DUNEDIN, Fla. - Some stories are irresistible. Whether they happen to be true or not is almost beside the point.
That's how it is with Matt Anderson and the octopus. The story of a onetime No. 1 draft pick blowing his career by tossing an eight-legged sea creature is just too bizarre to go away. Anderson, who acknowledges tossing the cephalopod in a strange pregame promotional event while he was with the Tigers, has always maintained that the injury to his arm that very night was a mere coincidence.
As the newspaperman says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." After all, it is the octopus that elevates Anderson's tale from those of a thousand other promising pitchers cut down by arm trouble. It is the octopus that caused a press box full of veteran sports writers to perk up when Anderson was introduced as the Phillies' new pitcher in the eighth inning of Monday's game here against the Blue Jays.
"That Matt Anderson?" three writers said in unison.
Yes, that Matt Anderson. The octopus guy.
Before his career was defined by a glorified entrée, Anderson was the No. 1 pick in the 1997 amateur draft, a hard-throwing righthander from Rice University. He was able to hit 103 m.p.h. on the radar gun back then. The Tigers used him out of the bullpen, hoping to develop him into a dominating closer.
In May of 2002, with the Detroit Red Wings deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs, someone decided to do a promotion based on the tradition of throwing octopuses on the ice at Joe Louis Arena. Anderson and a teammate were recruited to take part along with a few fans. Anderson tossed the octopus and then went back to preparing for the game.
That night, while he was warming up in the bullpen, he felt pain under his right armpit. It was the first twinge of a series of injuries that basically ended his career by 2005.
Six years later, the 34-year-old Matt Anderson took the mound in an organized game for the first time since an abbreviated minor-league comeback try in 2008. He pitched one clean inning against three Toronto prospects. It's not like he whiffed Jose Bautista or anything that dramatic. But he did hit 95 on the gun, a sign that his velocity is coming back.
"It was totally awesome," Anderson said after the game. "You can't really put into words what I'm feeling right now. It's something I've been going to bed with the last two years thinking about and it finally came around. It felt awesome to get back out there. It felt great."
Anderson spent a year and a half working out in Phoenix, trying to get back into good enough shape to attract interest from major-league teams. The Phillies offered him a chance to come to Clearwater. It was exactly what Anderson was looking for. A chance.
"I really feel I got a lot left in me," he said. "I've always thought this was the best organization to be in. It's a baseball organization, a baseball town, baseball city. They pretty much have the most solid team on paper. I want to play for a winner. I'm not afraid to come up here and compete and fight for a job."
He's still a long shot, but signing Anderson is the kind of unheralded move that keeps the Phillies on top. Anyone can identify Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay as an ace. But if you're going to spend the millions it takes to lure them, it's vital to uncover and sign some potential bargains, too. Jayson Werth was just an injury-tainted prospect when the Phillies signed him.
Besides, the bullpen just happens to be the one area where a long shot has a chance to make this loaded team.
So it's possible. Anderson certainly believes it is.
"My expectation and my goal is to make this team out of spring training," Anderson said. "That's the only thing on my mind. That's my goal and I plan on doing everything I can to do that. I've been out of the game for a couple of years, coaching my kids in Little League, knowing I would, hopefully, get back one day. I kept my body in shape the whole time. I always knew that I could it. I just had to."
This is part of what makes spring training great. Dreamers and long shots and unknowns get to play alongside the game's biggest stars and earn themselves a place in the big leagues. It is corny, but it's still true.
If he makes it back, Anderson could write a whole new story for himself. Who knows? It might even turn out to be true.