Strike 3 Foundation

The Strike 3 Foundation heightens awareness, mobilizes support, and raises funding for childhood cancer research.

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An Exclusive Interview with Craig Breslow

I chatted with A’s lefty Craig Breslow Thursday morning by phone, in a 25-minute interview I have broken into three parts. Part I focuses largely on Craig Breslow’s Strike 3 Foundation and the Blackjack charity event in San Francisco Wednesday night, August 4th. Part II will focus on more personal aspects of Breslow’s family history with pediatric cancer and his experience doing charity work in the community, and in Part III, we talk baseball.


Nico: So just to start off I wanted to give you a chance to talk about: What do you most want fans to know about pediatric cancer, the "Strike 3 foundation," and the event coming up?

Breslow: OK, so I guess the salient points are that I started the Strike 3 Foundation about two years ago in 2008 and at the time I was pretty deeply rooted in Connecticut, I was playing for the Red Sox at the time, I had gone to school in Connecticut, and felt like it was a good time for me to do something in the community to give back.

Obviously since that time I’ve spent of different stints with a number of different teams and traveled around the country, and now feeling like I’ve kind of entrenched myself in the Bay Area, I feel it’s a good time to try to extend our scope out this way.

In a little over two years we’ve raised close to $250,000 for pediatric cancer research. Included in that has been a grant to Cure Search, which is an international partnership between the Children’s Oncology Group and the National Cancer Federation…We’ve also impacted two pediatric cancer hospitals in Connecticut, one being Yale Children’s Hospital, in that we founded a pediatric bone marrow transplant program which is the first of its kind in Connecticut. Prior to that any child needing a bone transplant would need to go either to Boston or New York.

And now, what I think would probably most interest people in the Bay Area is that we’ve begun assembling a committee to accept grant proposals that can be submitted to any worthwhile individual or institution around the country – and we’re particularly looking to impact the Bay Area. And these grant proposals can be awarded for projects including quality of care – maybe something as simple as a few thousand dollars to help build a playroom in a Children’s Hospital – up to a grant for an oncology fellow looking to fund a project. So that’s something we’re really proud of, and grants will be going out probably this winter.

On a personal level, the reason I’m so attached to pediatric cancer is because my sister was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 13 (I was 11 at the time), and she’s since gone on to recover fully. But I line I use pretty often is that so many charities are borne out of tragedy, I feel like not enough perspective, or focus, goes to the success stories, and I think those are kind of the real examples of how necessary funding, and awareness, and support are for causes.

Nico: Well also, you’re in a somewhat unique position, having some stature and being in the public eye, and I’m thinking two years ago, four years ago, six years ago, as you were getting into baseball, it was obviously unclear at what level you would end up and how much opportunity you would have. And so I’m just curious, going back a few years was this always in your mind, "If I make it, I will do…" or was it really organic, or how did it evolve?

Breslow: Right, so there was always some kind of…presence within me that I needed to do something. I had a great education, I had a pretty good understanding of science, at least understood the importance of science, the importance of the research and funding and grants and those sorts of things having spent time a lot of time in labs at Yale. And so I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to say 10 years ago that I was going to start a charity that was going to benefit pediatric cancer research, but I could have told you that in some capacity I would try to help children in our community, whether that was visiting hospitals, holding fundraisers or just kind of lending my name or support to other causes.

As the thing began to take shape I began to realize how close I was to the cause and also how important it was to me to kind of have direct control over our fundraising, our guests, our donors, particularly kind of where our funding went. So I guess that’s how it evolved, from this feeling that I wanted to give back to, "OK, I want to start a charity, this is where I want to the money to go, this is how we’re going to organize it, this is how we’re going to run things."

Nico: Have you gotten to a point now where you know, really specifically, what you plan to do when your baseball career is over, in terms of your science background and in terms of a "next career"?

Breslow: No, if anything it’s probably become more blurry. I felt like, when I started playing professional baseball, 8 years ago I was a Senior draft pick out of Yale, I figured this was something I would allow to run its course over the next 2-3 years and probably end up in med school classes by the time I was 23 or 24. Obviously that hasn’t happened and now having had some success in baseball, but also remaining connected to the medical field, I feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds. I’m trying to utilize my talents as best I can and I feel like this a pretty good way of doing so.

Nico: Yeah, my understanding – but correct me if I’m wrong – is that you’ve been committed to pursuing science, in some way, predating baseball success ("Correct"), but now there are so many different specific or general ways to be involved with science, research, cancer in particular, disease – do you have any leanings at this point? Is that becoming any clearer, or is it just becoming less clear because you’re focusing on striking out Josh Hamilton?

Breslow: I feel like it’s becoming less clear. I don’t feel any less strongly about medicine, I don’t feel any less strongly about baseball, and for the time being I’ve been able to marry the two and I hope (suddenly appears to chuckle at using the word "marry") I can continue to do that some way going forward.

Nico: What about the event coming up on Wednesday (August 4th). If a fan attends that, as I’m going to, what can we expect as far as that night?

Breslow: It’s going to be a great night. The event will be held at Anchor Steam Brewery, so {chuckle} on the most simple level it’s a great brewery with great beer and unlimited beer tasting and a tour of the brewery which is not open to the public, so it’s kind of a neat privilege.

Beyond that, we’ve got Jeff Ma coming in who’s the real life basis for the main characters in the book Bringing Down The House and the movie 21, about the MIT Blackjack teams that were made famous…And I actually met Jeff through a mutual friend who recommended that he speak at our first fundraiser in Connecticut (winter, 2008), and Jeff was unbelievable – I can definitely testify as to how entertaining and charismatic and enthusiastic a speaker he is. He was funny; I was kind of going out on a limb in that I wasn’t very familiar with him, didn’t really know the material, and I had never met him. But he showed up and he absolutely wowed the crowd, and I know he’s done a bunch of speaking engagements since then, so I’m very confident that all of our audience will definitely be entertained.

He’s bringing us some blackjack tables, and I think some of his former blackjack team members will be giving tutorials on card counting. And he’s also got a book that just came out a few weeks ago called The House Advantage, and he’ll be signing copies of the book for everyone who attends. We’ve got appetizers, a few silent auction items, and then a bunch of teammates will be there – I would imagine probably 10-15 teammates including, Andrew Bailey will be there, Trevor Cahill, Vin Mazzaro, Jerry Blevins, Brad Ziegler, I think Brett Anderson is planning on coming, Mark Ellis – so there should definitely be a good contingent, and then obviously the most important the money goes to a great cause.

Nico: I know Andrew Bailey’s on the board of the foundation. How did that come about?

Breslow: I got to know Andrew when I came over here midway through the season last year. We became good friends and his fiancée is actually from Connecticut so he ended up living with her in Connecticut this off-season, so we were about 20 minutes apart and worked out together nearly every day.

And I think he saw how much work I was putting into this, and it started by his attending the gala with a bunch of his family – that’s our signature fundraiser in Connecticut – in the off-season, and I think from there it was just something that really appealed to him. It was obviously a great cause and it was helping out a teammate and a friend. And I think most importantly, I think he understood that given his success, given his celebrity, he was in a position to make a difference, and he felt like this was something he really wanted to get involved in.


Nico: Before we talk baseball, just to finish up on this topic I know you’ve done a lot of hospital visits as part of the outreach. Are there any personal stories from visits to hospitals, other events that you’ve done, that particularly stay with you, that might speak to our readers?

Breslow: I guess the most obvious would be when I first visited Yale Children’s Hospital in 2008, I met a number of patients but there was one in particular, a 9-year old boy who was just incredibly vibrant and lively, and you could kind of immediately tell that he was the pillar of strength for his family. And so we kind of immediately took a bond, and that’s actually — if you go onto our web site that’s the kid that’s pictured on the home page.

And then he actually passed away in the middle of the Summer last year — I think it was like, 2 or 3 days before his 10th birthday — and we honored him at our fundraiser last year and named an award for strength and courage in his honor, and presented it to his mother, as the first one last year. And now every year, we plan on awarding someone who has kind of shown strength and courage throughout these tragedies. And we’re obviously hoping it’s someone who’s beaten cancer and maybe kind of uplifted the oncology ward, or maybe touched other people in some way. But I’d say that’s definitely one of the most touching stories, the most compelling reasons to continue.

Nico: And in your own life you were 11, is that right, when your sister was diagnosed. ("Yeah") I work with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, so that’s the group I’m familiar with – ("Yeah, I was in 6th grade, and my sister was in 8th grade") – and I’m just wondering, as a child how did you cope, what were the things that helped you? Because I know working with kids that how you see and process the world as a 6th grader is just very different from when you look back, and you’re 25, and you have an adult view of the world. How did you cope, and what helped?

Breslow: For the most part, I think my parents tried to shelter me as much as possible. I didn’t really find out that my sister had cancer until she had been to the doctor a couple times, the diagnosis had been made and she was getting ready to start treatment. I think for the first doctor’s appointment or two, they had just kind of dropped me off at a friend’s house, and then taken her in and picked her up.

But I can remember on one of those occasions my dad coming to pick me up and he was definitely upset, and he told me Lesley had cancer. And the first thing I asked him was, "Is she going to die?" At 11 years old that’s what you associate cancer with. But we were assured it was very treatable and hadn’t spread, but…I think that at 11 years old you tend to think of things very simply, you know like, "OK, is someone going to live or are they going to die?" And that’s not something that I feel as though any … {brief pause, voice cracks ever so slightly} an 11-12 year old should have to go through.

Nico: Yeah. Are you glad the way that it was handled? Were you able to be in a good situation as a sibling? I’m just curious — I guess what I’m interested in is just to also let readers know what it’s like for not just the people going through a childhood cancer, but also the people around them, like their (siblings).

Breslow: Right, I mean I think naturally one’s reaction is to feel like you should have been told about what was going on all along, there could have been more that you could do, but obviously as an 11-year old I was pretty limited in the scope of things that I could do to help.

But actually what I’ve found, visiting hospitals and talking to a lot of kids who are sick — they seem to be the most calm, the most optimistic, the strongest. It’s typically family members, siblings, friends, that are the ones most in need of the support. I obviously don’t know exactly what the reason is for that but it’s been remarkable just to see how strong 8-9-10-11 year old kids are. They kind of inspire the rest of us to be strong.

Nico: You know, I would almost liken it to — like when you were on the mound last night, you were probably the least nervous person out there. You know, everyone around you {Breslow laughs} – you know what I mean?

Breslow: Yeah, you’re probably right. I mean, maybe sometimes the person things are happening to, or the person who seems to be in the most control is typically the calmest, I don’t know.

This answer transitioned us into talking about baseball and about Craig Breslow, lefty reliever. Want to know how Breslow explains his success throwing mostly a low-90s fastball? How he feels different working 4 days out of 5 or getting a couple days off? How much attention he pays to the charts, graphs, and data that we love to scrutinize on Athletics Nation?


Nico: What is really amazing to me, watching you pitch, is how often you throw fastballs that hitters swing right through. And AN is really data oriented, and so everyone runs to the Pitch FX charts, and the vertical movement charts, to figure out "What is it that’s going on? It’s not the velocity, it’s not this, it’s not that," and I’m curious about a couple things on that: One, what your perspective is on what makes your fastball — which has really become a "go to" pitch for you against left and right handers — what makes it as effective as it is, first of all, and then also, how you analyze it and how much of an interest you take in figuring out the science of what’s going on?

Breslow: Hmm…{chuckles} I definitely know that I throw fastballs the overwhelming majority of the time! But, I don’t know if there’s a correlation between that and what I’ve done my whole life, or if I’ve been noticing more recent success with it, but I’ve kind of always kind of felt like, number one, a well-executed fastball is always going to be the best pitch. There may be times where the count, or the statistics, or the numbers show that a breaking ball or a changeup is a good pitch.

But I feel like if you can execute a fastball — and by that I mean throw the pitch where you want — I feel like that’s never the wrong pitch. And I think that a lot of the data, as you’ve pointed out, has told me that my fastball is my best pitch, so if I’m ever going to get beat that’s the pitch I should get beat on.

As far as the mechanics, or the physics, or the "why" my 91 or 92 MPH fastball gets swung on and missed more often than someone’s 98 or 99 I have no idea. I don’t know if it’s all my doing or if there’s something on the hitters’ side where you see a guy who’s not so big, doesn’t throw so hard, maybe you’re thinking, "OK, don’t get beat by a breaking ball," or "don’t get beat by a changeup," as a guy — a guy like, say, Joel Zumaya, for example — I mean, every hitter that goes up there knows he throws 100 MPH and probably your thought process is, "Don’t get beat by the 100."

I think beyond that there are probably some factors that won’t show up in a data base, some of those being "life" on the fastball through the zone, and I don’t know exactly how to quantify that but maybe its pitches that keep their velocity…And then maybe there’s some kind of quirkiness in my delivery that makes it more difficult for hitters to pick up.

I know one thing: When I throw, mechanically I’m very low. I almost kind of "collapse" — which isn’t necessarily something I want to be doing, but I think it allows the fastball that ends up riding up on hitters to have a little different kind of plane than a guy who stays really tall and throws the ball downhill.

Nico: Yeah, that’s a really good insight because we’ve been able to figure out is that your fastball seems to have more what they call "vertical movement" — even though fastballs don’t really rise, but they work against gravity — but actually that kind of is what’s going on, and maybe that’s what it is, is the "low to the ground." Because all we have, chart-wise, is what the ball appears to be doing — is it losing velocity, does it appear to be rising, tailing, sinking — but that’s an interesting insight as to why that might be going on.

I was just curious — it seemed to me like if anyone would take an interest beyond video, into the sort of physics and mechanics, it would probably be you, and we were just wondering, did you avail yourself of that kind of information?

Breslow: Right. The flip side of that is if I find something that {laughing} doesn’t look too promising, or seems like it should just be variance, then I’ve got myself in trouble, so sometimes the most simple explanation is the best, like, "You know, when I throw a ball up in the zone, guys tend to swing at it and they don’t hit it too hard too often."

Nico: {Laughing} Yeah, that’s pretty good scientific data right there. Someone was just interested in whether your approach has changed at all, recently, in light of kind of moving from being a "lefty specialist" to more of a "set up man/closer/pitch a full inning/face lefties and righties." Has that changed your approach, or mind-set, at all against left-handers, or in general approaching an inning?

Breslow: I would say probably in a general sense it means that I’m now facing more right-handers than I had in the past. Obviously as a lefty specialist coming in to face a batter or two, (the manager) can kind of control the opposing hitter and in which side of the plate he hits from, but if you’re going to kind of blanketly say, "OK, you’re going to pitch the 8th inning" then I’m just facing whoever happens to come up, even if it’s three consecutive righties. But I think, as we’ve just spoken, the fact that I throw a lot of fastballs and they tend to be effective against both righties and lefties, speaks to my ability to face both.

I feel like for a long time I was doing my best to shed being typecast as a lefty specialist, because I think throughout my career my splits have been pretty even. So I guess it doesn’t really change, necessarily, my approach or the way I would pitch guys. It just perhaps allows me to be a little bit more comfortable and familiar with the situation in which I will pitch.

Nico: My last question is relevant to today, for example — if you were to pitch today it would be three days in a row. When you’ve worked a lot — and you’ve had some stretches where you’ve worked four days out of five, or you’re asked to go longer in given outings and then come back-to-back — are there things a fan can actually predict before you actually come in, that you know are going to be different when you’re particularly fresh, or you’re particularly heavily worked, or high pitch counts over, say, the last few days?

Breslow: Right. There are some of things that are probably pretty obvious — I would say velocity typically takes a dip the 3rd or 4th day in a row that you’re throwing. But I think one thing that’s kind of perhaps overlooked would be command. And not necessarily just "strikes vs. balls" — for the most part, guys are still able to keep the ball within the strike zone — but it’s the pitch that was at the knees two days ago was kind of at the lower thigh yesterday, and is now closer to the belt. Or a pitch that you were able to get the outer 1/3 of the plate is now maybe just at the outer 1/2 as the result of being tired, and maybe your arm and your body not working as synchronized as they had been —

Nico: Even though you should be, in theory, developing more "muscle memory" too — you could make an argument, right?

Breslow: Right, there’s probably an age-old debate about "muscle deterioration and fatigue" vs. "muscle memory and strength" —

Nico: And it all doesn’t matter if Kerwin Danley doesn’t call it a strike anyway!

Breslow: {Laughs} That’s awfully true…But there’s even a chance that my top fastball’s 93 MPH the first day after four days off, and the last day it might be 93 MPH after pitching three or four days in a row, but I just feel like I need to work that much harder to get it to 93 MPH. And I think that as a result at times my command suffers, or movement suffers, things like that.

Nico: What I want to say, off the "interview," is that for me as a fan, I don’t tend to care that much about someone’s statistics or who seems to be the best player on the team. I really go for quality people, and I just want you to know you have my full respect — I just think what you do is awesome, on and off the field.

Breslow: I appreciate that. I mean, as cliché as it sounds, ballplayers are just people, you know? If I weren’t doing this I’d probably be at — {laughing} well, hopefully by now I would have graduated — {"With any luck, yeah"} — Right, right, otherwise I’d be going on my 8th year! But no, I appreciate that — I don’t necessarily just want to be known for what I’m doing on the field, because I feel there’s so much more … so much more to that.

I really wouldn’t mind if the A’s kept Craig Breslow around for a while. Hope you enjoyed the interview!  -Nico

August 3, 2010 · Reprinted from © 2010

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The Strike 3 Foundation heightens awareness, mobilizes support, and raises funding for childhood cancer research.

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