NEW YORK (AP) - If not for a letter to George Steinbrenner a dozen years ago, David Robertson might never have become the New York Yankees' closer.
The story goes like this.
The baseball coach at Indiana's Culver Academy wrote a letter to the Yankees' owner in July 2000, asking Steinbrenner to sign an infielder from his alma mater who had been overlooked in baseball's amateur draft. D.J. Svihlik lasted just 13 games in the Yankees' minor league system but so impressed the team with his baseball IQ and that he was kept around as a scout.
During one of his first weeks on the job in 2003, he came across Robertson while checking out a prospect at high school game in Alabama. Selected with the 524th pick of the 2006 draft, the unassuming right-hander with the boyish face now finds himself in one of baseball's most scrutinized jobs - as Mariano Rivera's successor, at least in name.
"There is something to be learned from his case when it comes to evaluating players," Svihlik said this week. "To this day, to this very day, I'm not going to sit in the draft room and jump up and down for a 5-foot-10, 5-foot-11 reliever. I still don't do that just because I signed David Robertson. But what it makes you realize is that sometimes there are players that are outliers, and David was an outlier."
Robertson's ascent from Tuscaloosa's Central High School to big league All-Star offers a case study in the vagaries of baseball scouting, an example of how chance viewings by team representatives and encounters with longtime amateur coaches can lead to fame or failure. It's an anti-Moneyball tale of scouts who drive thousands of miles each year and sit by dusty fields so they can spot potential no statistical formula has managed to capture.
To find how Robertson and the Yankees came together, you must go back to July 11, 2000, and the two-page, single-spaced letter sent by Culver coach Gary Hinton to Steinbrenner, class of `48.
"I've actually been meaning to write for about a month now. You though, of all people, know Culver - there is little down time," Hinton wrote The Boss. "Any way, I wanted to tell you a little about a young man that graduated from C.M.A. in 1996 named D.J. Svihlik."
Hinton detailed how Svihlik made the team at the University of Illinois as a walk-on but was bypassed in the draft a month earlier.
"You could hear the disappointment in his voice, but he stood tall. ... D.J. was `old school' before the phrase became popular," Hinton's letter said. "Later it dawned on me, that this would probably be something you would want to know about."
Steinbrenner couldn't resist. Svihlik was 6 for 17 that summer for the Gulf Coast Yankees and 1 for 7 the following year at Greensboro of the South-Atlantic League. While he didn't make an impression with his bat, he drew attention with his words.
"He was just so inquisitive," said Damon Oppenheimer, then the Yankees' director of player personnel and now their vice president of amateur scouting. "I talked to him about players who were in the system for the Yankees, and he was very detail-oriented and knew a lot about them and you could tell he had really done his homework."
Lin Garrett, then the team's vice president of scouting, assigned Svihlik to the south region.
One of Svihlik's initial games - he thinks it might have been the very first - was to watch Chris Vines of Pelham High School pitch at home in suburban Birmingham against Central.
"I show up there with probably seven, eight other scouts to watch this kid pitch, and I walk over to the other bullpen to just see who's pitching for Central," Svihlik said. "They have this little right-hander on the mound named David Robertson. Didn't know who he was at the time. He was a high school junior at the time. So I watch him pitch. He ends up beating Chris Vines, who was a high school senior, and I just kind of circle his name. He was a little competitive SOB, a little gritty on the mound. At that time he was probably 5-foot-9, a 100-and-nothing, with just a fast arm."
Vines, a 6-foot-5 righty, was taken by Cincinnati in the fifth round of the 2003 draft with the 157th pick and given a $200,000 signing bonus. He never played above A-ball and was released in 2009.
Meanwhile, even when he was in middle school in Tuscaloosa, Robertson was being tracked by John Cameron, then the baseball coach at Central. His older brother, Connor, already had made an impression as a slugger for the high school team. David may not have been as good a hitter as Connor - who eventually made it to the majors for nine games as a pitcher with Oakland and Arizona in 2007-08 - but he was a far better pitcher.
"We knew he was going to be good," Cameron said. "We just didn't know what his potential was going to be."
By ninth grade, though, it was clear David had the potential to play college ball. He wasn't exclusively a pitcher back then, either.
"I played everywhere. I played center field, I played left field, I played short, I played third. Played a lot of third," Robertson said. "Didn't matter to me, as long as I got to play."
Robertson and his two brothers - David is a year older than the youngest, Wesley - played a lot of ball with their dad at home.
"He definitely had the live arm," Connor said of David. "You could tell he was really good. And then as he got a little older and a little stronger, he was really starting to bring it and had good movement on the ball, and he just took off."
By the time of David Robertson's senior year, Central students were split up as two new schools opened. He and Cameron shifted to Paul W. Bryant High School - yes, named after the Bear.
While most top pitchers start for their schools, Robertson was used mostly in the bullpen. That's because of an Alabama state regulation limiting pitchers to 14 innings per week and seven innings over two consecutive days.
"We didn't start him a whole lot, because he was a lot more valuable in that position," Cameron said. "I had some pretty good players at the time and I knew that if I could get into the fourth or fifth inning, I could use him."
Robertson helped Bryant reach the state playoffs in its first season. He then went to Alabama for a pretty simple reason.
"No other school wanted to give me enough money," he said. "Hometown. Figured, whatever, I'd go give it a try there. I didn't get any offers from anywhere else."
Under coach Jim Wells, Robertson made an impression, still working mostly in relief. By the time his sophomore year was over, he had struck out 170 in 127 2-3 innings.
Svihlik continued to follow him and was impressed with his fastball's late movement, recalling, "Every time I'd watch him pitch, he would carve. He would carve guys up. He would strike guys out."
The Yankees drafted Robertson days before one of Robertson's toughest outings - he gave up a two-run homer to North Carolina's Chad Flack on an up fastball, sending the Crimson Tide to an 8-7 defeat in a game that sent the winner to the College World Series.
At the time, baseball's focus was on top draft pick Luke Hochevar and other first-rounders such as Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum. Robertson was just another one of the names in the small print, nearly halfway down the list of 1,502 players selected.
New York didn't make any effort to sign Robertson at first. Instead, the Yankees planned to follow him in the summer at the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League, where he was a late addition to the roster under Scott Pickler, the coach at Cypress College.
While Wells had preferred Robertson rely primarily on his fastball and slider, Pickler had other ideas.
"He had two things after I watched him throw the first couple times. Whether it was right or wrong, I just said we've got to go inside up there," Pickler remembered.
"I don't throw inside, coach, and I don't throw a curveball." the coach said Robertson replied.
"Well, all right, this is the time to work on it," the coach told him.
Pickler also made Robertson get rid of a quirky way he got his signs - sticking his arms straight out toward the catcher and peeking over the top of his glove.
"It's an act. You don't need it. You're good enough without it," Pickler told him. "And so he responded, `Yeah, OK, coach."'
The Yankees noticed the changes right away.
"Once he added the curveball he was a different animal," general manager Brian Cashman said.
Robertson, who also met future wife Erin at the Cape that summer, asked for a $250,000 signing bonus and the Yankees offered $150,000. Oppenheimer went to senior vice president Mark Newman for permission to go to $200,000, and Newman got Cashman's approval.
"Most teams never gave David the credit because he was only 5-foot-10," Svihlik said. "You're always battling that as a scout. That's not what big league guys look like. They're 6-4. They look like Phil Hughes. They look like Joba Chamberlain. Big guys. But at the end of the day, David always knew how to strike guys out."
He moved from low-A to high-A to Double-A in 2007, breezed through Triple-A and made his big league debut with the Yankees in June 2008. Manager Joe Girardi had been given a heads-up by Tino Martinez,
"Tino had seen the Double-A club play. And he said, `You're going to like this kid,"' Girardi said. "`This kid is going to help you at some point.' And that was the first that I had heard of him."
Robertson became Rivera's primary setup man by last June and was a first-time All-Star a month later. His 12.27 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest in big league history for a pitcher with 200 or more innings, according to STATS LLC, bettering Rob Dibble's 12.17.
He escaped a bases-loaded jam against Tampa Bay in his first save chance following Rivera's season-ending knee injury - teammates have nicknamed him "Houdini" - but he blew a one-run lead in the ninth the following night, allowing a tiebreaking, three-run homer to Matt Joyce.
"It feels terrible," he said. "It's the worst feeling in the world."
Succeeding the greatest closer ever, he's going to have to learn to forget about games by the next day, even horrible ones that tend to linger.
"When that game's over, that stuff doesn't eat him up," Svihlik said. "It's hard to teach that. The game doesn't see consume David. He was able to brush things off and forget about that. He's supremely confident."