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Weird but true: Remembering when two Devil Rays pitchers were shot in 2002

A look back at two tragic events from 2002.

Nick Bierbrodt Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

During the early morning hours of a Summer day in Charleston, South Carolina, police were called after a shooting where a 24 year old man had been shot twice in what was later deemed as a random act of violence.

A few months later, also in the early morning hours, police responded to a shooting in Raleigh, North Carolina where a 24 year old man had been shot twice in what was later deemed as a random act of violence.

Two shootings with months between them had one connection, both young men were members of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Nick Bierbrodt had a gifted arm. So much so that the Arizona Diamondbacks selected him with the very first draft pick in franchise history, taking him as the 30th overall selection in the 1996 draft. Although he didn’t posses an arsenals that made scouts drool, he knew how to use his average repertoire to get hitters out.

Bierbrodt has an ideal pitcher’s body and is an excellent athlete for his size. He already has a veteran’s touch and feel with his pitches. He mixes a sinking 89-91 mph fastball, a good curveball and a plus changeup, according to hitters and situations
- Baseball America’s 1999 writeup of Bierbrodt

As he developed, his curveball developed into a tantalizing pitch and his fastball gained a few notches in the velocity department, making Bierbrodt a solid starting pitcher prospect.

The southpaw would quickly rise up the Diamondbacks prospect rankings, topping out as their 3rd best prospect entering the 1999 season. Unfortunately, that’s when injuries derailed his promising career; he threw just 62 innings during the 2000 season.

Regardless, Bierbrodt was still considered one of Arizona’s top pitching prospects and made his big league debut in 2001 with disastrous results to show for it. As Arizona barreled towards the postseason, they needed a more dependable arm to rely on and Bierbrodt wasn’t it. Instead, they took to the Devil Rays and shipped Bierbrodt, along with Jason Conti, to Tampa Bay for veteran hurler Albie Lopez and catcher Mike Difelice.

Tampa Bay General Manager, Chuck LaMar, seemed more happy about the salary saved than prospects acquired following the deal.

“We didn’t have the money to sign Lopez again. We’re getting two good young prospects and considering the salaries and the cash we receive, we make $2 million on the deal.”
- Chuck LaMar

Bierbordt immediately joined the Devil Rays starting rotation where he hoped the lower intensity environment of the AL East basement would lead to improvements for him.

“I think being here should help, because I can fail and I don’t have to be so hard on myself because we’re not playing for a championship.”
- Nick Bierbrodt

The southpaw would double down on those remarks immediately following his team debut in which he allowed a run over six innings against the Texas Rangers.

“It was definitely a lot easier as far as every pitch not being a big pitch. Obviously we’re not in a pennant race, and that definitely helped me.”
- Nick Bierbrodt

The transition to Tampa Bay seemed to be just what Bierbrodt needed as he had several excellent outings down the stretch. Of course, there were some bumps in the road, like a 7 run drubbing courtesy of the New York Yankees. But, there were gems as well, as he followed up his dreadful game against the Yankees with seven shutout innings against the Minnesota Twins.

Heading into the 2002 season, Bierbrodt seemed primed to take a step forward in his development and become one of the top starting pitchers on the team. Then during Spring Training, Bierbrodt’s command completely collapsed.

Devil Rays Media Day X
Nick Bierbrodt

Bierbrodt’s inability to locate his pitches led to his quick dismissal from the starting rotation and off of the team’s Opening Day roster. He would begin the year in extended spring training. After two months of working out at the team’s spring training facility, Bierbrodt finally got the opportunity to make his season debut.

“I couldn’t have been throwing the ball any better, then I suddenly couldn’t throw strikes. It was pretty deflating and I beat myself up pretty badly trying to figure out what was wrong. I had to go back to ground zero mechanically, but by the time I went to Charleston I felt confident again and that the problem was behind me.”
- Nick Bierbrodt

On June 5th, 2002, Bierbrodt took the mound for the Single-A Charleston River Dogs for his first rehab outing; he performed well, allowing four runs — two earned — on five hits, two strikeouts, and most notably, just two walks.

With that outing, Bierbrodt seemed well on his way to returning to the big leagues in the near future.

Then, during the early morning hours of June 7th, Bierbrodt was with fellow minor leaguer John Vigue as well as a 27 year old woman were traveling via taxicab and ordering food from a Hardees drive-thru in Charleston, South Carolina. At some point, a stranger to them was on a bicycle was near them in line.

Bierbrodt initiated verbal sparring with the stranger about how loud the stranger’s radio was playing.

The stranger did not take kindly to Bierbrodt’s comments and rode up to the side of the taxi and fired twice into the backseat, striking Bierbrodt with both bullets at near point blank range. The taxi driver quickly sped off to the hospital where Bierbrodt was taken in for immediate surgery.

“I remember seeing him pull out a gun, heard two shots, looked down and saw blood on my arm”
“I remember arriving at the emergency room, but after that it’s a little blurry. I woke up three or four days later, two or three surgeries later.”
- Nick Bierbrodt

Both bullets ended up lodged in Bierbrodt’s chest near his liver, with one of them first taking a route through his right bicep. Doctors performed surgery to repair the wounds to Bierbrodt’s body, but determined that the bullets were better left untouched as to not cause any more potential harm.

Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar would later comment on the situation:

“It’s just incredible how fast things can happen. Here’s a young man that the sky was the limit when spring training started, he struggled, he battled his way back from a physical situation and was just getting food at a drive-through restaurant. It can happen to any of us at any time, and it just happened to Nick Bierbrodt.”
- Chuck LaMar

Following the shooting, doctor’s told Bierbrodt how incredibly fortunate he was that the damage was not more severe and that he’d be able to resume his baseball activities after 6-8 weeks of rest; Bierbrodt would ultimately miss out on the rest of the season, but did issue a statement while in the hospital that he was ready to get to work.

“I promise that I will be up, around and back on the hill soon.”
- Nick Bierbrodt

Bierbrodt was back with the Devil Rays for spring training in 2003 and ready to put the past behind him after what was likely the worst year of his life. The pain was gone and the only reminder he had of the incident was a large scar on his abdomen from the emergence surgery he had endured.

Just about everything bad that can happen to a professional pitcher and still be alive is the best way I can put it.
Lose your control. Lose your job. Get demoted. Get shot. Almost lose your life.
- Nick Bierbrodt

The Devil Rays were certainly thrilled to have Bierbrodt back on the mound and able to throw strikes as they looked for Bierbrodt form a potentially fearsome duo of strong left-handed arms in their rotation.

“It’s great just to have him healthy and alive on the baseball field because it could’ve been a very tragic situation [...]”

“There’s a break that we need to catch. If he’s able to throw strikes and if he’s completely recovered from his injuries it would be a real shot in the arm to pencil his name in with the likes of a Joe Kennedy, (Dewon) Brazelton and the other young guys. That’s the kind of staff you want to have in the situation we’re in.”
- Chuck LaMar

That was Nick Bierbrodt’s story.

However, just a few months after Bierbrodt was shot, another young Devil Ray prospect was also the victim of a random shooting.

Delvin James #71...
Delvin James

Delvin James was selected in the same draft as Bierbrodt, but didn’t have anywhere near the prospect pedigree. A very raw talent, James didn’t even begin to pitch until his senior year of high school and at that time and was already known as one of the top prep football players in the country. Regardless, the Devil Rays selected James in the 14th round of the 1996 draft and James would turn down a scholarship to play football at the University of Oklahoma.

Although he wasn’t considered the level of prospect that Bierbrodt was, James possessed an incredible fastball that already flashed in the high 90’s. which made him an instant sensation to scouts and so alluring to the Devil Rays, who figured with some polish that James could develop into a solid pitcher one day.

“I said, ‘Let’s see 10 fastballs,’ and he threw 10 fastballs. I said, ‘Let’s see your curve,’ and he said, ‘I don’t have one.’ So I said, ‘Let’s see your slider,’ and he said, ‘I don’t have one.’ So I said throw 10 more fastballs,”
- Then scouting director, Dan Jennings

However, the team didn’t know what to do with James as they routinely transitioned him in and out of the starting rotation during his ascent up the organizational ladder. James worked on adding a change-up, he worked on adding a curveball, and he worked on adding a slider; all of which were subpar to average.

James also made headlines off the field for positive reasons during his time in the Rays minor league system, as he and two other Devil Rays farmhands (one being Jesus Colome) helped to apprehend a bank robber on the streets of St Petersburg in 2000. A man ran up to James’ vehicle on the street and frantically asked for a ride, but James and his compadres knew something was amiss and the man took off, dropping the bag he’d been carrying; the bag spilled out its contents which was summed up to be around $7,600. James would later help police identify the culprit.

Finally, during spring training in 2002, while Nick Bierbrodt went through his bout of control issues, James made his case to join the big league roster. James didn’t make the Opening Day roster, but quickly found himself in the show, making his big league debut on April 16th where he allowed 2 runs on five hits over 5 innings pitched against the Detroit Tigers.

James remained with Tampa Bay for several weeks, making a total of five starts with two gems mixed two disasters. Unfortunately, he’d placed on the Injured list with shoulder tendinitis in May and be optioned to Triple-A Durham after rehabbing from his injury.

It was while with Durham that during the early morning hours of September 2nd that Delvin James would be shot three times.

James was with a friend, Monique McNellie, picking up food from a Waffle House in Raleigh, North Carolina when they witnessed an alternation between a patron and a cook at the eatery. The patron left to the parking lot, but retrieved a gun from their vehicle and opened fire; James and his friend were both hit.

“I got hit three times — one bullet went through the left side of my chest and through my back, one hit me in the left elbow, and one in the shoulder blade...
They told me on the way to the hospital they thought my lung had been struck and that I might not make it
- Delvin James

James’ friend received the worst of it, as she was struck in the abdomen and became paralyzed from the waist down.

“It was the worst best thing that ever happened to me. I still take the game of baseball seriously, but now I know that compared to life it’s still a game. Things could be a lot worse. I could be like Monique.”
- Delvin James

Miraculously for James, he went through a rapid recovery and was pitching for the Bulls just 9 days later in an International League playoff game. Then, just 12 days after being shot, James was pitching in the big leagues for Tampa Bay once again.

On September 24th, just his second appearance back after being shot, James delivered five shutout innings against the New York Yankees. He would pitch one last game that season, the final game of the season for Tampa Bay, allowing six runs on ten hits to the Boston Red Sox.

James spent the entire 2003 campaign with Triple-A Durham and then would become a free agent following the season. He tried to catch on with several teams following his Devil Rays tenure, but a lack of a solid breaking ball plus his arm issues reemerging, forced him into an early retirement. After his retirement, James tried to go back to football, walking on with Oklahoma State, but not much more information on him is available.

As for Nick Bierbrodt, he pitched in 13 games for Tampa Bay in 2003 (5 starts), almost all with lousy results. The Devil Rays eventually designated him for assignment, where he’d be picked up by Cleveland and then promptly designated once again.

The Rangers picked him up and used him for four games during the 2004 season, but that’d be it for his big league career. Although, he did bounce around the minors and independent ball for a few years. After initially retiring in 2008, he last pitched in affiliated ball with the Baltimore Orioles in 2011.