PEORIA, Ariz. -- When San Diego Padres pitching prospect Joe Ross signed with UCLA back in November of 2010, it wasn’t because he disliked the California Golden Bears – the closest collegiate program to his home in Oakland. It was because, for his entire baseball life, he’d been known as Tyson Ross’s little brother.
Every strikeout he tallied at Oakland (Calif.) Bishop O’Dowd, every shutout he tossed, it was all in Tyson’s shadow. Despite his mother being a Cal graduate, and Tyson having authored a stellar three-year career in Berkeley, Joe wanted to forge his own path.
And, forge his own path he did. The younger Ross did not wind up in Berkeley, nor did he wind up in Westwood, as he was selected 25th overall in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Friars. He was finally his own man, striking out to play professional baseball. While his older brother bounced between Triple-A Sacramento and the Oakland Athletics, Ross began his pro career, little knowing that, this past November, almost on the exact anniversary of the day he signed with the Bruins to get away from his older brother’s legacy with the Golden Bears, Tyson got a phone call.
“He was making breakfast,” says Tyson, who shares a house in Oakland with Joe. “I got off the phone, and he started looking at me kind of weird, because no one ever calls me in the mornings. So, I was like, ‘Oh, that was Josh Byrnes, the GM. He says hello.’ He said, ‘What?’ And I told him, ‘I just got traded over.’”
As he was walking to Cal’s Sunday home game against Michigan two weeks ago, the boys’ father -- USC-educated Willie Ross, the source of Tyson and Joe’s long, lanky arms and nimble fingers -- chuckled.
“Now, Tyson’s following Joe,” he smiled.
“Ironically, since he’s on the big league side [of camp], I’ve become Tyson’s little brother again,” Joe laughs. “But, it’s actually a lot of fun, having him out here. He’s a great role model for me, and he shows me how hard I should be working, throughout the offseason. Now that he’s here, it’s a continuous example through spring, and hopefully, in the next few years, we get to play together, and that’d be a lot of fun.”
Tyson’s shadow still looms quite large in Berkeley -- larger than his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame. Mainly a two-way player at O’Dowd, Ross was lightly recruited coming out of high school, but then-pitching coach and current Trojans head coach Dan Hubbs saw something special in the tall righty with the short stride to the plate. As a senior for the Dragons, Tyson went 12-1 with a 0.71 ERA and 130 strikeouts.
He exploded on the scene as a freshman for the Bears, going 6-4 as a Sunday starter with a 3.19 ERA and 85 strikeouts -- good for 10th-most in the Pac-10 -- as he was named Honorable Mention All-Conference.
After Brandon Morrow was drafted in the first round, Ross moved into the front spot of the rotation as a sophomore, going 6-6 with a 2.49 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 115.2 innings, including a 16-strikeout performance in a 1-0 loss to Oral Roberts. He was named First-Team All-Pac-10 and earned a Rawlings Gold Glove Award.
A consensus preseason All-American before his junior year, Ross struggled through a pesky lat injury, and went 7-4 with just 66 strikeouts in 78.1 innings of work, but was still picked 58th overall in the 2008 draft by the A’s. After just a year and a half in the minors, Ross made the Opening Day roster for his hometown team out of spring training,
In that first season, Ross pitched in 26 games and started two, with a 5.49 ERA and 32 strikeouts to 20 walks in 39.1 innings of work. His first professional strikeout came at the expense of Ken Griffey, Jr.
In his second big league season, Ross was well on his way to a breakout year, going 3-3 in nine games with six starts, posting a sparkling 2.75 ERA and 24 strikeouts to just 13 walks in 36.0 innings of work as he owned the opportunity to replace an injured Dallas Braden. But, then, Ross strained his oblique muscle, costing him the rest of the season.
“After that oblique injury, it was definitely kind of rocky,” Tyson says. “I’d kind of find it for a minute and then lose it. It was just the back and forth, between Sacramento and Oakland, and just the lack of consistency overall that was tough to deal with.”
In an effort just to keep him around, the A’s tried just about everything with Ross, but the yo-yoing between the majors and the minors, between being a starter and a reliever, soon wore down on the big righty. He’d never had an ounce of uncertainty in his entire life. From high school through college, through his rapid ascent to the Major Leagues, Ross had always known who and what he was. In 2012, he was living out of a suitcase, never knowing when he’d be moved up or down, never finding a rhythm.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” Ross says. “It’s an adjustment that I have to make, otherwise I won’t be playing this game much longer. It’s just part of it. The physical side can only take you so far. They say the game’s 90 percent mental and the other half is physical -- what Yogi Berra says -- but it makes sense. Everyone’s here because they’re talented, and those that find something to separate themselves from others, that’s what’s going to keep you in the game for a long time.”
In 2012, Ross went 2-11 with a 6.50 ERA in 18 games for the Athletics, including 13 starts. Even though he was still with his hometown team, he knew that he probably needed a change of scenery. Something had to give. On Nov. 16, it did, as he was traded from Oakland – the organization that drafted him – to the Padres.
That Thanksgiving at the Ross household was, to say the least, interesting.
“It was definitely the conversation starter for pretty much everyone that was there,” smiles Joe, who’s in Peoria, Ariz., on the other side of the Peoria Sports Complex, in the Padres’ minor league minicamp. “It was a lot of fun. It was great news. He was very happy about the trade. It was a new start, a new organization, a great place to play, and he’s told me already that the few days he’s been here for spring training that he really likes the team. The staff is a lot like a big family; they all care about each other. He’s happy, I’m happy he’s here. My parents are both happy. It’s one stop for spring training.”
Tyson, too, was excited for the possibilities of starting anew.
“It’s a new team, a fresh start, feeling good coming into camp and just looking forward to getting out there with a new bunch of guys and just moving forward,” Tyson says.
Just before the trade, Tyson had bought a house in Oakland – the same one he now shares with Joe. Just a mile from their childhood home, the two brothers routinely return to have dinner with their parents, and, now that they’re with the same organization, Joe laughs, Willie and Jeanie only have to make one stop in Arizona.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Joe says. “It’s really everything that you would think it would be -- just two brothers having a good old time. No parents to nag. It’s definitely fun. We only live maybe a mile away from my parents’ house, so we’re up there all the time. They come over all the time. It’s cool that we’re that close, yet we’re still separate.”
Joe Ross hasn’t had as quick a route to the Show as his older brother, and if he ever crows about being drafted higher than Tyson, the elder Ross can still cite his short one and a half years of minor league time before reaching Oakland.
“If he’s thought it, he hasn’t said it. I’m sure he thinks he’s cool as hell because he’s the first-rounder and everything, but it is cool,” Tyson smiles. “He’s already spent way more time in the minor leagues than I did, so I can hold that over him.”
Joe spent one day with the Arizona League Padres in 2011 after signing on August 15, pitching just one inning before the season ended.
At High-A Fort Wayne in 2012, Joe struggled in six starts, with a 6.26 ERA over 27.1 innings, with 27 strikeouts and 11 walks.
In early May, Joe’s shoulder was spent. He’d never thrown that many innings on that short of a rotation. He was sent back to Arizona for several weeks, before joining the Eugene Emeralds of the Northwest League on July 25.
Down the home stretch, Joe posted a 2.02 ERA in eight games -- all starts -- while tallying 28 strikeouts and just nine walks in 26.2 innings of work.
Joe then re-joined the TinCaps for their playoff run, tossing 5.0 innings of two-hit, two-run ball in the first game of the championship series, a game Fort Wayne lost on a walk-off wild pitch.
Because of that little hiccup, Joe is uncertain where he’ll start the season, but odds are he’ll be back in High-A.
“I would think just because of the injury last year and going down to short-season in Eugene, I would think, I would hope to start in Elsinore, but I could start in Fort Wayne. It’s really up to them,” says Joe.
Tyson’s prospects are a bit more concrete. With over a year of Major League service time already logged, Ross is in big league camp, and is expected to make the club. In 8.0 innings of work over three outings, Ross has a 5.63 ERA with seven strikeouts to four walks.
“He’s throwing the ball great,” says Padres manager Bud Black. “He’s got a big arm, no doubt about it. He’s got power behind his fastball and he’s got power behind his slider. We’ve got to work on the change, but he’s got the weapons. We’ve just got to get him more in the strike zone, get him to be more consistent.”
Asked what his opinion was of what went awry in Oakland, Black demurs.
“I can’t answer that,” Black says. “I can speculate, but I think a lot has to do with the ball-strike ratio, the walks-to-innings pitched -- without watching every one of his outings -- where he is as far as in counts, where he’s behind in the count more often than ahead, probably just situational pitching, making pitches when he needed to --some of the things that add to maybe lack of statistical success.”
Black – who spent six seasons as the pitching coach for the Angels before taking over as San Diego’s skipper – has already taken an interest in the elder Ross, who was excited to learn from the 15-year Major League pitching veteran when he initially learned he had been traded.
Between Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley, Ross has plenty of brain to pick.
“I’ve talked to him a little bit about pitching. I went down to San Diego before camp started, threw a pen for him and Darren Balsley is a really good pitching coach. I’ve started connecting with him. He’s got some really good input for me,” says Tyson. “It’s just working on getting my timing down. That’s all it is. If my timing’s just a hair off, rather than being a good pitch down in the zone, I’ll throw a ball. Balsley’s been helping me with that.”
As for where he’ll wind up on Opening Day, Tyson is aiming high, but he’s still as humble as he was on his first day of practice at Evans Diamond in Berkeley, back in 2006 -- still with braces, all knees and elbows, just hoping to make the weekend rotation.
“They said they want me starting, but Buddy also talked to me and said, ‘Hey man, if something happens, and we need you in the bullpen, I need you all-in as a reliever,’ and either way, I just want to pitch at the big league level, so whatever the role’s going to be, I just have to embrace it and own it,” Tyson says. “I think they’re giving me a fair look as a starter, so I’m really happy about that opportunity. They believe in me.”
With all he’s been through in his short time as a professional, Tyson knows that he can be a resource for his little brother, but he’s not one to push anything on him.
“He’s young, and he wants to kind of find his own path, so I just kind of stay out of his way,” says Tyson. “I’ll offer advice if I see something he can benefit from, directly. Other than that, I’m just kind of letting him figure things out on his own, and that’s going to be the easiest way for him to learn and understand as he goes through it.”
Living and working out with his brother in the offseason has helped Joe see what it takes to get to the next level, but as long as the two are separated by the fence between the Major League and minor league facilities in Peoria, he’s doing exactly what he’s always done – he’s finding his own way.
“So far in camp, it’s just that daily grind of hard work. You’ve got to get here early, do your early work. It’s not so much that they see you working; it’s just for your own personal benefit,” Joe says. “Just taking care of your body, especially staying healthy, for me, I’ve just got to do the things it takes to stay healthy, and hopefully that can lead to a good year.
“I’d say the biggest thing for me is to just keep the ball down. I got a little bit too caught up in the adrenaline and the speed of the game, wanting to overpower hitters and things like that, but the biggest thing really is, if you can take off a few miles per hour, just a little bit of effort, it makes you hit spots down in the zone. It’s really hard for hitters to reach those pitches, and it’s more of a mental thing.”
Like his brother, Joe – at 6-foot-3, 185 – has a big fastball, but it’s controlling it and reining it in that will set him on his path to one day joining Tyson at the big league level.
Instead of trying to throw a 94-mph fastball through a brick wall and leaving it up in the zone, Joe says, “92 at the knees, every hitter will tell you it’s hard to hit.”
As different as the two brothers are, as separate as they’d kept their baseball lives until last November, there is still one dream the two boys share.
“It’s like a dream, living with him,” says Joe, “and, hopefully, one day, playing with him.”
Ryan Gorcey writes about the MLB for Fox Sports Next and publishes Cal Sports Digest. He covered Tyson's collegiate career at Berkeley, and continues to cover the Cal baseball program. Follow him on Twitter @RGBearTerritory.