Have your little boy come down inside here where he can throw.
The man in the dunk tank rubbed his hands over the top of his soaked head, and the woman running the game waved the boy up a few feet.
The father kept the son back as he took the three balls for a dollar.
It's OK. Have him come inside the line – this is where the adults stand.
"No," the father insisted, his 5-year-old looking on. "That's alright. He doesn't need that."
The man in the tank barely had time to catch a breath.
Mike Fiers could always hit his target, from the time he began playing catch with his father on the sidewalk at the age of 3. Bruce Fiers wasn't a pitching coach, by any means. He worked construction; on his feet to the point his knees were bone-on-bone. But he knew one thing – you throw strikes, you win.
He also wanted to keep it simple for his young boy. Come over the top, and work the ball up and down, worry about side to side later.
"Let's be accurate," Bruce told his son on the sidewalk. "You've got a good arm. Let's start from there and we'll learn as we go."
The boy learned. Well enough, in fact, that it was Bruce who got the pair banished from pitching near the house when one of his throws broke a window.
Once Mike was old enough to pitch to live hitters – about 8 years old – parents would ask Bruce and his wife Susan, or his mom Linda Korman and her husband Rick, and if he was getting specialized instruction.
"We've always worked week-to-week," Susan Fiers said. "We didn't have money for stuff like that. That is a natural, God-given ability."
Mike's proclivity for strike throwing led to success through the Florida Little Leagues, but to his parents he was just a kid who loved baseball and had a certain knack for throwing the ball over the plate.
Harold O'Berry, one of his coaches, saw more.
Just before Mike entered Deerfield Beach High School, Berry pulled Korman aside.
"This kid is going to play Major League Baseball," he told her. "You need to do whatever you can to get him there. He has something different than everybody else."
Mike Fiers rubbed his beard, and a smile crawled up the side of his face.
"I've heard that before," he said.
Between the latter part of his high school career and the end of July, different wasn't always good for Fiers.
On the field, it was. His high left side and over the top delivery still filled the strike zone, still won games. To the radar guns clustered behind backstops, it wasn't. For college recruiters, and later, major league scouts, just because you saw it didn't mean you believed it.
The gun, and Fiers' lanky frame, was enough to trump the production.
You don't throw hard enough. You'll never be able to get college hitters out. You'll never be able to get professional hitters out. You don't have the stuff to make it to the major leagues.
"I've heard it at every level," Fiers said, subconsciously crossing his arms, which brought his shoulders back, which pushed his chest out.
He had just thrown 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball against the National League East-leading Washington Nationals, striking out nine and lowering his earned run average to 1.77.
If it ever got to him, it only showed on the field as he tore through lineups, and on Pompano Beach.
Often arriving before 5 a.m., Fiers and his friend Mike Dobre would sprint along the Atlantic Ocean. They would put in some endurance distances, swim up to three miles, all before breakfast. There would be two, maybe three others joining the pair, but few could match Fiers' effort.
"He was pushing it to the limit every day, and he wouldn't let anyone tell him otherwise," said Dobre, now a coach at Zion Lutheran High School in Deerfield Beach.
The naysaying got to those around Fiers though, as he bounced between Broward Community College in Florida, the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky and finally, Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale.
"He's constantly been told you're not good enough because you don't pitch fast enough. Every time," said Bruce, his pitch rising. "They're all the same. They come out with a radar gun. It doesn't matter how many wins you have. It doesn't matter how good you are. It's 'You don't throw 95 miles an hour, you can't be effective.' Even though he's beaten this other team, 'Yeah, he won but he doesn't throw fast enough.' It was aggravating. Really aggravating."
If it ever irritated Mike himself, it was turned inward, and then out.
"All of those things factor in to having success," he said. "It's just good. It's good to me to have people say things bad. Some people don't take it with them on the field, but I do, and I actually like it."
On the field is where Charlie Sullivan, an area scout for the Brewers, saw something different. He called Bruce Seid and convinced him to come to Florida and watch Fiers pitch.
"In my position, you listen to your scouts and you hope that they identify not only the tools, but the intangibles, which is the makeup, which is the instincts," said Seid, the Brewers Director of Amateur Scouting. "If a guy can identify not only the tools but the makeup and the instincts, you may have someone that either beats the odds or is pretty special."
Looking for a chance
In spring 2009, there weren't many major league scouts looking at Fiers – perhaps five. He was an older prospect, barely touched 90 miles per hour, and had not pitched at the top level of college baseball.
But he won, going 10-3 and leading the nation in strikeouts. If one scout was impressed, that was all that mattered.
"That was something I had to do to even get looked at," Fiers admitted. "If someone else did that they would have been way up on the draft board. For me, I needed that to just even get looked at, to get drafted. Whatever (round) it was, for me it didn't matter. I just wanted a chance."
As the draft began, and the rounds ticked by, all of the frustration of being told he wasn't good enough began to bubble up – for everyone but Fiers - as he waited to see his name come across the computer screen.
"It's about time, honestly," he remembered as the pick came in the 22nd round. "I thought it should've happened before that, so it was about time."
Bruce Fiers exhaled.
"It really scared me," Bruce said of the wait. "I've never seen somebody win so much, do so much, and be looked over. But when that came, oh ..."
He sighs again at the memory.
"Great, now here's the opportunity, here's the door."
The Brewers were happy to open it. Fiers understood why he tumbled, but it was also a reason the Brewers wanted him. Sullivan and Seid saw what O'Berry did nearly a decade before: Something different.
"You draft every round to find a gem," Seid said. "Every round, every player you take, you're trying to find a gem. Granted, the draft is set up for whether it's big power guys, big tool guys, speed, that's how the draft is set up, for those high upside guys because of the big tools. But, throughout the draft, there's also what you would deem as really good baseball players, guys that have makeup, guys that have instincts, guys that have just enough tools to utilize their makeup, their instincts, that potentially could take them to a level of success. I would say Mike falls into that category."
It's what brought him back in a year from a single car accident that broke bones in his back to pitch that well for Nova Southeastern. It's what built up a heavy chip on that right shoulder. It's what won games.
"Our scout identified that this player has certain intangibles," Seid said. "Again I use that word – certain intangibles that are more so than in others."
The big stage
No disrespect, but I don't deserve to be here.
It was a heck of way to introduce yourself to your first professional coaches, but Fiers wanted nothing to do with extended spring training in Arizona after he was drafted.
I'm a lot better than this.
The next day, he was off to Helena, the Brewers' rookie league affiliate. In 13 games he went 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 15 strikeouts per nine innings. Then he was promoted to Class A Wisconsin. Three games later, it was High A in Brevard County.
"The minute he stepped on the field in Helena, the confidence was there," noted Seid. "He knew in his mind he was going to pitch in the major leagues."
Fiers advanced up to Class AA Huntsville in 2010, and the in 2011 he was named the Brewers Minor League Pitcher of the Year, going 13-3 with a 1.86 ERA and five saves in 34 appearances between Huntsville and Class AAA Nashville.
It earned him his major league debut, a one-inning appearance at Miller Park against Colorado on Sept. 14, 2011 where he allowed two hits, but no runs while striking out two. A week later, he pitched another scoreless inning in Chicago against the Cubs.
Then it was back to the sands of Pompano Beach. Fiers and Dobre say it was the most intense training they've ever put in.
"He got the opportunity to debut in the big leagues that year, so we were just thinking we had to push this one the hardest because of how close he was," Dobre said of the offseason training regimen last winter.
On May 23, Marco Estrada pulled a quadricep running the bases, and landed on the disabled list. Down in Nashville, Fiers was struggling a bit. His strikeout rate was down, and he was being hit.
He was called up, however, and pushed into action against the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 29. He tossed seven innings of one-run ball in a 2-1 Brewers victory. The Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres got to him for four runs each in his next two starts, but a four-hit, one-run win over the Minnesota Twins on June 16 started a nearly two-month stretch of 10 starts that saw him become the best pitcher in baseball.
In 10 games – nine starts – from June 16 through August 7, Fiers allowed seven earned runs over 62 innings for a 1.02 ERA. He struck out 63 against 14 walks.
Even then, there were doubters – including inside his own clubhouse.
"At the beginning, I wasn't sure," manager Ron Roenicke admitted. "You look up and see 88 and you're like 'They keep missing it' and you're like well, is this going to keep going? But we've seen it long enough now. It's not just one team. It's every team he pitches against. I think this guy is for real."
Nearly 25 years after the dunk tank, after decades of being told the radar gun trumps results, the simple rules of sidewalk toss finally were recognized.
"He's pretty legit," Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "He goes out and throws strikes. He throws the ball well, fills the zone up and competes his butt off. That's all you can ask for."
During that stretch run of success in the summer, Seid sought Fiers out in the clubhouse, congratulated him on his success.
"Obviously your goal is to pitch here for the next 10 years and be a good pitcher for the Brewers," Seid told him.
"I'm looking past 10 years," was the reply. "I'm looking for more than that."
Three years after drafting him, Fiers was still giving Seid something different.
"That told me he's got vision, he's got an understanding of what he needs to do," Seid said. "The fact that he said that – I'm buying into it. He's got that kind of motivation. He's not living off this season. He's not living off a few starts. He's got big-picture type goals."
Just the beginning
Linda Korman laughs, and marvels.
She laughs about the fights over her son's flirtations with ineligibility, how he told people he was in college to study baseball. She marvels at his determination in post-accident rehabilitation, at an unshakeable self-belief that saw him live a dream.
"He had a real passion there for a long time. Forever, I would think," she said. "I don't know. Are people born with that kind of passion?"
Dobre has an idea. He says his friend was put on Earth to throw a baseball, and is already readying for their annual workouts beneath the lighthouse off the Hillsboro Inlet. Fiers may help the Brewers into the playoffs for the third time in five seasons this October, he may receive Rookie of the Year votes and he may be told he has a spot in the 2013 rotation secured – but he has never been one to listen to what others say.
"I have to start my hard work now," he said. "I've been working my butt off for years just to get to this point, but now is where it actually starts. I need to do more. That's the hardest thing – to stay here."
Are people born with such passion? The sands of Pompano Beach know, and it's waiting with bated breath.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.