It has been nearly 10 years since Craig Breslow stood prepared to give up the diversion of baseball in pursuit of something higher-minded.
In the summer of 2004, Breslow -- then 23 and in his third year of pro baseball -- saw the walls narrowing. A 26th-round draft pick of the Brewers in 2002 out of Yale, Breslow's pro career had gotten off to a brilliant start (albeit against younger competition) when he posted a 1.82 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning in Rookie Ball in 2002.
That performance left the left-hander optimistic that he had an opportunity to realize a dream. The next two years offered a reality check, with a 5.12 ERA in Single-A in 2003 followed by a 7.19 ERA in the High-A California League in 2004 that precipitated Breslow's release by Milwaukee and forced him into an early-life crossroads.
"[Making the big leagues] went from being naively realistic to impossible. I went out, had a really good Rookie Ball season, made it to the next level," Breslow recalled earlier this year. "It was like, 'OK, there are six levels for me to go, I make it through one a year, that's six years. That's just the way it goes.' Then, I struggled, got released and it was like, 'I'm never going to make it.' "
Unable to matriculate at NYU until the 2005-06 academic year, Breslow spent the rest of that summer pitching in the indy leagues but contemplating his future. He couldn't afford to play for a salary that measured in the hundreds of dollars per month forever, particularly given that the alternative -- being a doctor -- was a field that offered its own considerable fulfillment.
"In the real world, you need to pay bills, and $850 a month in Rookie Ball doesn't really cut it, especially when the contingency plan was going to medical school," Breslow recalled. "I needed to balance, 'Hey, I like doing this' -- there aren't a ton of people who wake up and love what they do every day, and it's a way to put food on the table and feed the family, with, 'I've got this great alternative, and I can't just be 35 years old and playing Double-A baseball.' "
And so, Breslow sought out the advice of his college teammate, Matt McCarthy, who was drafted out of Yale in the 21st round in 2002 and spent a summer pitching for the Angels' Rookie Ball affiliate (using the experience to publish "Odd Man Out," an account of his short minor league career that briefly caused something of an uproar around the game) before deciding to go to Harvard Medical School following his release in early 2003.
Breslow asked McCarthy, based on their similar backgrounds and interests: How did it feel to leave the game? Was it the right decision to go to medical school?
"He said, 'You should absolutely stop playing baseball and go to med school if you're OK with never turning on the TV and questioning whether that could be you playing,' " said Breslow. "As simple as that sounds, as cliche and mundane as it all sounds, I didn't think I was ready for that. And he said, 'Then you need to keep playing.' "
And play he did. Breslow received a tryout with the Padres in 2005, made their Double-A team out of spring training and posted strong numbers there (2.75 ERA, 8.1 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine innings) to earn a big league callup that year.
Goodbye, medical school.
"Fortunately, things outpaced needing to think about when it was time to walk away and get my real life started," Breslow observed.
Still, the fact that Breslow -- who had a 2.20 ERA in 14 games with San Diego -- now had a demonstrated path to the big leagues did not eliminate the reason why he'd been attracted to medical school.
Even as a kid, medicine -- and the possibility of helping people -- had captured his imagination, and unlike baseball, it seemed like a viable goal.
"I was always fascinated with it. If I had to pick a career that didn’t include baseball it would have included medicine," said Breslow. "I thought that was probably the more realistic result."
His interest in the field predated his sister Lesley's diagnosis with thyroid cancer when she was 14 and he was 11. Yet as the confusion and anxiety of his sister's diagnosis yielded to a healthy resolution, the impact of the profession became even more obvious.
"I wouldn’t say that my sister’s diagnosis or treatment did anything than other maybe confirm my fascination," said Breslow. "It was kind of like 'Wow, there are these people out there that make sick people healthy again and make hurt people able to play baseball again, and that’s pretty neat.' That’s as simply as I probably thought about this."
The sense of possibility in the medical field did not abate. And so, whereas some people feel a hole left by their departure from baseball, Breslow experienced a void in the absence of moving forward in his medical career.
Yes, he had a chance to pursue his dream, and he appreciated what that opportunity meant -- particularly given how close he came from walking away. But by the time Breslow had spent the 2006 and 2007 seasons shuttling between Triple-A and the big leagues -- claiming a World Series ring along the way for his two days on the Red Sox big league roster in 2007 -- he also remained mindful of the road not taken.
He saw college classmates who were concluding graduate school, medical school and business school gaining definition in their careers. And Breslow wanted to feel as if there was some gravitas to his vocation, that his professional career was more than just the stuff of whimsy or frivolity at the expense of an opportunity to help others.
And so, Breslow decided to commit himself to an audacious undertaking in the offseason following the 2007 season. He dedicated himself to the creation of a not-for-profit foundation, the Strike 3 Foundation, with the stated goal of "[heightening] awareness, [mobilizing support, and raises funding for childhood cancer research."
"For so long, academia had been such a prominent factor in my life that I wasn't ready to just be a pitcher. ... I just kind of felt like if I was going to be playing baseball for a while, I needed to do something that would give me a sense of achievement at the same time as potentially toiling in the minor leagues, I guess," said Breslow. "At that point, I probably had to make at least a short-term decision about whether or not medical school was in my immediate future, and when I decided it wasn’t, maybe sentimentally I wanted to stay kind of connected. So [I] just think, it was kind of just like this perfect storm of making a pretty serious commitment to baseball, and therefore wanting to keep this part of my life intact."
He could have made an impact a different way, certainly. Even though Breslow recognized that his role with the Red Sox -- who are, of course, allied with the Jimmy Fund and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute -- was somewhat tenuous, virtually every organization has ties to difference-making medical institutions that do great work.
Yet Breslow wanted to work outside what he calls the "mega-charities," to have the flexibility to "identify worthwhile projects and worthwhile opportunities independent of hospital affiliation. … I think that's a really good thing." So he pursued a model that could permit him to support a variety of research and researchers and hospitals, to make an impact in his local community, regardless of where he was playing -- and, in some cases, moving beyond his immediate geographical residence of his baseball team (something over which he did not have complete control) to support promising research at any number of locations around the country.
There have been other players who created foundations, but few who do so were and are in Breslow's position in that winter of 2007-08, in a Triple-A/big-league limbo, and without the visibility or personal wealth to commit to an idea while leaving the creation of much of the infrastructure to others. For Breslow, the creation of a foundation represented a fully hands-on undertaking.
He was trying to gain official recognition as a tax-exempt not-for-profit during spring training of 2008 -- a problematic time for two reasons: First, he was on the fringes of Boston's 40-man roster, trying to fight his way to a job in the Red Sox bullpen (while trying to prove himself worthy of at least a 40-man spot) and needed to be committed fully to that undertaking. Secondly, any hopes he had of finding an accountant who could offer pro bono assistance in navigating the paperwork of IRS Form 1023 (for tax exemption of a not-for-profit foundation) was rendered nearly impossible by the proximity of the April 15 tax filing date.
So Breslow (who allowed four earned runs in 5 1/3 innings that spring) figured out how to fill out the tax forms himself. He worked to lay the groundwork for his first fundraising event the following offseason, when he gathered about 150 people at a Country Club in Connecticut, raising (by his recollection) about $50,000-$60,000 for the CureSearch National Childhood Cancer Foundation.
He had help, but really, the work to set up the foundation and event was his. The tax acknowledgment emails recognizing receipt of charitable donations came from him. The organization of the event was his. While his baseball career represented the fulfillment of a dream, the Strike 3 Foundation represented an opportunity for a very different kind of fulfillment.
"I approached it as a challenge and a task and an opportunity," said Breslow. "I felt like if I was going to be the person most invested in the success of this thing, then I needed to kind of have my hands on a number of aspects, and it was small enough that I could."
That is no longer the case. Next week, Breslow will host his foundation's Sip Happens event at the Boston Children's Museum. The single night, he hopes, could raise upwards of a quarter of a million dollars, which would make it the most successful event in the organization's history.
Breslow can no longer attend to every detail of the foundation, nor does he have to. His wife, Kelly (formerly a corporate executive at GE and a cybersecurity professional at Ernst & Young) is the foundation's director for operations and development, and an all-volunteer staff -- which doesn't collect a single dollar in payroll -- allows the pitcher to focus primarily on being a pitcher, with about an hour a day dedicated to the running of Strike 3.
The visibility of the Red Sox (and the enthusiastic participation of many of his teammates in his events) as well as the opportunity to play a prominent role for a team that won the World Series, have further helped the organization's mission.
"People are generally just more excited about this team than they are to others. I thick that's a credit to this community, to this part of the country," said Breslow. "People feel passionately about the Red Sox and the causes that the Red Sox support. So, it looks like this may be our most profitable event to date, and that is certainly a testament to the way that this city responds to this team."
Even as he's been able to step back, to permit a group of trusted people who share his commitment to the foundation to assume greater and greater responsibility for its operations, Breslow is able to see its growing impact, demonstrated in part by grants (whether a five-year, $500,000 grant that the foundation completed to Yale New Haven Children's Hospital or a recent $10,000 grant for the purchase of a pair of ultrasound machines at Golisano Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida, near the Red Sox spring training facility) but also by its new programs.
The foundation launched a new "Play It Forward" initiative last year, meant to encourage school-age children to come up with ideas about how to make a difference in the lives of other children with cancer -- offering a sense of empowerment in a realm where Breslow himself experienced powerlessness with his sister's diagnosis. The program has inspired fundraisers and activities in which children have launched initiatives meant to combat the disease.
"At 11, I certainly wasn’t thinking like this, but it certainly shows that 11-year-old do think like this if we empower and impassion them a little bit," said Breslow. "Maybe even outside of the scope of Strike 3, the fact that we’re just encouraging these kids to be useful participants in the community is valuable whether or not Strike 3 benefits from this I think as a whole, the community benefits."
The growth of the organization has occurred in concert with Breslow's emergence as one of the more reliable left-handed bullpen arms in the game. Since the start of 2008 -- the year in which he launched the foundation -- through his first 10 innings of this year, Breslow has a 2.86 ERA, making him one of five left-handed relievers with a sub-3.00 ERA and 300-plus innings pitched in that time. Though he started slowly this year while building arm strength, he's recorded four scoreless appearances this month, looking increasingly like the same pitcher who made a profound impact on the Sox in the late innings last year.
The struggle he once experienced, the pull between two different worlds, has been reconciled. The two paths that once seemed divergent have now come together in a fashion that has provided him with fulfillment. He is neither a pitcher who abandoned the ideal of helping others nor a doctor who must wonder where his baseball career could have gone.
Instead, there is a sense of balance about what he does, both on and off the field.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that the two have risen and stabilized in parallel," said Breslow. "The success I have on the field is clearly instrumental in my ability to fundraise off of it. No question about that. But at the same time, one offers a nice outlet and a nice distraction from the other. I'm very passionate about both, and I've struck a good balance between what I owe to this uniform and my teammates on the field and also what I feel like I owe this community and fan base off the field.
"I certainly wanted to be appreciated for what I was doing on the field, but I just felt like there was more to me than that, and it's a different kind of accomplishment and gratification that you receive from doing this. Incomparable. I couldn't say one is better than the other. They're completely different. But they're both very important."