Tip of the cap: Fairchild’s journey through Monmouth, USM and pro baseball opened doors

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Tip Fairchild still has days, usually in April and October, when he feels as if he could take the ball and get a couple of guys out.

Though 34 years old and more than eight years removed from playing professional baseball, an uneasy feeling still revisits Fairchild occasionally, almost like a former college student who has recurring nightmares about missing final exams.

“Usually, it’s around opening day and it’s around playoff time where I start to feel anxious, like I forgot to get ready for my turn,” he said.

The anxiety and excitement was a little more pronounced last fall as he watched the organization that selected him in the 12th round of the 2005 draft, the Houston Astros, win their first World Series title.

But unless he’s in a tee box, Fairchild isn’t taking many turns these days. He’ll still give an occasional lesson to a kid in his Warwick, Rhode Island neighborhood or help out a friend coaching their youth team.

The right arm feels good, with little more than a scar to remind him of the Tommy John surgery that essentially ended his career. His passion for baseball remains strong, although it took some time for him to start watching it again after he stopped playing.

He still follows the Astros, but the Red Sox are still his favorite team. He keeps in touch with former teammates, counts other former professional baseball players from Maine among his best friends and interacts regularly with former players in a Facebook group.

He’s thought of writing a book about his baseball experiences. He even has a title, “Stories from the Stretch,” inspired by the funny and fantastical stories teammates would swap during pregame stretching, but isn’t sure his former teammates would like some of the stories being made public.

Fairchild reflects on his five-year professional career, and the dominance that preceded it at Monmouth Academy and the University of Southern Maine, with appreciation for where his baseball path has taken him.

“I don’t have a poor taste in my mouth towards the game,” he said. “I still love it.”

Tip Fairchild, formerly of Monmouth, poses with a state championship trophy with catcher Matt Cyr after helping Monmouth Academy to the 2001 Class D state baseball title at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.

 

Baseball in the blood

As the son of long-time Oak Hill athletic director and baseball coach Bill Fairchild, Tip always had baseball in his blood. It just took a little time for his body to catch up.

“What I didn’t realize was how much of an influence his dad was and is in his life,” said Ryan Reid, a former American Legion baseball rival who pitched briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates and befriended Fairchild several years ago.  “The more I got to know Tip and his family, the more I saw what a positive influence he had.”

What Tip didn’t have as he enrolled in Monmouth Academy was immediately apparent at the first glance of his 5-foot-2, 105-pound freshman frame.

Fairchild proved he could play with the big boys to make the varsity baseball team as a freshman. By his sophomore year, he was a mainstay in the starting lineup while continuing to grow.

By 2001, his junior year, he was approaching 6 feet tall and had developed into a dominant pitcher and hitter for the Mustangs. In their final year in Class D, Fairchild led them to the program’s most recent state championship and only perfect season (20-0) by batting over .600 and posting a 6-0 record on the mound.

Fairchild, who also helped Monmouth win two state soccer titles and was an all-conference basketball player, suddenly had college coaches knocking down his door. But he had his mind made up well before announcing his decision to his family the summer before his senior year.

The University of Southern Maine had too much to offer — a good business program, an elite Division III baseball program, and coach Ed Flaherty, who was a friend of the family and had tutored Tip on baseball when he was in middle school.

Flaherty had also promised him he could continue to play in the field when he wasn’t pitching, something few other suitors would promise.

“Tip liked pitching, but he wanted to be a player,” Bill Fairchild said. “He liked Ed, and Tip and Ed were the perfect fit.

“They’re both very tough competitors, and I’m quite sure their relationship was tough at times. But Tip wasn’t intimidated by Ed like a lot of players. He knew he’d have to eat dinner at our house again at some point,” he added.

Late bloomer

Most dinners Tip ate before his freshman year were USM approved. He dove head first into the Huskies’ training programs.

“When I went to USM, I definitely wanted to latch onto what the great athletes and great baseball players there were doing,” he said. “I started working out with guys like (senior infielder) Andy Lang and learning about the commitment you had to make.”

“Tip was just all baseball, like Bill was,” Flaherty said. “He worked out. He bought into all of the pitching regimens.”

Flaherty considered Fairchild a fielder first and inserted him into the starting lineup immediately as a middle infielder. He played in 34 of the Huskies’ 44 games, the most of any freshman, and batted .286. Working out of the bullpen, he appeared in 15 games on the mound, starting one, throwing 31.1 innings while finishing with a 1-2 record and a 4.88 ERA.

In addition to college experience, Fairchild gained about 20 pounds his freshman year. By his sophomore season, he was 6-foot-2 and close to 200 pounds and poised to become a workhorse for the Huskies.

Continuing as a two-way player, he had a breakout season. He ascended to ace of the pitching staff, going 9-1, allowing just 51 hits in a team-high 70 innings, striking out 72 and walking 18 while posting a microscopic 1.41 ERA.

As Fairchild, the pitcher, emerged, Flaherty decided he needed to protect his ace by moving him from the middle infield to third base, then ultimately first base and designated hitter. Despite the position change, he finished fourth on the team with a .364 average and hit five home runs after not hitting any the previous year.

“I felt strong for the first time. I had an explosiveness off the rubber and in my swing I’d never had,” he said. “My sophomore year was a pretty good year for me and USM (which finished 31-13-1 and Little East Conference runner-up). I was throwing pretty hard and getting guys out, and Bob Prince and the Sanford Mainers decided to take a flyer on me.”

Prince, an assistant coach at USM, was also an assistant for the New England Collegiate Baseball League team, and secured a roster spot for Fairchild. Playing for the Mainers gave him a chance to compete with and against Division I players and get seen by professional scouts.

He pitched well that summer, gained confidence that he could get elite hitters out, and caught the eye of the scouts.

The Marlins were the first to contact him, and he continued to hear from more and more teams throughout a stellar junior season, even after he dislocated his collarbone on a collision at first base with one month left in the season and two months before the draft.

“When I got hurt, I can remember not pitching in a game and still talking to about 20 teams,” he said.

Still growing with a low-90s fastball and sharp curve ball, he dominated prior to his injury, finishing 5-2 with a 1.80 ERA in 14 games. He also continued to play in the field and batted .344.

Ready for next step

The interest from the Major Leagues barely waned after the injury. Yet when the draft arrived in June, Fairchild still wondered whether he would be selected, or whether he would drop a few rounds.

Flaherty, whose son, Ryan, has played seven season in Major League Baseball, told Fairchild he was ready to take the next step.

“He’d mastered all three pitches,” Flaherty said. “When you get a chance like that, you take it. You could get hurt the next season and not get drafted at all.”

With family, friends and a local TV stations gathered at home for the big day (and a nervous Bill Fairchild outside mowing the yard), Tip anxiously refreshed his web browser for updates on the 2005 draft.

“I remember that day vividly. It was a big day,” he said.

It was also a long day until the 12th round began to wind down and the phone rang. It was a scout from the Red Sox, who told him they were going to draft him with the 28th pick in the round. But before he could contemplate a future with his favorite team, the Astros called and told him they had selected him four picks earlier, 374th overall.

Fairchild was far from disappointed.

“Houston was a great spot to be during that time,” he said. “I was going to a franchise with the two people I looked up to the most, Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan.”

He signed with the Astros three days later, a deal that was sealed by the team’s promise to pay for the remainder of his education. Houston sent him to its short-season Class A team in Troy, New York, the Tri-City Valley Cats.

“It was eye-opening. You go from being the guy in college to just one of the guys the next day,” he said. “It was really the first time that you’re really on your own and baseball is a job. I’m facing guys I was watching in the College World Series on TV a few weeks earlier. But the second you start playing games, all of that is out the window and you’re thinking about ‘Can I beat this guy with this pitch?'”

Fairchild appeared in 20 games, starting six, and finished 3-6 with a 5.83 ERA. It was a bit of a rocky start, but he felt confident he could improve.

The following spring, he reported to the Astros’ training camp in Kissimmee, Fla. and got his first true taste of the impersonal nature of his job.

“Your first spring training, that’s where you start to really find out this is a full-time job,” he said. “And once you get down there, it’s a war. You’re battling your teammates and your friends for jobs and the best development opportunities.”

The Astros moved Fairchild up one rung on the organizational ladder to the Lexington Legends, their Class A affiliate in Kentucky. He immediately clicked with the Legends pitching coach, Charley Taylor, and a teammate, James Gant, who taught him how to throw a power sinker.

“Before that, I had a fastball in the low-90s and a sinker  that I tried to throw in the upper-70s. I could throw this one 89 or 90, but with twice as much movement,” he said.

Playing with Roger Clemens’ son, Koby, and even “The Rocket” himself for one nationally-televised game during 2006 comeback, Fairchild dominated the Carolina League. He went 10-3 in 18 games (16 starts) with a 2.07 ERA, fanning 98 and walking 19 in 108.2 innings.

“He got a lot of ground balls with the sinker. And with his curve, he got a lot of strikeouts,” Bill Fairchild said. “When he was getting people out that year, it was either a ground ball or a strikeout, every time.”

He earned a promotion to Houston’s advanced A affiliate in Roanoke, Va., the Salem Avalanche. After finishing 4-4 with a 3.78 ERA in 11 games, he’d ended up with the most victories in the entire Houston organization and earned an invitation to the Astros’ elite prospect camp, which was operated by Nolan Ryan.

For two weeks in January, Fairchild worked out in Minute Maid Park alongside not only Houston’s top prospects, but big leaguers such as Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge. He received instruction from big league coaches and his idols, Ryan and Clemens.

When the Astros made him the first in his draft class to be assigned to the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks for the start of the 2007 season, it appeared Fairchild was on the fast track to the majors.

But his right elbow would slam on the breaks in his very first start.

Tommy John

Fairchild had a hunch something was wrong before looking back at the scoreboard. His catcher, who thought perhaps Fairchild had thrown a change-up instead of the fastball he called for, was walking to the mound to get on the same page.

The “82” that flashed on the scoreboard confirmed Fairchild’s uneasiness. He didn’t have any velocity, and his right forearm was beginning to tighten up.

He left the game, but initial tests led doctors to believe he might be battling a tight flexor tendon. His forearm loosened up some and he made his next turn in the rotation. Again, he had no velocity, and he was getting shelled, allowing 14 hits and eight runs in the two starts.

An MRI confirmed his worst fear: the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm was almost completely torn. He would need Tommy John surgery.

Looking back, Fairchild believes the sudden dramatic increase in innings from college and his first half-season of pro ball to his second season caused his arm trouble.

“I think it was overuse,” he said. “The most innings I had thrown in college was 70 or 80. Those extra 80-90 innings (in 2009), you start to get tired, and when you’re tired, your mechanics are going to change and you’re going to get hurt.”

An Astros team doctor performed the procedure, transplanting a tendon from his left arm to replace the UCL. After six weeks in a cast, he began the long road back.

The Astros had agreed to let Fairchild undergo his rehab back in Maine with Dr. Bob Brainerd, an Auburn-based doctor, provided he flew to Houston about once a month to check in with team doctors.

Rehab went well, and at age 23, Fairchild thought he was ready to pick up where he left off. But it was clear when he began his second stint with Corpus Christi, 11 months after the surgery, that he had lost something.

“I didn’t have that same feel for my sinker. That was my meal ticket, right there,” he said. “My velocity was coming back, but I just didn’t have the location in terms of being confident I was going to throw it where I wanted to throw it. Before, I could tell you what I was going to throw and where I was going to throw it and put it right there.”

After a stint in extended spring training he returned to the Hooks in May and struggled, going 2-8 with a 8.80 ERA in 22 games (10 starts).

His struggles continued in spring training and the Astros released him. He signed with an independent team, the Somerset Patriots, and pitched well enough to get called back by the Astros in July, who assigned him to the Single-A Lancaster JetHawks in the California League.

Fairchild posted a 3-3 record and a 7.59 ERA at Lancaster and was released again. After resting his arm for a couple of months, he started throwing again and experienced soreness in his right elbow, which doctors thought might be arthritis. He could probably pitch through it, but getting himself physically ready for each start was already a major chore, even when the arm felt good the previous season.

Life after baseball

From the time he’d completed his degree in 2008, Fairchild contemplated life after baseball. When the Astros released him the second time, he was living in Rhode Island with his girlfriend, Traci, who he would later marry.

“My brain and my body were finally in sync,” he said.

At the age of 25, he decided it was time to retire.

Through the contacts he’d formed as a player and with the help of others, such as his agent, Dave Abramson of the Portland-based Verrill Dana Sports Group, Fairchild was ready for the post-playing chapter of his life.

He’d become good friends with a family in Rhode Island, where Traci was from, that owned a textile firm and started working for them, first in team apparel. He’s now in his ninth year with the company and works as director of business development for CleanBrands LLC, which manufactures mattress and pillow encasements.

Reid had little doubt Fairchild would succeed in the business world.

“Tip always went out on a baseball field with a mindset of ‘I can do this. I belong here.’ But I believe he has that in any facet of his life,” he said.

Now settled in Warwick with Traci and their two daughters, Raina, 4, and Ellie, 2, Fairchild works mostly with large hotel chains. He loves that entertaining clients often entails a round of golf (he’s a five handicap) and some sports talk. Mentioning that he shared the same clubhouse with Roger Clemens or struck out Jacoby Ellsbury or pointing to a baseball autographed by Nolan Ryan in his office is a great way to engage clients.

Golf is also his main competitive outlet now, especially when he’s playing with his father.

“I’ll go up to Maine once a month and we’ll go to Cobbossee or Springbrook or Belgrade Lakes and do what we’d do in our backyard with baseball back in the day,” he said. “If we tried that now, he’d probably dislocate his shoulder and I’d throw my back out trying to swing.”

“I’ll say he beats me on the rinky-dink courses up there,” Tip added, “but once he gets down here in Rhode Island, on the big stage, where it’s real wind and real yardage and you’ve got the ocean right there, the cream always rises to the top.”

He keeps tabs on USM and Monmouth athletics, admitting to baffling dinner guests one night recently as he was distracted by a stream of the Monmouth girls’ basketball team’s state championship game.

He remains in close contact with many of his former teammates, either via texting or through a Facebook group for ex-players with over 16,000 members. He’s also developed close relationships with other Mainers who played professionally, such as Maranacook’s Greg Creek and Reid, a 2006 draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays who he helped counsel during his attempted comeback from Tommy John surgery in 2015.

“I’m proud of him,” Fairchild said of Reid, who retired from baseball and is now living and working in Florida for a Maine-based firm, NET Sports Group. “We’d played each other in Legion ball but didn’t really know him until we were both living in Portland, around the time he was in Triple-A. Now here we are, close friends 17 or 18 years later. Those are the connections you make.”

“You read the stories, you hear the stories, good and bad, about ex-players. The ones from Maine all seem to be doing pretty well, though. It’s a real fraternity,” he said.

Fairchild admitted to occasionally pondering what might have been, but wouldn’t change much, if anything.

“I’ve wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t been hurt, the butterfly effect of it. I’m blessed to have what I have here with my family and the health of my family and where I am (in business),” he said.

“(My baseball career) is still meaningful to me,” he said. “It opened doors for me, from growing up right and having good coaching as a kid, then being able to go to USM and play right away and earn my degree, and then to making the friends I made and contacts I made through baseball. But it doesn’t define who I am now. I’d rather people know that I have a good family.”

“Wouldn’t it have been great to have a World Series share, though?” he added.

Tip Fairchild and his wife, Traci, pose for a photo at the Corpus Christi Hooks’ stadium in Corpus Christi, Texas.Former Monmouth Academy standout baseball player Tip Fairchild is pictured with his family. Clockwise from top: Raina, Traci and Ellie.

Tip Fairchild’s baseball card after being drafted by the Houston Astros in 2006.

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