The thing about big moments is that when you sweat, your fingers slip. A curve becomes a bastardization of a slider, or simply a meatball, floating across the plate. But John Curtiss doesn’t pitch many meatballs.
It’s 2014, and the Texas ace Longhorns just closed a shutout in a win-or-go-home match against the Vanderbilt Commodores. Now, if the Longhorns can defeat the Commodores for the second day in a row, they advance to the College World Series Championship.
Curtiss is again called upon to finish the game.
In the bottom of the 10th inning with the score locked at 3-3, he quickly retires two batters. But then a single. Then a one-strike walk. Then, his fingers slip and he hits a batter on the first pitch to load the bases.
Suddenly, Curtiss finds himself in the kind of pressure scenario every baseball obsessed child fantasizes about. Two outs, bases loaded, tie game, bottom of extra innings. He directs one into the strike zone, but then misses for a ball.
Finally, Curtiss’ fastball is rewarded with the outcome the fantasizing Little League pitcher dreams of -- an infield ground ball. Only this ground ball chopped high to the shortstop hangs achingly in the air for fleeting, crucial milliseconds. Curtiss can only watch helplessly as a poorly struck ball transforms into the series clinching infield single.
After the season ended, Curtiss signed a contract with the Minnesota Twins after being taken in the sixth round of the MLB draft. Now, only weeks removed from the heartbreak to Vanderbilt, he's center stage once again. Curtiss takes a deep breath in preparation for a moment he’s been waiting for for years.
The former top-100 recruit had redshirted a year, had persevered through Tommy John Surgery and later surgery for Thoracic outlet syndrome, and had taken on the role of Texas' closer, rather than becoming the desired weekend starter. But the pain is about to pay off. With the crowd anxiously awaiting, John Curtiss strums his first chord.
The thing about big moments is that when you sweat, your fingers slip.
A "D" chord becomes a bastardization of a an "A7", or simply a mute pluck, floating across the stage. However, Curtiss succeeded in his performance of "Carry On by Texas" country artist Pat Green at the cozy Brass Tavern in Austin.
It was the first time Curtiss ever played live, and he would go on to claim that it is "immeasurably more nerve wracking to play guitar and sing in front of 25 than it is to pitch in front of 25,000."
With his thick-rimmed glasses and tall, thin frame, the Longhorn reliever always looked more like a singer-songwriter than a highly-touted pitcher. Now, he’s both.
The former Liberal Arts Honors student mastered his first cowboy chords as a creative outlet after Tommy John surgery, in part to cope with the fact that the injury could cause him to never pitch again. Since then, Curtiss finished a fruitful college career, and is now a closer on the Twin’s high A team, The Fort Myers Miracle. He has also just written his 50th song.
A former English major, Curtiss was used to storytelling, and he was always simply an intelligent kid. In addition to being a second team All-American out of high school, the 6'4 righty from the suburbs of Dallas also had above a 4.0 GPA, and an 2180 SAT score, which is in the 98th percentile.
Living in the "music capital of the world" in college piqued his interest in music, and something clicked when he was listening to Austin’s KOKE FM in a friend's car. The radio station is dedicated to country classics and modern Red Dirt country, which is a more indie, lyric-driven style compared to the "blue jeans and beer" Top 40 country. After hearing the narrative structure of these songs, Curtiss picked up a guitar and became hooked on the local legends.
He still calls Willie Nelson "the best musician ever."
Nelson’s most famous song is perhaps "On the Road Again", a ballad of travel about going places he’s never been, and seeing things he may never see again. Curtiss, like his hero, also finds inspiration from his journeys on the road with his minor league club.
"I carry a little Moleskin journal and a Pilot pen on me wherever I go, so I write a lot on bus trips or in down time wherever," Curtiss said. "There has definitely been a lot of inspiration in my minor league experience. Honestly, I write way more in season than off."
Though Curtiss is a songwriter on a baseball team, he hasn’t been the butt of jokes for pursuing a creative endeavor. In fact, Curtiss has even taught some of his teammates guitar lessons, and has found many others to be supportive.
During Curtiss’ time with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, a teammate played a rough recording of one of his songs over the speaker in the locker room. Curtiss’ song began like this: "My name is Alabama Jones, and I'm from Arkansas". The team erupted in laughter -- they loved it.
Performing music draws parallels to pitching in many ways -- both are art forms needing repetition and practice, and both require a courage greater than most possess. Music is oddly the perfect fit for a pitcher.
Former star aces Bronson Arroyo and Barry Zito have combined for four All-Star appearances, but perhaps cherish the dozens of songs they’ve written even more. After retiring, Zito told the Tennessean "My goal is to be at home with my family and to collaborate with great writers and make a living as a songwriter."
Curtiss believes songwriting is an easy hobby to accommodate the pitching lifestyle, which can include several days' rest and many hours on the road. He also thinks there’s mental similarities.
"I think pitchers in general can be a bit off-kilter sort of like some musicians," Curtiss said. "There might be a personality alignment there that lends itself to observing what's going on around you and capturing it in verse."
Still, writing and playing songs has been a unique challenge for Curtiss. He hasn’t professionally recorded any song yet, and he still is tentative to perform live, though he has done shows at his minor league stops in Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers.
"You can look at people's faces and tell whether or not they dig what you're putting out there for them," Curtiss said. "I don't even think about the crowd in baseball, but entertaining your audience is your only objective in performing live music."
As a professional athlete and budding musician, Curtiss is living a life often dreamed about, but scarcely accomplished. However, he hasn’t been without his setbacks. At 23 years old, there’s still ample time for Curtiss to crack the big leagues, but his severe injuries still affect Curtiss to this day. At any moment, his elbow could go out again, and the career he worked so tirelessly to build could be over.
In addition to this, Curtiss didn’t anticipate just how skilled even low minor leaguers are. He always assumed that the college level was equivalent to about Double A baseball. However, two years after penning his Twins contract, Curtiss now knows just how talented players are at all levels of the pros.
On his high Single A team, six pitchers can hit 97 miles-per-hour or better -- an unheard of mark at the college level. Despite the difficulties, Curtiss has adjusted to the pros and has found consistency this year, boasting a solid 3.48 ERA.
"It's been a wild ride so far. I've seen some lows, struggling and being injured and frustrated. But I've also had high points, and this year has been better for me," Curtiss said. "For the most part, I've loved the experience. Met a lot of cool people, seen things and places I probably never will again. Hopefully I'll be in the MLB 10 years from now, but if not, I'll find something else to do. I haven't thought too much about my backup plan -- just trying to make the most of this one chance to be a big leaguer."
Curtiss will return to Austin in the winter, where he hopes to begin playing live music more regularly. For now, he’s doing his best to find his place in the world. His "place" seems to be in multiple pockets of the earth -- he’s a Minnesota Twins prospect attempting to overcome injuries, but in another corner he’s a musician with the common songwriter’s disease of being just a little too hard on his writing and guitar playing. That first song he nervously performed at the Brass Tavern in 2014 still rings true:
"Sometimes you've got to grab your world with your own two hands,
Set it spinning off on a course all your own,
Take yourself a big bag for your shoulder,
Find yourself some good times, and bring them on back home"
"...heaven only know what’s gonna happen tonight
I'm ok, I'm alright,
Oh carry on."
John was kind enough to share a couple of songs with Burnt Orange Nation. Here's the links if you'd like to hear: