PHILS INSIDER

Puke and Rally! The amazing story of a driven Phillies prospect

PHILS INSIDER

There's a lot more to this story than a trash can and a 95-mph fastball, but that seems like a good place to start.

Meet Albertus Barber.

Albertus Barber IV, to be precise.

He's a 24-year-old redhead from Oklahoma with an irrepressible personality, a right-handed relief pitcher who negotiated a bumpy path — not to mention a lumpy mattress — on a journey that landed him in the Phillies organization in 2019.

Barber pitched 20⅔ innings in the low minors in 2019, gave up just two runs and put up big strikeout numbers. You won't see him on any list of Top 10 Phillies prospects, and he doesn't have a shiny amateur pedrigree like the kids who get all the back pats and the big signing bonuses. Phillies officials were quietly eager to see what Barber would do in a full season of competition in 2020, then the pandemic hit and ... well, there's always 2021.

"This might be his last year in pro ball or he might have a 10-year career in the majors," said Bryan Minniti, the Phillies assistant general manager who oversees scouting and player development.

"You just don't bet against someone wired like Albertus. Yeah, he's a little eccentric. But he has tools, he's shown ability and he has incredible desire and drive to make himself as good as he can be.

"I believe in the kid."

So does Zach Friedman.

He's a 27-year-old guy from Southern California, a University of Oregon alum who worked as a part-time scout with the Milwaukee Brewers while in college. He eventually went to work in video scouting for the Brewers before landing a full-time job on the Phillies' scouting staff in October 2018. He was assigned to the Pacific Northwest.

 

On the job for six weeks, and eager to get to know the baseball scene in his new territory, Friedman reached out to Kyle Boddy, founder of Driveline, the technology-based training facility outside of Seattle that was gaining attention all over baseball for its cutting-edge player development strategies, and asked if he could come by for a visit.

Friedman toured the facility, met the staff and was impressed. All in all, it was a productive day of networking, and it became even more productive when Boddy asked Friedman if he wanted to hang around for a while. A local high school kid, eligible for the coming year's draft, was about to throw a bullpen, and after that this redhead from Oklahoma who had an arm that the staff really liked was scheduled to be on the mound.

Friedman recalled watching the high school kid throw. Not bad but certainly not something to call back to Philadelphia about — especially when he'd been on the job for only a little more than a month.

The young scout hung around, curious to see what the redhead from Oklahoma with the good arm looked like.

The first pitch hissed at 95 mph.

"Oh, that's a little different," Friedman said to himself.

The entire bullpen session was a little different, actually.

Michael Dill/BlueClaws

Barber had awakened that morning feeling under the weather, but he reported to the facility anyway, plowed through his workout and got on that bullpen mound. There was a big-league scout in the house. No way a bad stomach was going to stop him from cranking it up.

Halfway through the bullpen session, after delivering a stream of 94s and touching 96, Barber backed off the rubber, walked over to a trash can about 15 feet away and threw up.

When he finished, he gathered himself and stood up straight.

"PUKE AND RALLY!" he shouted.

He stepped back on the mound.

95.

"That moment really encompasses Albertus as a kid and a person," Friedman said. "He literally said, 'Hold on,' walked off the mound, threw up, stepped back on the mound and threw a 95-mph fastball."

When the bullpen session ended, Friedman needed to know more about this off-the-wall young man. Practicing social distancing long before it became de rigueur, the scout and the pitcher chatted.

"He was so apologetic," Friedman recalled. "I was like, 'Dude, there's nothing to be sorry about, you just threw 96 and sat 93 to 95. Don't worry about it.' "

Friedman did call back to Philly on this one.

How could he not?

"He jumped out at you," Friedman said. "High adrenaline. High motor. He threw 96 with a slider that had a chance to be a big-league pitch. And I loved the moxie he showed. Here he is, he's sick, he throws up and is like, 'OK, I need to go shove this baseball down someone's throat.' You're thinking, 'This is a kid who will do whatever it takes.'"

 

So, does Friedman think Albertus Barber can be a big leaguer someday?

"I thought that the first day I saw him," he said.

• • •

Barber grew up in Bixby, Oklahoma, near Tulsa. In a conversation about his roots, he mentions that his mother, Elaine, is a two-time cancer survivor, that he's close to his grandparents and the family's financial situation is difficult. He dreams of pitching in the majors one day and making enough money to help his family and build houses for those less fortunate.

Baseball was always a passion for Barber. He pitched at three colleges, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, the University of Central Missouri and Oklahoma Baptist University, and had only limited success.

In 2018, while pitching at Oklahoma Baptist, Barber was struck under the elbow by a line drive, suffered what turned out to be a hairline fracture, but kept on pitching because, "I never want to give up the ball." Earlier that season, his fastball had started to climb to 94 mph and he was drawing some attention from scouts. After the injury, his fastball dropped to 84 and the scouts went away.

He was crestfallen.

He was 22 and his dream of pitching professionally was on life support.

But he wasn't about to give up the ball.

Barber had heard about Driveline a couple of years earlier and had been devouring whatever content and instruction he could gain from the organization's website.

Now, he needed more.

"I didn't want to leave anything on the table," he said. "I needed answers. I needed knowledge."

And he needed money.

Driveline then cost about $2,000 for an initial assessment and $400 per month, and then there was travel to Seattle, housing and meals. Barber spent the summer of 2018 saving every penny he could. He maxed out a couple of credit cards and sold his high-mileage 2003 Monte Carlo SS, "badass subwoofers and all," for $600.

"I prayed about it and packed my (stuff),'' he said. "I needed to go."

Barber spent four months at Driveline in 2018, headed home for Christmas, and returned for several more months in January 2019. He crashed wherever he could, often benefitting from the kindness of staffers who could offer a room or a couch to a spirited, earnest kid that you couldn't help but love.

"There's just something special about this guy," said Max Gordon, Driveline's assistant director of player development. "He's one of the most genuine people you'll ever meet. Everyone here loves him."

Over the course of two-plus years, Barber spent about 18 months at Driveline. He built many lasting relationships, including one with 2020 National League Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, the organization's star pupil. In fact, after Barber's spikes were stolen out of his car, Bauer bought him a couple pairs of new ones.

At Driveline, Barber devoured every bit of instruction he could. He immersed himself in the data, the science, the biomechanics and the technology. When he first arrived at Driveline in 2018, his fastball was 92-93 mph. A week later, after some mechanical tweaks, it was up to 94-95 mph. A couple of months later, he put on his "PUKE AND RALLY!" exhibition for Friedman.

 

Oh, that's a little different.

Not really.

"Standard Albertus," Gordon said with a laugh. "It's the most important 'pen of his life, he's not going to water it down."

• • •

The folks who run Driveline are tightly knit, mostly young and very dedicated to their work. A number of staffers have gone on to work for major league organizations. Gordon, 30, works on the hitting side and during downtime builds and maintains gym equipment at the facility. As far as keeping the place clean, well, everyone pitches in.

After making his pro debut in the Phillies system in the summer of 2019, Barber returned to Driveline that fall. He wasn't sure how he was going to pay for it, or where he was going to sleep at night, but he knew Driveline was the place he needed to be.

By this time, Driveline had grown and 100 or more players could be working out there on a given day. Driveline needed a janitor.

Gordon and a few other staffers immediately thought of hiring Barber.

"We knew he'd do a good job because he pours his heart and soul into everything," Gordon said. "We thought it was the right thing to do, help him out a little."

Barber took the job.

But he also needed a place to live.

No problem.

Gordon and fellow instructors Tanner Stokey and Collin Hetzler were living in a rented condo. Someone found an old mattress and Barber moved in — to the kitchen. He served three tours of duty in that kitchen, managed to avoid having a late-night slice of pizza dropped on his head, and never complained.

"He was so gracious, so happy," Gordon said. "We used to call him our redheaded stepchild."

Barber does complain, just a little bit, about cleaning those bathrooms every night.

"Man, I saw some things that would give people PTSD," he said. "Cleaning toilets was terrible, but business is business.

"I wouldn't even be close to where I am now without Driveline."

• • •

After witnessing the famous "PUKE AND RALLY!" exhibition in November 2018, Friedman, the Phillies scout, investigated the possibility of immediately signing Barber as a free agent only to learn that the pitcher needed to go through the draft. Barber worked out for scouts at Driveline's pro day in early May 2019 and again at a Phillies pre-draft workout at a community college in the area later that month.

Neither time did he impress quite the way he did the first time, but Friedman had already been sold on the kid's arm and off-the-charts makeup. The Phillies were not really worried about another team drafting Barber because he was a little older and not that much different than a lot of the relievers teams already had in the low minors.

 

Minniti recalled attending the Phillies' pre-draft workout near Seattle with several other of the team's scouts and becoming smitten with Barber's arm, his energetic personality and the competitiveness he showed facing hitters.

"All I need is a plane ticket and a Snickers bar," Barber told Minniti that day.

The 2019 draft came and went. Five minutes after it ended, with Barber going unselected, Minniti texted Friedman.

"Tell Albertus we have that Snickers bar for him," the text read.

Barber signed as an undrafted free agent. His signing bonus was $1,000. He was off to the minor leagues.

After his eye-opening professional debut in 2019, Barber was in Clearwater, getting ready for the 2020 season, when the pandemic hit in March and baseball shut down. He spent the hiatus working out in Clearwater and later on Long Island, where he stayed with the family of a friend and teammate, catcher Logan O'Hoppe. The Phillies were able to monitor Barber's work remotely.

"He was explosive," Minniti said.

And there might be more in there. Barber, who is 6-1, 195 pounds, is obsessed with reaching the 100-mph mark. He did it with a training ball this fall at Driveline and those who know him well believe he will one day get there when he's trying to "rip heads off" — his words — in a game.

24-year-old Albertus Barber, a Phillies prospect, hits 100-mph on the gun

"Oh, he's going to do it," Gordon said. "If it doesn't happen it's because his body explodes or he figures out how to throw 108 and his arm flies off into the wall. He'll do it or that will be the end of Albertus. He's that kind of competitor."

Barber spent just a few months back at Driveline this fall. He swept floors and cleaned toilets at night to help defray the cost and lived back in the kitchen with Gordon and the rest of the guys.

In November, Barber headed home to Oklahoma.

It wasn't easy leaving Driveline. The people there had become family and an amazing support system. But he needed to go.

"I felt like it was time to take my career into my own hands," he said. "At a certain point in a man's life, he has to go face the wolves. This may be my do or die season. I'm ready to put it all on the table and fight."

With the pandemic still threatening, no one knows what the minor-league season will look like in 2021. But when the umpire shouts, "Play Ball," you can bet Phillies officials will be watching Barber closely. It would be foolish to speculate what might happen to a kid, soon to be 25, whose career work totals just 20⅔ innings in the low minors ... but the Phillies' bullpen is a land of opportunity.

"People might say, 'He's older, he's facility-made, he's a carnival arm,'" Minniti said. "The odds are incredibly stacked against guys like this. But let's just let it rip and see where it goes. I could see him progressing quickly this season and from there, you never know. 

 

"He's got a chip on his shoulder. He's got nothing to lose. And he's easy to root for because of his life background and work ethic. I hope it happens for him. 

"He's a maniac. And I mean that in the best possible way."

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