By Jack Etkin
The thoughts sometimes waft through Huston Street's mind when he is on the mound -- little reminders about how to take care of business in the ninth inning. They are always delivered in the voice of his father, because James Street said these things to his son over and over and over.
Hey, Bud, make sure you breathe.
You're thinking. You're going too fast. Slow down.
Think about what you're going to do before you do it. Envision that pitch.
Street is in his 10th season of closing games in the big leagues. He is just 30 years old, but he's an old hand at nailing down a save and has been doing it exceedingly well this year for the San Diego Padres. But there is one huge difference from past seasons.
As Street is working his way toward the 27th out of the game, he can hear his father's pointed reminders like always, but with additional input. It's definitely his father's distinct voice, wryly offering some new advice.
Hey, Bud, quit thinking about me, and get back up there and make the damn pitch.
"I'm not doing it for him," Street said. "He would never expect me to say that. But he is with me. It's totally different [now]. It's a spiritual thing."
James Street, 65, died of a heart attack early on the morning of Sept. 30, 2013, at his home in Austin, Texas, not long after returning from San Francisco where the Padres had closed the regular season. Huston had the opportunity to spend three days with his mother, Janie, and with James, a former legendary quarterback at the University of Texas.
Street's parents returned to Austin on the morning of Sept. 29. The preceding evening, Street said he and his father sat in the hotel lobby and talked at length.
"This one was kind of eerie," Street said. "Normally, when we have those meetings, I'm the one talking, I'm the one sharing. What was kind of eerie about that night was it was very little baseball. He told me all his plans for his businesses. He told me things he had been working on for years that were starting to come to fruition. He told, and I just listened. He shared a lot of ideas. Obviously, there were a lot of things that he wanted to do and accomplish. He was one of the most competitive people I've ever known -- probably the most."
The elder Street was president and CEO of The James Street Group, which provides financial advice for those who have received structured settlements and has offices in 19 states and eight Texas cities.
James did not see Huston blow a save on the final day of last season. He gave up a leadoff home run, did not retire any of the five Giants batters he faced and yielded two runs as the Padres lost 7-6. It was just his second blown save in 35 chances.
"Probably the most frustrated I had been, because I didn't finish the way I wanted to finish," Street said.
He called his wife, Lacey, after the game and flew to Austin, arriving home around midnight. Street told her he was not going to let that disappointment drag on, and he was over it.
"It's going to be an awesome, awesome offseason," Street said.
He went into the bedrooms of his sleeping sons -- Ripken, 3, and Ryder, 1 -- and gave each a kiss on the forehead. Then Street and his wife went to sit on the porch where they spent several hours talking. It was about 3 a.m. when they decided to go bed. Lacey looked at her phone in the bedroom and saw she had three missed calls, one from Street's mom and two from his younger brother, Hanson.
"I immediately knew something was wrong," Street said. "I knew somebody was hurt. I was just praying that they were OK and that they were recovering in the hospital. I knew I was going to the hospital."
It was Hanson who delivered the news to his brother.
"Huston, Dad died tonight."
Street's eyes filled with tears as he recounted this awful moment and several other times as he spoke about his father.
"The one thing that I think I appreciate the most is he understood the process of being a winner," Street said. "He understood the mentality of that process. He defined 'winner' as being the best that you can be on that day. He also said that every single day, you either get a little better or a little worse. You don't stay the same."
Street wears No. 16, the same number his father wore in 1969 as the Texas quarterback running coach Darrell Royal's new wishbone offense and helping lead the Longhorns to a national championship. Still prominent in Longhorns lore is the 43-yard, fourth-down pass James completed to tight end Randy Peschel that set up the winning touchdown in Texas' 15-14 victory at Arkansas in a showdown of unbeaten teams that season.
Texas went on to beat Notre Dame 21-17 in the Cotton Bowl. In a memorable photograph taken after that game, former President Lyndon Johnson congratulated James in the Longhorns' dressing room, the two shaking hands with a beaming Royal between them.
Growing up in Austin as the son of such a celebrated Texas athlete could have put undue pressure on Huston to perform. James lifted that weighty burden from his son's shoulders.
"He said, 'What you have to realize is, who I am -- or who everybody tells me I am or tells you who I am -- doesn't matter,'" Street said. "'You are living today. You have to have a plan for that day, and you have to have an idea of where you want to go. If Peschel drops that ball, Bud, am I a loser? You think I'm going to fold up and go home? You think I'm going to quit? No. I think I'd still be right where I am today, because I was always going to be a winner. And so when someone tells you you've got to be like your daddy or you've got to grow up, play sports like me -- I don't care what you do. All I expect of you is you find something you love to do, and you be the best at it that you can be.'"
In Huston's case, that has meant closing games. He did it at Texas -- James also pitched there, in addition to playing football -- and after just one season in the minors, Street was in the big leagues, closing for the Oakland A's in 2005 when he was the American League Rookie of the Year. He spent four seasons with the A's, who traded him with outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and pitcher Greg Smith to the Colorado Rockies for outfielder Matt Holliday. After three seasons with the Rockies, they unloaded most of Street's $7 million salary and sent him to San Diego in exchange for a minor league pitcher.
In his third season with the Padres, Street is 1-0
"He was a closer in college, so he was groomed at a young age to close baseball games," Padres manager Bud Black said. "When he's going well, it's tremendous command of the ball. The [catcher's] glove is on the corner, and he hits the mitt with three pitches -- fastball, slider, change. Like all good closers who pass the test of time, he knows how to work his way through a ninth inning."
Street ranks fourth in saves among active closers, yet he's mostly exchanged those celebratory ninth-inning high-fives out of the national spotlight. He has never played for a big-market club. He has gone to one All-Star Game (in 2012) and didn't pitch. In his previous nine seasons, Street played on five losing clubs.
He lacks an October pedigree -- he's gone to the postseason just twice and never reached the World Series. He didn't pitch well in his lone League Championship Series with the A's in 2006 or his last Division Series with the Rockies in 2009.
And now Street is in the midst of a season like no other, a season without his father. James left Huston with a slew of sayings -- "because that's how he taught, that's how he learned" -- and Huston said he could probably spend an hour reciting them.
Hey, Bud, we're all human. You find someone perfect, you let me know.
No matter what it is, Bud, too much of anything isn't good for you.
The good ones learn from their mistakes. But the great ones learn from other people's mistakes.
Huston said his relationship with his father was "very honest." They could talk about all sorts of things and just hang out together. The last time that happened was in San Francisco, the night before the final day of the 2013 season. They whiled away hours in a hotel lobby, now one of many cherished memories for Huston with James gone.
"I think the biggest thing it taught me was time, was to never take a lazy step. Never. Never. Never," Street said. "You realize this is the big leagues; you have to execute to keep your job. But since my dad's passing, especially, it's taught me the importance of time. And if you're going to do something -- if you're going to choose to spend your time on something -- then it needs to be [with] passion.
"I want to win a championship, sure. Really, what I boiled it down to is: I love to play. If I'm going to play, I'm going to choose to sacrifice time away from my family. I could retire right now. I've got enough money. I could go home. We could live comfortably. But if I'm going to choose to take some of that time away from my family, I'm going to honor that time with giving it every ounce of focus. And I think that's where he really is with me."
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Jack Etkin has covered professional baseball since 1981 for such outlets as the Kansas City Star, Rocky Mountain News, Baseball America, The Sports Xchange and MLB.com.