Heading into the start of the baseball season, the memories of Derek Holland's star turn in the World Series last fall are still fresh. Not only did the left-handed pitcher throw a gem for the Texas Rangers in Game 2, but he also captivated a national audience by unveiling a killer impersonation of Harry Caray and showcasing his wisp of a mustache that somehow became a cult attraction of sorts.
To the folks in his hometown of Newark, Holland's skill and antics were just examples of Derek being Derek. "That was him in high school. He was just a screwball. Not a bad kid. He was just a comedian," says Newark High School baseball coach Kyle Walters of his former student and pitcher. "That's exactly what you saw on TV."
And Newark residents saw plenty of Holland during the off-season. During a nearly three-week period when Holland was home for Christmas, he spoke to a high school class, shot free throws for charity, talked to a group of young kids at the area YMCA, donated clothing to Goodwill and conducted a free baseball clinic.
Oh, yes, he also got engaged and somehow found time to visit his buddies as he spent the holiday season with his father, mother and older brother before going back to Dallas on Jan. 6. "We don't get to see him much when he's home," says his dad, Rick Holland.
Holland returns every off-season, but this time was different; he no longer was just a local celebrity. The 2005 Newark High School graduate had a breakthrough in his third year in the major leagues, all with the Rangers after being selected by them in the 25th round of the 2006 draft out of Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama.
After scuffling through an inconsistent first half of the season, he went 10-1 with a 2.77 ERA from July 4 and finished first in the American League with four shutouts (his final numbers: 16-5, 3.95 ERA). Along the way, he developed a fan following-more precisely, his so-called mustache did. Holland worked on growing it for three months, but by the time the World Series started, he still had only the trace of one.
For some reason, fans took to his feeble effort. The player known as the "Dutch Oven" (playing off Holland) even had a name for his facial hair-the Dutchstache. Fans started to wear fake mustaches to games and a Twitter account was established (1,472 followers @Dutchstache as of mid March). Back in his hometown, T-shirts emblazoned with Holland's name, the image of his wispy mustache and his No. 45 were sold as a fundraiser during the World Series.
Holland became known for more than his mustache in Game 4 on Oct. 23 when he threw the game of his life to even the series with the St. Louis Cardinals at two apiece. Pitching before the home fans and his family in Arlington, he allowed no runs and two hits in eight-and-one-third innings and was seen pleading with manager Ron Washington to finish the game. Holland didn't, but the Rangers won 4-0 to complete his masterpiece.
"That was awesome," his father says. "I can't even express the words. Just being there and seeing that crowd. . . ."
How special was it?
• Holland was only the fourth pitcher in 40 years to toss at least eight scoreless innings in the World Series while allowing two or fewer hits.
• If he had gotten two more outs he would have been the first with a two-hit shutout in the World Series since Pittsburgh's Nelson Briles in 1971.
• It was the longest scoreless outing in the World Series by an American League starter since Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees also went eight-and-one-third innings in 1996.
"It was all pretty surreal, the crowd, the moment," Holland says. "Pitching in the World Series, that's something you dream of as a kid."
Suddenly, everybody wanted to know more about this 25-year-old from Ohio (who signed a five-year contract for about $28 million with the Rangers in March). "It was almost too good to be true," Walters says. "We're a small town, a tight-knit community. Sports are pretty big in Newark and I'm like, 'Man, there's a kid from Newark pitching in the World Series.' I couldn't believe it. You had goose bumps. You're sitting on the edge of your seat."
Holland then had viewers falling off them laughing during Game 5 when he got revenge on Washington with a spot-on mimic of his manager as well as channeling his inner Will Ferrell to imitate the late Harry Caray, the famous Chicago Cubs broadcaster, to the delight of FOX announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver and millions nationwide.
There was no doubting that the mop-haired Holland was the poster boy for quirky left-handers everywhere. Yet, Rick Holland doesn't want people to overlook the fact his son wouldn't be so popular if not for what he's done on the mound.
"People look at him like, 'Is this kid serious? He sounds like he's a clown,' " he says. "That's just his personality. When it comes to baseball, you can watch him out there. He doesn't mess around."
The Rangers won the fifth game and came within a strike of winning Game 6 and the World Series before losing 10-9 in 11 innings. The Cardinals clinched the championship in the deciding game.
"When I saw them get beat, it was almost like I was coaching the game. I was upset for two or three days," says Walters, who first got to know Holland when he was a student in his ninth-grade history class.
During Holland's two visits to Newark (Thanksgiving and Christmas), he felt the support of the locals, just as he did following the 2010 World Series against San Francisco (the Rangers also lost) when he had in Game 2 one of the worst postseason pitching lines of all-time: three walks on 13 pitches before being pulled.
While in town, Holland is serious about being a role model. During his talk to a high school class about career choices, he told students that education is the path to success. "He talks about life to those kids," says Newark High School athletics director Jeff Quackenbush. "He knows the percentages of people that make it to the major leagues are really small and he really speaks to those kids about it and is very upfront with them."
Holland gives back in other ways. He participated in a free throw contest during a high school basketball game to earn money per made shot (he was 18 of 25) for the district's Million Dollar Dream that helps fund the pay-to-participate fees for athletics and fine arts in middle and high school.
Two days later he gave an inspirational speech to 7- to 18-year-olds at the Licking County Family YMCA. His advice is always the same no matter the audience: "If you can't motivate yourself, it's going to be a short career for you."
He also held a baseball clinic at the high school that attracted hundreds of participants. "There's coaches and parents who helped me when I was younger, so it's really cool I can come back and maybe do the same thing for some of these kids," Holland says. Walters noticed how Holland was received, depending on age. "The younger kids view him as a rock star," he says. "The kids I have in the baseball program, they don't want to seem like they're too excited, but they're really honored to be around Derek. The reason why they're not jumping out of their seats, to be honest, is they see him around a lot."
Holland has made less public contributions, such as buying a stereo system for the high school weight room. Despite the demands on Holland, he often went to the school to work out or throw in the auxiliary gym, knowing he's among friends. "I think that's why he likes it here," Quackenbush says. "He's treated like everybody else. We all have great respect for what he's done. We're proud he's a Newark kid who's done very well."
The last major event on Holland's to-do list while in Newark was accomplished on New Year's Eve when he proposed to his girlfriend, Lauren, presenting her with a stuffed bear that produced a heartbeat when squeezed.
She snuggled the fuzzy creature (the bear, not Holland), but didn't notice the ring he had taped to the paw. "I was like, 'My heartbeat's going to stop if you don't see the ring soon,' " he recalls.
It all worked out and one week later Holland said goodbye to Newark, but not without leaving an imprint. "I'm not sure what other professional athletes do with their time when they go back to their hometown," Walters says, "but all I know is he bends over backwards to help out the community."
Craig Merz is a freelance writer.