by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He had a head full of shaving cream and a smile that could light up a stadium – if he hadn’t already done it an hour earlier. Jair Jurrjens may look, on paper, like the name of a Dutch hand lotion, but this kid with a string of shells around his neck just threw his first major-league victory, gave up one hit in nearly seven innings, and, for one night, anyhow, had Tigers fans laughing and saying: “Pitching problem? What pitching problem?”

“Who covered you in shaving cream?” Jurrjens was asked.

“Todd Jones,” he said, grinning.

“What does it mean?”

He laughed. “I don’t know!”

Oh, if they could all go like this one. Trot out your 21-year-old. Relieve him with your 22-year-old. Give up one hit all night, paint the new guy in shaving cream, badda-boom, badda-bing, go home in two hours.

“That was a good game,” Jim Leyland growled in his office after the 2-1 victory. And if he could, he’d order up three dozen more just like it. This was supposed to be a night to celebrate the return of Joel Zumaya, the flame-throwing reliever who has been elevated to messiah during his absence.

But as exciting as Zoom Zoom was, the story of this game was the smooth-skinned rookie who preceded him, Jurrjens, who grew up gracing dirt fields on the island of Curacao, speaking a language few major leaguers can understand, and dreaming of the night he just had in Detroit.

“I have been preparing for this since I was 5 years old,” he said, sitting by himself, still in awe in the Tigers’ locker room. “I’m gonna do my best to stay here.”

A colorful home in the Caribbean

Hey, if he pitches the way he pitched Tuesday night – in his second major-league game – they’ll give him an apartment in the outfield. Jurrjens outdueled Cleveland’s Cy Young candidate Fausto Carmona, throwing 78 pitches, 50 for strikes, and allowing just one hit – a home run in the sixth. The last time a Tigers pitcher went to the sixth without giving up a hit was when Justin Verlander pitched his no-hitter in June. Let’s face it. Lately, we’re grateful if a Tigers starter makes it to the sixth at all.

But Jurrjens threw as if he’d been doing it for years. The son of a phone company worker and a travel agent, Jair -“Just call me J.J.,” he says, and believe me, that’s easier than pronouncing his real name – grew up in the capital city of Willemstad on Curacao, a Caribbean island better known for its beaches, orange liqueur and colorful Dutch architecture, which seems to have exploded from a box of crayons.

Although he speaks four languages, his native tongue is Papiamento. Andruw Jones of the Braves, also from Curacao, is the only guy he can think of who would understand him.

“What’s the biggest crowd you ever pitched before down there?” he was asked.

“Oooh. Maybe a thousand people.”

On Tuesday, it was 42,868 – a sellout. His family, Jurrjens said, was planning to watch the game on his native island – if the cable company got things hooked up in time.

“I don’t think I’m gonna get any sleep tonight,” he gushed. “My phone is gonna ring like crazy.”

More good news from the mound

Well, if J.J.’s not getting any sleep, at least Leyland might not toss and turn so much. Not only did the manager get a great pitching night from an unexpected source, but Zumaya raced to the mound in the seventh inning and nothing snapped.

A standing ovation greeted the 22-year-old with Abe Lincoln’s facial hair. It was Zumaya’s first major-league appearance since May 1. It is hard to remember when a middle reliever caused this much excitement. But that’s how scary the Tigers’ bullpen has gotten. Zumaya threw five pitches – they clocked 98, 98, 97, 99, and 97 m.p.h. – the last of which got a ground out to end the inning.

And he was done for the night

“I’m back,” Zumaya said afterward.

“Nothing hurts?” he was asked.

“Nothing hurts,” he said, smiling.

Hard to imagine two words making any Tiger feel better on this night.

Except maybe: “Curacao calling …”

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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