Aaron was not at all a natural. He was short, skinny and shy throughout his formative years. He had to work hard for every pound he put onto his diminutive frame and for every mile per hour he added to his budding fastball.
"He was very small until he was a junior in high school. He probably weighed only 140 going into when he was a junior and then he put on 20 pounds between his junior and senior years," Janice Breit explains.
What he was missing size and strength-wise, Aaron made up for in drive and determination. He knew his size put him at a disadvantage when compared to his bigger, more developed peers. So he did what any other strong-willed 17-year-old would do, he outworked them.
At Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, Aaron met the man who would change his life, and his career, forever. This man's name is Lyle Befort and he was Aaron's high school baseball coach.
Befort bleeds baseball. His answering machine asks callers to leave a message for "coach Befort" and he answers his calls with a cheerful "this is Coach." He isn't a coach, he is The Coach. Befort was drafted in 1987 by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Fort Hays State University. He notes that although he never made the big club's roster, he did get to be in the same organization as Barry Bonds.
From the moment Befort laid eyes on Aaron, he knew that if the kid worked hard enough he had the potential to turn into something special.
"He came into the program 6-foot-3 and 149 pounds. He had a special arm back then, but he wasn't throwing very hard. You could tell he could throw hard; he just had to get some weight behind it," Befort explained.
An average pitcher during his first two years of high school, something changed for Aaron when he made Befort's varsity squad in his junior year. The question inside him grew stronger: Do I have what it takes to make it to the top? Finally, able to question himself no longer, he reached out to his new teacher and asked for help maximizing his boundless potential.
"He was just a normal pitcher back then in his freshman and sophomore year. When it came up to his junior year he said ‘Coach, I want to make it to college and I want to make it as far as I can in baseball. What do I need to do?,'" Befort explains.
The coach responded by prescribing what he called the Bible Workout. The program gets its name because, like the Christian holy book, one must have faith and stick with it in order to see any results. The plan itself is strenuous even to read. It combines heavy weight-lifting with lots of running and even more eating.
The latter, coach Befort says, is the hardest part of the plan. The problem isn't that the players have to eat; it's that they have to eat nearly constantly. Whenever a player has downtime, he needs to eat. He must eat until he is full, and then eat some more. This keeps the player's energy up and fills him with calories to burn into muscle during the daily workouts.
Each part of Befort's workout is carefully formulated. From the number of reps to the order of the exercises, the plan must be followed to the letter for it to be effective. Breit was the first to try the finalized version and witnessed amazing results. From the time he started the plan to the time he graduated, Breit stuck to the program and gained 46 pounds of muscle, bumping his weight from a scrawny 149 pounds to a robust 194.
The transition from svelte to stocky did come easily or without doubt. Approximately one month into the program Aaron had lost confidence in its ability to help him become a bigger, stronger, better pitcher. He decided that he was going to go out and just go back to throwing as hard as he could and hoping for results. Aaron and batterymate Dusty Washburn went out to the field's bullpen and threw until Aaron's arm could take no more.
Although Aaron doesn't recall the moment, Befort remembers it as if it happened yesterday.
"When he gained his first 10 pounds he threw a bullpen with his buddy, who was a catcher, and he did it without me. He wanted to see if he was throwing harder already. And after he got there that that night he said ‘Coach, I don't think this program's working because I'm not throwing any harder' And he just didn't realize that it takes a few months to lengthen the arm. He kind of thought that instant gratification was going to be there right away," Befort recounts.
When the gratification finally did come, it was hard not to notice. Aaron started moving up the ranks in his high school record books. He tied for seventh for wins in a season with seven. He holds the eighth spot for strikeouts in a season with 71. And he is tied for sixth in school history with a .889 winning percentage. He set all these records during his senior season in the year 2005.
A better indicator of his growth than all of these records though can be found in a single pitch thrown during that 2005 season. It was against the Scott City (Kansas) team and Befort knew it the instant he heard it. The catcher's glove just popped differently than it had after every one of Aaron's previous pitches. He had just thrown his first 90 mile per hour fastball and it would only get better from there.
After finishing high school, Aaron fulfilled part one of his dream and won a spot on the Garden City Community College team. He had passed Befort's curriculum and graduated onto college and the tutelage of Chris Finnegan.
In high school, Aaron had played both shortstop and pitcher. Once he got to college, one of the two had to go. Finnegan saw his live arm and knew immediately which position had to be eliminated.
"The first time I saw him you knew right then and there that the kid had a chance to be very, very good. Going into it, I really didn't know who he was, what kind of work ethic he had. But once he stepped on the mound, you pretty much knew Aaron was special," Finnegan explained.
From the moment he stepped on the mound at Garden City, Aaron was special—very special. In his two years at the junior college he racked up 19 wins and compiled an excellent 2.66 earned run average. Additionally, Breit racked up an astounding 108 strikeouts that year, the most in school history. He also holds the record for most career punchouts with 185 over his two seasons. Holding those records are not something he holds in high regard.
"It's an accomplishment. I mean, I never thought I would accomplish that feat and it feels good knowing that I have something under my belt," Breit said.
Almost more impressive than the single-season record itself is the game Breit put together to break it. In that contest against Coffeyville (Kansas) he struck out a whopping 15 men. Sounds like he had everything working, right? Not according to Breit.
"It was actually probably my worst outing. I couldn't throw my fastball for a strike. I'm just lucky my curveball and my slider were working," Breit explained.
Another striking part of Breit is his sense of humility. I sensed it immediately the first time I interviewed him. Throughout the course of my 10 or so questions he dipped, darted and dove away from the recorder. To stay in recording range, I had to match his moves step for step. The modesty also shows up in the answers to those questions.
When pressed to name his best game, Breit draws a blank. It's as if he can't bear to pay himself a compliment. He thinks and thinks and thinks some more, but still cannot come up with a single decent game he has pitched. After a few seconds more of pondering I decide it would be better to skip the question.
Before even throwing a pitch in the pros, Breit had accomplished something few other ballplayers can boast. He was drafted twice by the same club. The San Diego Padres took him out of high school in 2004 with their 46th-round selection, but Breit chose to attend college rather than signing. San Diego chose him again after his first year at Garden City. Because Garden City is a junior college, the Padres exercised their option to make Breit a draft-and-follow player. This meant that the organization would retain the rights to sign him until just before the next year's draft.
The move paid off for both Breit and the Padres when, after initially signing a letter of intent to transfer to the much bigger and more competitive Kansas University, he opted to sign a professional contract to pitch for San Diego.
Each time he was drafted, Breit faced a period of self-evaluation. Was he ready yet? Did he want continue living the college life without all the expectations and pressure of the quest for the Major Leagues? What about leaving home and traveling to far away places such as Arizona or Oregon? How would he and his family deal with being separated for the first time? Aaron's mother explains how, with the help of his family and coaches, he answered those questions the first time they were posed.
"I told him I didn't think he was mentally and physically ready right out of high school. I wanted him to get at least one year of college in. He knew he wasn't ready at 18 years old at that time when he was first drafted right out of high school. He followed what we said [and went] to college the first time he was drafted," Janice Breit explained.
But what about the second time, was he ready then?
"Then when he was drafted the second time, in 2005, yes, as a mother I had a little bit of a role. I said ‘Aaron, I don't know if you're really ready mentally and physically yet. If you go play professional ball, how many times can we go see you? We're getting older. I think let's maybe try school one more year,'" she continued.
Of course, Aaron followed his mother's advice and stayed that second year at Garden City. And, like a mother's intuition usually seems to do, the move proved to be a right one. He set both his records that year and added a coat of polish to an already lustrous résumé.
After the season finished, Aaron found the decision to forgo a career with the Jayhawks an easy one.
"I just felt like I was mentally ready to go play and experience professional baseball," Breit stated.
With his college career behind him, Aaron was signed, sealed and ready to deliver for the Padres' single-A farm club, the Eugene Emeralds.
When he arrived in Eugene, Breit was immersed in a staff with a wealth of knowledge to help him climb the ladder toward the show. The Ems' manager was Doug Dascenzo, a former left-fielder who split his time between the Chicago Cubs, the Texas Rangers and the Padres. More important than the manager was Wally Whitehurst, the Emeralds' pitching coach.
Although his career spanned only 163 games over six years, Whitehurst's repertoire was full of ideas to help Breit build and improve his game. At first glance, Whitehurst saw many important qualities in Breit that he did like, and one not-so-important quality that he didn't care for.
"He's ugly to begin with," Whitehurst opines, "What a good kid he is. He's got a good attitude. He wants to learn. He listens, he tries everything you ask him to do. He's got a gifted right arm and he's got good stuff, he's just got to learn how to pitch."
After two early appearances as reliever, Breit was eased into the starting rotation on June 27 at home against the Spokane Indians. That day, Breit allowed only three hits and struck out four over four solid innings of work.
The transition from college to professional ball was a welcome one for Breit. He now gets to do something he loves everyday without having to fret over classes, where his next check will come from, or anything else a college athlete has to worry about. He can expend all of his energy in the gym, studying charts and doing anything and everything he can think of to make himself the best pitcher as his potential will allow.
The rest of the season only got better for the right-hander. He struck out a team-best 69 hitters, walked only 22 and compiled a .250 average against in just over 64 innings of work.
Now with his first season in the pros behind him, Breit will do what he has throughout the whole of his career—work. He was one of 19 pitchers from within the organization who made the trip to Peoria, Arizona for a month of individualized attention in the Padres' Instructional League. He posted a 3.00 ERA out in the desert in 15 innings of work.
He may not be the most talkative player, and he may not be the most demonstrative player, but he is one of the most dedicated and ambitious players. In the long run, those two qualities will be worth more to him than the first two could ever be.