Driving along Kirkland's Central Way, as Evan Meek periodically does during offseason visits home, he smiles as he speeds by .
Forget Chicago's Wrigley Field, Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium or Pittsburgh's PNC Park, where Meek spends most of his days pitching for the Pirates. It's Lee Johnson Field at Peter Kirk that elicits his fondest memories.
"You always remember where you came from, and your roots," said Meek, who turns 28 in May and grew up in Bothell. "Playing there was a lot of fun. I still remember what they have at the concession stand and working there when I was younger. I would eat everything in there, man."
While Meek has gone from gobbling up hot dogs and potato chips to devouring Major League hitters, developing into one of the league's better relievers, that road required many detours.
The story began at Inglemoor High School in Kenmore, where Meek was a self-admitted kid who "threw hard without an idea of where it was going." Undrafted, and after a bad experience at junior college in Midland, Tx., he enrolled at Bellevue Community College, now called , to work with coach Mark Yoshino.
There he refined his fastball and developed a curve and changeup, all of which he learned how to control. After two seasons, the Minnesota Twins noticed, and selected him in the 11th round in 2002, the 332rd overall pick.
A positive first season in rookie ball with Elizabethton preceded two extremely wild ones. At two levels in 2004, his right arm conspired to walk 40 batters in 28 innings, then he walked 36 more in 18 innings for Single-A Beloit the next season.
"I really struggled with baseball and hit rock-bottom in Beloit," Meek said. "Mechanically, mentally, everything, and no one could help me. In my mind, I was like, 'I can't do this,' but in my heart, I wasn't done."
Still just 22, Meek spent a month away from the sport, then began tossing a baseball against a brick wall. He eventually ended up back at Bellevue for a tryout, and was signed by the Padres. The road back to regaining his confidence had begun.
"What I really like about Evan is he went from being deflated to grinding his way back, which is unique,” Yoshino said. “He wasn't a typical kid who flashed great numbers. He's had a roller coaster journey and it's gone full circle."
A better, but still walk-filled year as a starter with High-A Lake Elsinore got him dealt to Tampa near the end of 2006, and the Rays left him unprotected after the 2007 season. The Pirates chose him in the Rule 5 draft that winter, a process by which a team pays $50,000 to another team, but must keep the player on the Major League roster for the entire next season or offer him back to the original team.
Typically, it represents a huge break for a player because it means a chance to make a big-league roster for the first time in his career. New York Mets' pitcher Johan Santana and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino are recent examples of Rule 5 guys who have stuck. Meek didn't, but the Rays didn't want him back, and he remained with the Pirates.
He didn't disappear.
"It was mostly because I knew I was better, but didn't know how to fix it," Meek said. "No one could help me. I just need to calm down and work. I look back now and think, 'What was going on in my life that was so bad that it got me so far off track? It was all me, the over-analyzing, the confidence issues, a lot of things. As soon as you threw those things out the window, you're fine.
"People gave up on me, too, people who have never played the game. It became a personal vendetta to prove them wrong. I've made a lot of people scratched their heads in the past few years, and it feels good. It feels real good."
Heads were likely scratched then, when Meek made his big-league debut on April 2, 2008, and he became the sixth BCC product to appear in the Majors, following Dave Pagan, Kevin Hagen, Steve Gajkowski, Jason Ellison and Blake Hawksworth, who is currently with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"He hasn't made an All-Star team yet, and please print that," Meek said, tossing a barb at Hawksworth. "Blake is an awesome dude. Everytime I saw him last year, I gave him a hug. He still lives in Washington, and it's always awesome to see guys who I grew up with make it to big leagues. You always remember where you came from and your roots."
Two seasons after making his debut -- he gave up a home run to then Atlanta shortstop Yunel Escobar in that game -- Meek has evolved into a dominating setup man for closer Joel Hanrahan. While he will never be free of control lapses, they appear to be in remission.
"When I had him in Triple-A, you sit there and go, 'Please throw strikes, please throw strikes,' said Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. "Now it's just, 'How is he going to get this guy out?' He's so much more comfortable about himself on the mound. When you're free of the mind, your body is going to be able to do what you want."
Relaxed and jovial, Meek takes extra delight in being one member of an extremely loose Pirates bullpen. At a recent pre-season game in Philadelphia, teammates adorned a photo of Donald Trump, in typical "bad hair" mode, on Meek’s locker. On it, they wrote, "After an All-Star year, Meek goes for a new look."
"I haven't cut my hair in a while, so maybe they're trying to tell me something," Meek said. "This is funny. And I've actually been fired once in baseball. But you have to have fun in this game to survive. The important thing is, I didn't vanish. I believed I could pitch in the big leagues. It just took working harder. It's not how you get there, it's that you get there."