CLEARWATER, Fla. - Before he plays his first game this spring, Phillies pitching prospect Zach Eflin will grab a black Sharpie and his red Phillies cap. The righthander will then flip the cap and write a message he has scribbled inside for the last two seasons.
I play to motivate, to inspire and to show that you can fulfill a dream with faith and dedication.
The 20-year-old's faith and dedication helped him navigate through a life filled with hurt and loss. His older sister Ashley died in 1995 of leukemia. Candace, another older sister, is intellectually disabled from being deprived of oxygen at birth. Ashley's death drove Eflin's mother to alcoholism. Eflin said he and his mother rarely speak.
"I want to inspire anybody. Anyone that has family issues," Eflin said. "The message is, you can do whatever you want. You can still fulfill a dream even when things are not going your way."
The Phillies acquired Eflin this winter as part of the Jimmy Rollins trade. Baseball America regards Eflin as the organization's second-best pitching prospect. He went 10-7 last season with a 3.80 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 128 innings for San Diego's high-A affiliate.
Baseball, Eflin said, was an escape from his home life when he was young. His father, Larry, started coaching his Little League team when he was 5. They would spend nights at their Orlando ball field, taking batting practice and hitting grounders.
"It just stuck every day since then. It was an escape," Eflin said. "Whether it's baseball or it's reading, everyone has it. And I still have it. I still use it as my escape."
The escape grew burdensome when Eflin was a sophomore at Hagerty High School in Oviedo, Fla. Frustrated with the team's workload, he came home from school and told his father he was quitting the team.
"And I looked at him and said, 'OK,' " Larry Eflin said.
Eflin wanted to quit by texting his coach. His father said he had to tell his coach in person. After a few days, Larry Eflin asked his son if he talked to his coach yet. Eflin had not. When he finally walked into his coach's office, the coach told Eflin he was not quitting. Eflin agreed. He returned to the team. Two years later, Eflin was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the first round.
"From that point on, I think what he understood was that I wasn't pushing him to do this. This was not me fulfilling my fantasy. This was all his," Larry Eflin said. "That's the point where he changed to 'This is what I want to do.' And he started working hard at it."
Eflin spends the offseason at home in Orlando with his father and sister Candace. He said he could not be happier with how his life is. The father and son said they are more like best friends.
Larry Eflin was a defensive tackle at Temple in the late 1970s under Wayne Hardin. He is the son of an Assembly of God pastor. His father was great, Larry Eflin said. But he was always a dad. Larry Eflin wanted to forge a different relationship with his children. He is still the father, Eflin said, but they interact more like friends.
"A dad is going to typically blow up the ego. 'Oh man, you're great.' That's not the way I approach it at all," Eflin said. "He told me he got to throw to some major-league batters. Sure, I was proud. But my conversation with him was, 'That's great experience. Now you know what it's like to throw to some of the big guys.' In a baseball situation, it's probably better me being a friend than me being the proud dad."
After Eflin pens the message inside his hat, he will add the initials of his father and three sisters.
AEE CVE LDE CBE
"I don't think they know. I don't tell too many people," he said. "If they did know, I think they would appreciate knowing that I think about them every inning before I go on the mound. It's just a special reminder of what family is to me and how I can use that mentality on the field."
Eflin said he wishes he were able to remember his sister Ashley. He was just a year old when she died. He has been told that he was her favorite sibling. He was always in her arms. She was a great person, he said.
The loss eventually split his parents and caused him to lose touch with his mother. He said he misses "the sober mother."
"At the end of the day, I'm not let down because I am where I am," Eflin said. "If that wouldn't have happened, I don't know if I'd be here right now. I believe everything happens for a reason. What could have happened could have been a benefit or it could not have been. That's the way I look at it."
His oldest sister, Brittany, 27, lives in Arizona, about a 30-minute drive from the spring training site of the San Diego Padres, where Eflin trained before he was traded to the Phillies. The location allowed the two of them to spend time together. Their father said Brittany Eflin was more like a mother to her brother and took ownership of him.
"She was able to drive down all the time," Eflin said. "She's kind of sour about the trade. Not too happy."
Candace Eflin, 22, and Eflin's father are planning a trip to Clearwater next weekend. His sister was a fixture at Eflin's high school games but has seen her brother pitch just once since because of the distance from his minor-league teams.
Despite her disability, Eflin's sister can hold a full conversation and read at a third-grade level. The siblings attended the same middle school and would ride the bus together. She started playing baseball when she was 7, going to the field with her father and brother. Larry Eflin said his daughter, a shortstop, has "a hell of an arm and a nice swing."
"I try to be the best big brother - the best little brother, I should say - that I can be," he said. "I'm always there for her. We get along really well. We try to do as much things as we can do together."
Eflin will likely begin the season at double-A Reading. A new hat will be there, awaiting an inscription. It's the next step on his journey to the big leagues, where he dreams of writing his message in a major-league cap.
Phillies pitcher Seth Rosin returned to his high school this offseason to volunteer in the school's special-education department. He spent four days a week at Mounds View High in Arden Hills, Minn., from October to January.
He helped out any way he could. He assisted with schoolwork and helped students move from class to class. The department does not have a big staff, Rosin said, so any bit helps. He did the same work when he was a student there.
"I've always been interested in it. The special-needs students seem to be so happy. It's good to be around them. They taught me more than I ever taught them."
Rosin started last season in the majors with the Texas Rangers. He returned to the Phillies and spent most of the season at triple-A Lehigh Valley. He began the spring in minor-league camp and was promoted to big-league camp last week.
"I got so much out of it, just how much gratitude they have for life," Rosin said of his volunteer work. "They always have a smile on their face, never a bad attitude. It's something that we should all take from them - just having that good attitude."
It's hard to tell, Aaron Harang said, if you're in store for a good season based on your performance during the spring.
"I've had some absolutely terrible spring trainings and have had a couple of my best years," Harang said. "I've had great spring trainings and not been as good during the season."
Harang, 36, said he tries not to judge his spring training by his numbers. He made his first start of the spring on Monday, pitching two scoreless innings. He is expected to open the season as one of the team's five starting pitchers.
"Obviously it's different when you're a younger guy trying to make a team and you have to have good numbers to make the team," said Harang, who is with his eighth team.
The righthander missed his first start of spring training with a sore back. He said he knows how to treat his back and the soreness came from getting used to running in his cleats during the start of camp.
"I don't go home in the offseason and stand in my front yard in my spikes and train for this," Harang said. "Those first few weeks, you're always finding guys in the cold tub soaking their legs. It's just the process of spring training."