Aaron Small had just beaten the Boston Red Sox, listening to 55,000 fans at Yankee Stadium cheer as he walked off the mound in a crucial win for New York. After midnight, he walked out of the famous ballpark and took the subway back to his hotel.
After 16.5 seasons of bouncing from team to team like a spaldeen spinning around a school yard, Small is on the ride of his life. He's 8-0 with a 3.28 ERA after a 9-5 win on Thursday at Tampa Bay, a US$150,000 savior amid the ruined rotation on major league baseball's first US$200 million team.
Randy Johnson flopped for much of his first season in pinstripes. Other pitching stars, including Roger Clemens, took more than a year to get comfortable in New York.
Small showed up one day, started winning, and hasn't stopped -- the first pitcher to win his first eight decisions with the Yankees since Doug Bird in 1980-1981.
"He passed `fluke' a long time ago," Yankees senior vice president Mark Newman said.
The 33-year-old right-hander began his professional career in 1989, but had pitched just one game in the major leagues since 1998 before making seven relief appearances with Florida last season. When the Yankees brought him up in mid-July, he hadn't made a major league start since 1996.
His resume is an A-to-Z (Albuquerque to Zebulon) tour of the minors. After playing with Jason Giambi at South Hills High in West Covina, California in 1989, Small went to Medicine Hat, Alberta, in the Toronto organization in 1989 and didn't make it to the big leagues with the Blue Jays until five years later after stops in Myrtle Beach, Florida; Dunedin, Florida; Knoxville, Tennessee, and Syracuse, New York.
Since then he's played for teams in Charlotte, North Carolina; Edmonton, Alberta; Louisville, Kentucky; Durham, North Carolina; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Salt Lake City; Richmond, Virginia; Kissimmee, Florida; Zebulon, North Carolina; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Trenton, New Jersey, and Columbus, Ohio. Mixed in were three starts and 143 relief appearances for Toronto, Florida, Oakland, Arizona and Atlanta.
Before this year, his career line in the majors was 15-10 with four saves and a 5.49 ERA.
But never once did he think of quitting, relying on his deep Christian faith and on Macy, his wife since 1996. In a Yankees clubhouse where players wear US$2,000 suits pressed to perfection, he looks like just another guy, albeit one with unusual perseverance.
"I think it's mainly from my mom and dad. They always taught me never to give up, even through tough times. Just keep battling," said the soft-spoken Californian. "Of course, you play long enough and you go through three or four years and you don't get back to the big leagues after having a couple of years there, it gets a little discouraging at times."
When New York had him pitch at Texas on July 20, he became the Yankees' 11th different starting pitcher in a 20-game span, a total that MLB's most storied franchise hadn't run through since 1917. He beat the Rangers. Eight days later, he pitched a career-high seven innings and defeated Minnesota at Yankee Stadium.
"There's times I looked around, but never in awe," Small said. "In Columbus, we had about 1,200 people and here we had, what, about 50,000, so it's a little different."
Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre liked what he saw when Small arrived in New York.