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Modest Georgia native Westbrook adjusts to retirement

For the first time in almost 20 years Jake Westbrook, the Danielsville sinkerball maestro, is not working out in the balmy temperatures of Florida, preparing for another season of professional baseball. Instead of building toward opening day, he is building a house. Instead of checking what the team has scheduled for the week, he is making his own schedule. Instead of collecting a check for meal money, he is grocery shopping for the family.

It’s different, it’s a new experience. He misses the Florida sunshine and an opportunity to compete at the ultimate level, but he doesn’t miss the travel. It’s nice to take the kids to school and to be home with the family. He’s a family man to the core and relishes the evenings at the supper table and the carefree weekends when he can play catch in the backyard with Jacob, Parker and Keaton, his three sons, while allowing equal time for his daughter, Harper. Big League baseball is fun, but family life is fun, too.

Last season was another division championship year for the Cardinals, his last team, but the Red Sox were hot and disappointment prevailed in St. Louis. It was the Red Sox who denied Westbrook a second World Series ring just like they denied his former team, the Cleveland Indians, in 2007 in the seventh and deciding game of the American League Championship series. Westbrook took the loss. However in Game 3, he pitched a gem, shutting out the Sox for six innings as the Indians won 4-2.

Westbrook, who won 105 games in his career with three teams — Yankees, Indians and Cardinals — has good memories of his days in the big leagues. First of all, it was important to get there. He had signed to play college baseball with his dad’s team, the Georgia Bulldogs. A $750,000 signing bonus with the Colorado Rockies was too enticing to pass up. The Rockies then traded him to the Expos, who traded him to the Yankees who traded him to the Indians in 2000. He thought he had found a home in Cleveland. There are fond memories of his days with the Indians, a team which appreciated his sinker pitch, which could be devastating. Early on, a cracked rib had him shuffling from the bullpen to starting roles until he became a regular in the rotation in 2002.

From that point on, Westbrook was a successful starting pitcher, although he had several setbacks, brought on by injuries. In April of 2007, he signed a three year, $33 million contract extension and the future was encouraging. Soreness at the start of the 2008 season didn’t bode well for the one time Madison County star. In June, the Indians announced that he would be undergoing Tommy John surgery which caused him to spend all of 2009 on the disabled list.

He returned to action as the Indian’s opening day pitcher in 2010, but in late July, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. The best was yet to come. He was rewarded with a two-year contract worth more than $16 million after the 2010 season in which he won ten games. In 2011, he hit a grand slam homerun versus the Milwaukee Brewers. He finished the season with a 12-9 record as the Cardinals moved into the playoffs. He pitched in two games in the World Series as St. Louis defeated the Rangers four games to three.

That ultimate thrill would come Westbrook’s way when he was credited for victory in the pivotal game six as the Cardinals, facing elimination, won in extra innings.

His career had plenty of highlights from the grand slam to the World Series ring to more than $70 million dollars in income, making him the richest player linked to Georgia’s baseball program. It was a career to savor. As he moves quietly into middle age, he does not want to watch TV and join coffee clubs, however.

He would like to find some instructional opportunity with a local baseball program. An avid Bulldog sports fan, he will find a way to remain active. It’s been a good life for the modest and egoless Jake Westbrook.

Loran Smith is co-host of “The Tailgate Show” and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.