirates, for whom he appeared in 13 games late in 2009, he signed with Yokohama in the Japanese Baseball League for 2010.
Coming back to the U.S. in 2011, Bootcheck played the first half for Tampa Bay’s Triple-A team in Durham, N.C., before being released. He went back to the Far East, hooking on with the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization.
“I was in Japan 10 months, got there in January (2010) and got home in November,” Chris Bootcheck said. “I went to Korea with 43 games left in the (2011) schedule. But we played so well when I got there we clinched the second-place playoff spot and I was there four months.
“Being close to family is something I haven’t had for two years. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
Pat Bootcheck flew to Japan to watch her son pitch. But Dan Bootcheck declined to accompany her. He couldn’t stand the 15-hour flight, and it reminded him of another flight to the Far East done under much greater duress more than four decades earlier.
“Been there, done that,” he said. After serving under George S. Patton’s son in an 18 1/2-month tour in Vietnam and collecting a Purple Heart, Dan Bootcheck felt fortunate to make that return flight home. Even though he said he was the first Vietnam veteran to be placed on a big-league roster with the Tigers in 1970, Dan Bootcheck was never the same due to the physical strains of his service. He quit in 1972 to help run his own business.
Now Chris Bootcheck picks up the gauntlet. He’s obviously not the only family member who hopes Leyland, Lamont and Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski have one eye on Mud Hens stats.
“It was big for me to come in and pitch the way I was capable of pitching,” Bootcheck said of first making an impression in spring training. “You want to leave them with a good taste in their mouth, so when they pick up the phone and need somebody, your manager in Triple-A says this guy can help you.”