Chaz Roe's long baseball journey leads to Baltimore Orioles
Start with the tattoos: roughly 20 of them on Chaz Roe's upper torso — some with sentimental meaning, others he thought just looked cool.
Go to the haircut, an old-fashioned 1980s mullet, with scraggly brown locks flowing out of the back of his Orioles cap. It's a departure from his previous look: a bushy beard and shaved head.
Observe the clothes, an assortment of Hurley surfer wear, T-shirts and shorts that hang off the right-handed reliever's lanky 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame.
Then there's the personality: quiet, a little mysterious. Speaks when spoken to, friendly, but in an "I-don't-really-know-that-guy" way.
Add in that he has spent most of his life living in Kentucky — a state that may lead the nation in shady-character jokes — and Roe knows he's going to absorb barbs in the highly judgmental world of Major League Baseball.
Reliever Tommy Hunter jokes that Roe is the most likely Oriole to drive a white van with tinted black windows. Closer Zach Britton, who proudly admits he researched Roe's backstory on Wikipedia, said the bullpen's intimidation factor increased exponentially when Roe joined it. And center fielder Adam Jones, who pulls no punches, walked past Roe recently while he was talking with a reporter and deadpanned, "Interview with a serial killer."
"I get that a lot," Roe said, smiling.
Like when Roe was with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013 and was approached by veteran utility man Willie Bloomquist during batting practice.
"[Outfielder] A.J. Pollock was on the bench and Willie Bloomquist came up to me and goes, 'A.J. wants to know, but he's too scared to ask you himself, but he wants to know. Have you ever been in jail or killed anybody?'" Roe remembered. "And I just shook my head. That was like the third time since I got called up from Arizona that somebody had asked me that."
The polite, soft-spoken Roe said he's not sure why he gives off that vibe, but finds it humorous.
"I don't know, maybe it's because I don't talk that much," he said, contemplating his image. "I've always loved tattoos. I've gotten probably two or three every year [since about age 15]. The hair? I usually keep it buzzed. I usually don't grow it out. This year I grew it out and I came up with the idea to do this — somehow."
Then Roe laughs about his hairdo — an easy chuckle without a hint of serial killer embedded.
"Chaz is a great example of don't judge a book by its cover. You first get him in the spring and you see the [mullet] or whatever they call it, and the tattoos," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "But the more you are around him, you're going, 'Holy [crap], what did we stumble into here?'"
The right opportunity: Led by executive vice president Dan Duquette, who was out of the majors for roughly a decade, and Showalter, who is managing his fourth big league team, the Orioles cherish their reputation as a castoff sanctuary.
Bring them your nearly retired, your underachieving, your tattooed. If they can play — and fit into a system that stresses team unity and attention to detail — they'll get an opportunity.
Whether it's Nelson Cruz, Miguel Gonzalez, Delmon Young or fill-in-the-blank, the common link is a fresh chance. Add Roe, 28, to that list.
He's with his eighth organization since being selected 32nd overall by the Colorado Rockies in the supplemental first round of the 2005 draft. He was suspended in 2012 for testing positive for amphetamines. He spent a season pitching in an independent league before making it back to affiliated ball two years ago.
Intrigued by his pedigree, control and nasty slider, the Orioles signed him to a minor league deal in December. They promoted him from Triple-A Norfolk on May 24 and Roe didn't allow a run in his first six appearances, spanning 9 1/3 innings. Despite giving up two runs in three of his past four outings, he still owns a 2.88 ERA through 19 games.
"Guys like that are pretty dangerous, because once they find something that clicks, that goes well for them, they keep it riding," Hunter said. "He is doing it right now, and he's doing a hell of a job for us."
Roe's last big league outing before this year was in mop-up duty at Camden Yards while pitching for the New York Yankees. He served up an RBI triple to Alejandro De Aza and walked off the mound in awe of the ballpark's electricity last September.
"I loved the atmosphere. It was unreal," Roe said. "Then I talked to my agent in the offseason and he said it was probably one of the best opportunities right here. I took it, and it was full of opportunities from the get-go."
In March, Roe became one of Showalter's most coveted JICs — "just in case" guys who are taken on most spring bus rides if a need arises for additional bodies.
"He knew the gig and he went on just about every trip as a backup and he got enough playing time," Showalter said. "He'd have a little bump and we kept watching him and we kind of went, 'That's a pretty good breaking ball. Let me look at his stats again. What am I missing here?'"
Perhaps the watershed moment for Showalter occurred away from the field. The manager walked outside of the Orioles' spring clubhouse and caught a glimpse of Roe playing with his daughter, Mila, who turns 2 this month.
"I watched them interact and I thought, 'There may be more here than meets the eye,'" Showalter said. "We've all screwed up, so instead of being so smug and saying there's the cover, that's got to be the picture, you look for more. But let's face it. If he hadn't been able to get anybody out, it'd been a short story."
A long journey: Roe's tale of overnight success took a decade to develop.
As the Kentucky High School Player of the Year in 2005, he agreed to a $1.025 million bonus, forgoing a baseball scholarship to the University of Kentucky.
Armed with a low-90s fastball and a curve considered among the best in that draft, Roe also had impressive bloodlines: His father was a defensive end-linebacker at the University of Kentucky who once made a solo tackle against legendary running back Herschel Walker. Roe's great uncle is Bill Mazeroski, the Hall of Fame second baseman who ended the 1960 World Series with a Game 7-clinching home run for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Despite the buzz that surrounded him as a teen, Roe was humble, hardworking and competitive, said Lafayette High School coach Chris Langston.
"He's never been the guy that wants to be out in front. He's always just wanted to do his job and do it well," Langston said. "He's just a guy you can trust."
Even now, Roe's close circle of friends has remained virtually unchanged, encompassing his former high school teammates, his parents and Czack, his older brother.
Alex York, one of Roe's best buddies and a former Lafayette reliever, remembers the first time Roe pitched in front of a cavalcade of 25 scouts. Before Roe went out to pitch, York asked him how he was doing, "And he said, 'I just threw up inside the bullpen bushes.'"
Still, Roe pitched well, with no lasting trace of nerves. Because his profile had surged, he was the subject of high expectations and occasional taunts. One opposition's student section wore an array of MLB T-shirts and carried hand-held blow dryers to mimic radar guns when Roe pitched.
"He handled it just like the Chaz we've always known," York said.
Roe, whose family moved to Lexington from Ohio when he was about 2, still lives there and returns to his high school each winter to throw bullpen sessions and tutor Lafayette's pitchers.
"For our boys, this is a big-time guy for them," Langston said. "And he is out here working out with us each winter. That's pretty cool."
Roe comes at his sense of community honestly. His mom, Kelly, has been a longtime office manager for local physicians, and his father, Don, spent years as a corrections officer at the Fayette County Detention Center before retiring. At 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, Don Roe was nicknamed Robocop and was often the first person a detainee would meet when entering the facility. He made sure his sons understood if they ever got into trouble, he'd know about it.
"I never really stepped out of the boundaries," Roe said. "I had my fun, for sure, but it was always in the back of my head, there's no chance I'm going down [to the prison] to see him."
Both the mother and father were active in the Roe boys' athletic careers — concussions ended Roe's football career as a high school sophomore while his brother was a first baseman who played some college ball. It was Don Roe who gave his sons their unusual names. He had played football against a guy named Chaz, and had a teammate whose last name was Czack, and Don Roe liked how both sounded — and were spelled.
"Their mother didn't have much of a choice on the names," Don Roe laughed.
Kelly Roe, though, was and is the glue of the family. Her big league son is still a "mama's boy," she says, still texting her often to check in. She was the one who first picked up the pieces when his baseball dream shattered.
A career turnaround: After spending six seasons as a starter in the Rockies system, Roe was traded to the Seattle Mariners for infielder Jose Lopez in December 2010. Roe had a miserable 6.59 ERA in 33 games for Seattle's Triple-A club and became a minor league free agent that offseason. He would have the opportunity to pick his own organization. Then everything crumbled.
One evening that offseason, he celebrated a friend's birthday by hanging out all night. The next morning he was going hunting with another friend, so to stay awake and alert, he said he took an Adderall pill — the same attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drug that Orioles slugger Chris Davis tested positive for in 2014 — despite not having the condition. That same day, Roe learned an official would be at his house to administer a routine, random offseason drug test.
"I was dead. I knew it," Roe said. "It's a mistake I made. I can't take it back now. But I've learned from it and it's actually helped me out a lot."
Once he learned of the 50-game suspension, Roe's first call was to his mother.
"We sat on the porch and we both cried," Kelly Roe said. "I told him, 'You can't make stupid mistakes like that. You have to accept what you did no matter what, and pay the consequences.'"
Roe began researching colleges but caught a break when the independent American Association's Laredo Lemurs — with former Oriole Pete Incaviglia as manager — contacted him.
"Going though that whole process, thinking I'm about to have a 9-to-5 job, going back to school and not being able to do what I love every day," Roe said. "I'm glad [the suspension] happened and, then again, I'm not. It worked out for the best, though."
He became a reliever-only for the first time in his career, posting a 1.47 ERA in 49 games with the Lemurs and met his future wife, Sarah, while in Texas. The Diamondbacks took notice of his season, offered him a minor league deal and allowed him to serve his 50-game suspension in 2013. By July of that year, Roe was in the majors, posting a 4.03 ERA in 21 games.
As a reliever, Roe didn't have to stew for four days after a bad start. He could give his all in one or two innings. His velocity improved and that once-unhittable curveball morphed into his signature slider.
Those close to him have noticed how confident and comfortable he is in Baltimore now, even when his command isn't particularly sharp. Even when he is being teased about his unique look.
"People can laugh, judge, do whatever they want," his teammate Hunter said. "If you come up to the majors and go 15 outings with a [0.90] ERA, you can look and dress however the [heck] you want."