DeLEON SPRINGS, Florida – In a town with no traffic lights, where Spanish moss dangles over split-rail fences and ruins of sugar mills along the shore of Spring Garden Lake, Tony deGrom, a retired cable keeper, awaits the return of his son, Jacob, every autumn.
Tony and his wife Tammy moved to the countryside decades ago because they wanted to retreat inland from Daytona Beach with family and friends. By the time Jacob turned 2, Tony had put a ball in his son’s hands and watched his rookie grow.
Jacob is now 33 and a two-time Cy Young Award winner for the Mets. But the son still drives his pickup truck over a dirt road to his childhood home to throw his father.
It’s an autumn ritual for men with routine.
“Highlight of my days,” said Tony, 66.
Life is slower here for the pitcher who throws 102 miles per hour.
Named after Juan Ponce de León, the 16th-century Spanish explorer who came to Florida in search of healing waters, Fountain of Youth tours are organized in a local park, where signs welcome visitors to ‘the real Florida’ . DeGrom, seeking balance after a season that started with a shooting of fastballs but was interrupted in July due to a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, plans to rejuvenate amid orange groves and cattle ranches.
“He hasn’t changed for me,” Tony said of Jacob. “The same goofball he once was.”
As a boy, Jacob deGrom was always outside, riding and romping. One day, he sent his four-wheeler onto the track at Spring Garden Ranch, a 160-acre standard horse complex that bills itself as “Where winners come to winter.”
“I was never caught, but they chased me away,” said deGrom.
He resisted all reins. At Calvary Christian Academy, he wore his hair short and always played well against a rival Lighthouse Christian. As a senior on the basketball team, he was the county’s leading scorer, and Lighthouse Christian coach Robert Maltoni tried a triangle and two or a box and one to contain deGrom, a veteran wing who ended up on dunks with both hands. To accommodate the season’s largest crowd of 1,000 spectators, Lighthouse Christian rented the nearby Stetson University gym. DeGrom scored 39 points in a 69-66 loss.
“He made me pull my hair out,” Maltoni said.
On baseball diamonds, the Grom American Legion helped Post 6 as a handy fielder, returning to Stetson that fall, 10 miles along Highway 17, starting at third base before transitioning to shortstop and reluctantly taking on the pitcher’s duties. His first vehicle was a 1997 Dodge Ram with a single cab, and teammates remembered his trucks — CB radio antenna in the back and mud all over the place — rumbling as he shuttled to and from campus. His parents never missed a game at home or away. In his spare time, he lit bonfires with friends before being drafted by the Mets in the ninth round after his junior year.
Four months into his professional career, he needed surgery from Tommy John. When he reported to the Mets complex for rehab, Randy Niemann, one of the coaches there, noticed his calm demeanor, clocked his fastball at around 92 mph and saw an unusual command.
“He moved so well during his delivery that I thought, this man has a real chance,” Niemann said.
Lessons came, on and off the field. In 2013, he broke the ring finger of his gloved hand while helping a neighbor castrate a calf. While his arm was in a cast, he pitched gloveless bullpen sessions and tinkered with his mechanics to regain his old form.
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DeGrom soon learned what it was like to be a major leaguer. He arrived in New York in 2014 with the haircut of a cocker spaniel, the narrowed eyes of a cartoon villain and the six-foot-tall silhouette of Sidd Finch, the fictional flamethrower. That summer, Derek Jeter was preparing to leave Broadway as deGrom learned the subway. DeGrom was the National League’s rookie of the year; married Stacey, a local girl he’d met at a rodeo during the off-season, in a rustic barn; pitched in the World Series the following fall; and threw an one-hitter in 2016, the lone hit produced a pitcher. He topped 200 innings in a season for the first time in 2017 and claimed his first Cy Young Award in 2018 with a 1.70 ERA
Two days before signing a $137.5 million extension, he had pitched in a spring training game against Atlanta at Disney World, and his father had picked him up afterward before taking him to Sarasota, Florida, for final negotiations.
Later that week, they mingled in the Diplomat Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Virginia, where the Mets stayed for their season opener against the Nationals. Tony estimated that he was making $163 a week when he started at Bell South at age 23. Jacob never saw his father in the morning because Tony had to be at work by 7:00 AM. In September, as his son neared his professional peak, Tony retired a month short of 41 years on the job.
“I think I didn’t miss a day for about 17 years before I got the flu for a year and missed a few days,” he said.
Even when stardom arrived in full, Jacob acted like a casual cowboy, sliding in and out of Citi Field wearing a Resistol trucker hat and Rainbow sandals. At home games, the Mets picked up Lynyrd Skynyrds ‘Simple Man’ as he climbed the mound. His jersey was No. 48 and he was wearing a pair of brown leather boots with No. 4 in the back of a left boot and No. 8 in the right.
He won his second Cy Young in 2019 and hints of stardom appeared. Not to get lost among the smokeless tobacco cans in his locker were two cards on a shelf, both from the New York Police Department’s Lieutenant Benevolent Association. In the lower right corner of each card is a yellow label where the recipient’s name is typed in black. On the one hand, he was Jacob deGrom. On the other hand, he was recognized by his rank in the game: Cy Young.
Returning to Florida, a tradition unaltered by his fame, deGrom slowed down in Volusia County, ordered the local haunt’s best-selling pulled pork sandwich, and fished honey holes. His son, Jaxon, is 5; his daughter, Aniston, is 3. When he doesn’t understand a popular culture reference, he says, “Two kids, too busy,” and real estate takes up some of his time, too. He bought what he called “a decent piece of land” in his hometown and talked about building a “forever home” on what was once an orange grove, bordered by a few lakes and dotted with a pond.
“His comfort is in the middle of the woods with a select handful of people around him,” said Aaron Crittenden, who played with deGrom at Stetson. “He can be perfectly content to pass his days.”
Uncertainty will accompany him home this time. When he wasn’t on the mound this season, he was in a magnetic resonance imaging machine searching for answers to a range of injuries that ranged from pain to inflammation. Although Sandy Alderson, the chairman of the Mets, insisted in September that the ulnar collateral ligament in deGrom’s right elbow was “perfectly intact,” the pitcher was officially shut down for the season this week. Relegated to shagging balls most days, he occasionally threw left-handed to keep his mind occupied.
“I always test my arm to see how it feels,” he said. “It’s just something I do — always moving it.”
His powerful right arm carries less mileage than most pitchers his age due to his multisport upbringing and late introduction to pitching, but consistently throwing 100mph under the batter’s hands took its toll this season. His father, who personally attended some of his early starts this season, reflected on the importance of rest. He believes that too much specialization hurts the game.
“I liked seeing Jacob was just a kid, have fun,” he said. “Nowadays I talk to dads, and their 9, 10-year-olds play baseball every day of the year. It’s just too much. Come on. Give them a break.”
Each year, at the end of the season, Jacob takes two weeks off completely from throwing and stays off the mound until the following February 1, when he begins spring training. Between the shutdown and the official restart, Tony grabs his mitten and Jacob takes care of the balls. They start out close together, but as the winter weeks pass, father and son take a step back as son gradually expands his program. In January, Jacob throws the ball 180 feet. In return, Tony, battling his own aches and pains, tosses the ball as far as he can before bouncing the ball at his boy a few times.
“You have to be tough to grow old,” he said.