What is a pitcher without his baseball? In Adam Miller’s case, a soccer player – on the side, of course.
In July of 2009, Miller, a college pitcher for Brigham Young University’s baseball team, was far from the towering mountains of Provo, Utah. Miller was landing in Mexico with just a shred of Spanish in his vocabulary, staring at a two-year hiatus from baseball. His religious mission through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took him off the mound and into the homes of families in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
“When I was down in Mexico, I didn’t see a single baseball for two years, just straight soccer,” Miller joked. “I came back with a greater desire to put more effort into the sport that I played.”
Miller’s fresh take on the sport – and his refreshed right shoulder and elbow – has led the BYU product to the gates of Ogren-Allegiance Park and the Missoula Osprey this summer, by way of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
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Miller knew he wanted to serve as a Mormon missionary even before professional baseball became a possibility. But a two-year rite of passage in the LDS community meant walking away from the game just as scouts starting taking notice of the California native.
Unfortunate timing perhaps, Miller thought, but his path was never in doubt.
“I’d kind of made a commitment before I left to completely dedicate myself to what I was going to do down there, and I knew I’d receive blessings for doing so,” said Miller, who left school following his freshman year. “Baseball is something that I loved, but I knew if I completely cut myself loose from baseball, when I came back it was going to be there in greater abundance for me. And it’s definitely turned out that way.”
After two months of missionary training in Provo, the 19-year-old left to start his work. He was paired with a fellow missionary so they’d never be alone in Mexico. His partner only spoke Spanish. Miller felt isolated.
He’d loved Mexican food growing up, but the occasional longings for a Southern California In-N-Out Burger still crept into his mind. He emailed home to his family – his two parents and 10 siblings – every Monday, but he rarely got to speak to them. Phone calls were allowed only twice a year on Mother’s Day and Christmas.
“I felt like I was in my own bubble for two, three months,” Miller said, “until I could start to express what I was feeling. It was a lonely couple of months until I could pick up Spanish.
“That has really helped me here.”
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Miller, now 23, is one of the few bilingual speakers in the Osprey locker room. He was no rarity upon returning to the Cougars baseball team in 2011, though. Missions are so common among BYU athletes that a player’s service is listed alongside height, weight and hometown in his or her profile on the school’s athletic website.
It’s a constant flow of players in and out of a program, said BYU pitching coach Jeremy Thomas, who himself served a mission in Canada. That’s not always a detriment. They come back more mature and willing to work, but a coaching staff is faced with a need for much more future planning.
“A lot of our kids we recruit this year that were seniors in high school,” Thomas began, “we weren’t recruiting them for this upcoming season. We were recruiting them for 2016.
“Our team dynamics are skewed because when guys come back, they’re older. And last year I think we had eight guys on our team that were actually married. It’s quite a bit different than a normal team environment.”
Miller’s return to Provo closely followed the end of the 2011 season. The pitcher had a full six months to prepare for the hard part now: Getting back on the mound.
He hadn’t thrown a ball – let alone a fastball – in more than two years. The road back to being a starter was long and uncomfortable.
“My body was going to feel great, but I wasn’t supposed to push myself because obviously my muscles weren’t to the point where I could throw a ball as hard,” he said. “That was a little frustrating, having to take it slow, take baby steps. It’s like coming back from a surgery.”
He struggled that first year back, starting nine games but reaching only 30 innings pitched. That came with a 9.49 ERA and 38 walks versus only 17 strikeouts.
Miller was draft eligible after the season. He didn’t think his game was, though.
“It usually takes about a year to come back, two years for some kids, and in his case the arm speed came back pretty quickly,” said Thomas, who along with head coach Mike Littlewood was hired following the 2012 campaign. “Typically pitchers will struggle after a two-year mission, they’ll struggle with their pitch control. For him, that was the case in his 2012 season.
“But every year from now on he’ll have even more big improvement in that area.”
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So it began this spring. BYU staff clocked his fastball as high as 98 mph, but Miller began throwing smarter instead of harder. He limited his base on balls, walking 36 batters in the 2013 campaign over more than twice as many innings as the year before.
The Diamondbacks kept tabs on the progress. The organization viewed Miller’s upside as worth the investment in an older pitcher who’s still fighting to get back to where he was pre-mission. Arizona selected the 6-foot righty in the 20th round of the MLB first-year player draft in June.
“It’s like with everybody, we work on fastball command,” Osprey pitching coach Doug Bouchtler said of Miller’s on-going battle. “First and foremost, getting him in and learning the system, getting him used to playing everyday. It’s a little bit more of a taxing workload on the arm so we try and ease them into the system.”
The step up to pro ball comes with heavy wear on an arm. In Miller’s case, his mission might have actually helped on that front.
“When I was in college, a lot of scouts were thrilled by the fact that I’d taken a two-year break for my arm,” he said. “It was like coming back with a brand new arm.”
The fresh cannon is continuing to hone in on the strike zone. Miller, who threw his best game of the season Monday in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has walked only four batters in 20-plus innings. He’s also striking out almost a batter per inning in that time.
The pitcher tossed five shutout innings against the Chukars this week, a win that occured just hours up the road from the familiar field at BYU where his reappearance began.