PHOENIX — Clay Buchholz, talking quietly about his friend in the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse, slowly raises his index finger to his mouth, and in a soft whisper, says, “Shhh!’’
“I don’t want to say that too loudly around here,’’ Buchholz says, breaking into a sly grin. “Gotta be a little careful these days.’’
Buchholz, who missed nearly the entire 2017 season and is now helping lead the D-backs atop the National League West, happens to have a special friend in an awfully powerful place.
A friend he hopes to introduce one day to all his teammates.
He just so happens to be the most powerful man in the world.
Perhaps the most polarizing, too.
He is Donald Trump, the president of the United States.
“I know he’s not the most popular guy,’’ Buchholz tells USA TODAY Sports, “but I really like him. I don’t get into politics, and stay away from the social media, but I will say that everything he said he was going to do for this country, he’s done.
“I stand by him.
“He’s my friend.’’
Besides, Buchholz says, how can he not support the man he’ll be indebted to for the rest of his life.
“I remember him saying, “Ok, who’s single here and who’s married?’’ Buchholz said. “I told him I was single. That’s when he introduced me.’’
He met Lindsay Clubine, a model on the show Deal or No Deal, who was helping host Trump’s “Affliction: Banned Fight’ event.”
They talked most of the night, were married a year later, and today have two daughters (7-year-old Colbi and 4-year-old Landri) a 15-month-old son (Jax), and a beautiful life together, living in Austin, Texas, during the winter, just down the road from former teammate John Lackey.
Buchholz, who was married Nov. 14, 2009, at the Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., says Trump was unable to attend, but still footed a significant bulk of the tab. They’ve remained friends, visiting Trump often in New York, talking baseball, the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, and Yankee icon Derek Jeter.
“He’s a big Yankee fan, so he wasn’t big on the Red Sox,’’ Buchholz says, “but he also knew that Derek Jeter was my favorite player. That was kind of the bridge that got us together. We had something in common right there.’’
It has been two years since they last saw one another, before Trump took office, and Buchholz can’t help but wonder if he knows that he’s even pitching again in the big leagues, 1-1 with a 3.21 ERA, yielding two or fewer runs in four of his five starts.
“He’s a pretty busy man these days,’’ says Buchholz, who followed the news of Trump’s summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “I haven’t talked to him for a while, letting him do his thing.
“Besides, I think he’s got more things to worry about than how I’m doing.’’
Well, the rest of the National League sure is paying attention. Buchholz is on a roll that he hasn’t seen since his days with the Red Sox, back before his shoulder and arm started aching, and before the April 18, 2017 surgery to replace a torn flexor tendon with the Philadelphia Phillies.
He’s back with a whole lot of familiar faces, with D-backs GM Mike Hazen and assistant GMs Jared Porter and Amiel Sawdaye, all coming from the Red Sox front office, along with manager Torey Lovullo, the former Red Sox bench coach.
“I grew up with him from start to finish in Boston,’’ Hazen said. “He always had elite stuff, and pitching in the AL East and in those ballparks, takes a certain toughness. He still has all of that.
“When he’s healthy, this is how he’s always been. We saw streaks in Boston where he as the best pitcher on the staff. This is the pitcher we saw for a lot of years.’’
Buchholz, 33, a two-time All-Star who made four postseason starts in the Red Sox’s 2013 World Series run, doesn’t throw as hard as he once did — his fastball declining from 95-mph to about 90-91 mph — but yet the D-backs believe he’s a smarter, more refined pitcher than his Red Sox days. He showcased five different pitches alone in one at-bat against Josh Harrison Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and has struck out 23 batters with five walks in 28 innings.
Buchholz, who didn’t even have a job until signing a minor-league contract the last week of spring-training camp with the Kansas City Royals, and opting out May 1 to join the D-backs on a one-year, $1.6 million contract, has been a life-saver to a rotation that lost Taijuan Walker for the year and Robbie Ray (oblique strain) in April.
Now, just a year after surgery threatened to end his career, scrambling just to find a team to believe in him, he has found a home in the desert. He strolls to the mound with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,’’ blaring on the speakers, picks up the baseball, and feels as if he’s found peace, away from all of the hubbub of Boston.
“I was never ready to give up the game,’’ Buchholz said. “I knew I still had the ability to do it. I really think I’m better now than my last two years in Boston because my arm doesn’t hurt.”
Besides, he’s got a little something to prove, too. The Red Sox gave up on him after going 8-10 with a 4.78 ERA in 2016. The Phillies didn’t want him back after his surgery. And no one was exactly clamoring for him this past winter.
Now, here he is, needing a little more time to fully regain his arm strength, but feeling better about his ability than he has in years.
“It’s gratifying any time you’re faced with any kind of adversity,’’ Buchholz says. “To come back now and have a little bit of success, it gives you confidence. I always knew that if I got another opportunity to pitch in the big leagues, I’d make the most out of it.”
Ironically, Buchholz now has the job that Lackey, his teammate for nearly five years in Boston, rejected during the winter. He was unwilling to sign a cheap, minor-league deal with Arizona, particularly with no guarantee of cracking the rotation.
“I don’t bring that up to him now,’’ Buchholz says, laughing, “because he’s a lot bigger than me. I don’t want to make him mad. But Lackey is a bulldog.” I fully expect him to be with some club at some point this year. I know for a fact that he still works out and keeps his body ready.
“But I also know he’s enjoying his life, too.’’
Yep, just like Buchholz, who has a certain politician in Washington to thank.
“It would be a dream come true to win the World Series, get invited to the White House, and show off that trophy,’’ Buchholz says. “Believe me, I’d be there. Could it get any better than that?’’