Milwaukee pitcher has an offbeat attitude
Stories by SUSAN SHEMANSKE
If nothing else, you've got to admire Jeff Juden's honesty.
The Milwaukee Brewers' pitcher has made a few enemies along the way in a six-year major-league journey that has taken him from Houston to Philadelphia to San Francisco to Montreal to Cleveland to Milwaukee.
But while his image has been tainted by altercations with teammates and opponents and accusations of headhunting with his 95-mph fastball, you're not going to hear any apologies from the 27-year-old right-hander.
Juden isn't trying to win any popularity contests. He's trying to win baseball games. And whatever's been said or written about him along the way isn't all that important to Juden.
“To each his own," he said. “I enjoy what I do. I like who I am."
Who is Jeff Juden? His Milwaukee teammates and coaches will tell you without hesitation that he's not the baseball bad boy some have made him out to be.
“Like most of us, he's unique, he's not like anyone else," said Brewers pitcher Doug Jones, who was a teammate of Juden's in Houston in 1993 and in Philadelphia in 1994. “His perception of the world around him is a little different than that of anyone else. He has his own way of thinking, his own way of communicating and he's not afraid to tell you what he thinks."
“He's definitely a free-spirited guy," said Jesse Levis, whom Brewers manager Phil Garner has made Juden's “personal" catcher. “He's got his own set of views on things. But he's been a good teammate. He cheers guys on from the bench when he's not pitching and he's let guys know about the different hitters and pitchers in the National League. He's pretty quiet in the clubhouse actually. But during games, he's always trying to encourage his teammates."
“He looks at life a little differently than most people," pitching coach Don Rowe said. “But he's all right, though."
Longtime friend Steve Brophy grew up with Juden in Salem, Mass., and said Juden “is actually a very understanding, generous person" with few pretentions.
“I knew him as Jeff Juden the person, not Jeff Juden the baseball player," Brophy said. “He's actually a very good person. He's very generous. He does a lot of charity work, he's real good with kids. And it's not like he's trying to be a big shot or anything."
So where did the bad boy reputation come from?
Start with the stories that Juden was difficult to coach early in his career because he preferred doing things his own way.
Then there was the time he had an argument with former Montreal teammate Pedro Martinez over loud music in the Expos' clubhouse.
How about his role in a benches-clearing brawl between Montreal and Houston in 1996 that earned him a four-game suspension?
And then there were the stories about the beanball incidents and how he refuses to back down from a challenge, whether from an opposing batter or from some smart-mouth punk in a bar who takes issue with his 6-8 frame.
“He's made his own bed several times and he's had to lie in it," Jones said. “But he's learned a lot from it. He's grown a lot."
Garner, who was a coach with Houston when Juden was first called up to the major leagues in 1991, had heard most of the stories when the Brewers acquired Juden and outfielder Marquis Grissom last Dec. 8 in a five-player trade with the Cleveland Indians.
But Garner, who had a heart-to-heart talk with Juden before the Brewers' winter tour, came away with his own impression.
“In this business, you hear stories and in most cases they're either blown way out of proportion, it's somebody else's opinion or it's simply not true," Garner said. “In Jeff's case, some of what has been said may have been warranted. There were some instances where he probably could have handled some things differently.
“But I think a lot of it is that people misunderstand Jeff's personality. He has what Southern boys call that Yankee personality, that personality that he doesn't take any nonsense from anyone. He speaks his mind. He's very blunt and a lot of people are intimidated by that.
“There's no doubt that he's extremely competitive. There's no doubt that he doesn't like to get beat."
That fierce competitiveness has translated into an aggressiveness on the mound. Juden won't back down from a challenge, whether it's facing Barry Bonds with the bases loaded or retaliating when one of his teammates has been brushed back at the plate.
“I feel like I'm a team player," Juden said during an interview in spring training. “If something needs to be done, whatever the situation may be, that's part of the game. Play hard, play to win. You can't be afraid to get dirty. That's what it's all about."
That approach has gotten Juden into trouble with opponents from time to time, but you won't hear any complaints from Garner, who also had a reputation for not backing down from a challenge when he was a player.
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Garner discussed his philosophy of pitching inside with Juden when the two talked in January and said he came away feeling very good about Juden's approach.
“That's been one of the stories about him (Juden) over the years, that he's a headhunter," Garner said. “I don't think he's a headhunter. I just think he won't back down from a confrontation.
“Our whole philosophy is that we will pitch up and in to back guys off the plate and if they can't get out of the way, that's their own fault."
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Juden grew up in Salem, Mass., where hockey was his first sport of choice.
“He was twice the hockey player as he was the baseball player," said Brophy, who has known Juden since childhood. “But when he was in high school, I think he realized his future was in baseball."
After going 11-1 in his senior season at Salem High School to earn USA Today High School All-America honors, Juden was selected in the first round (12th pick overall) by the Houston Astros in the June 1989 draft.
“In the beginning years, it was kind of tough," Brophy said. “Here you are 18 years old and you're a first-round draft pick and there are some very very high expectations of you. You go from a boy to a man in one day basically. That was his college, that was his learning. It was tough."
It got tougher. Juden's early years were marked by inconsistency and control problems. He was traded, along with Jones, from Houston to Philadelphia after the 1992 season.
He started the 1994 season in the Phillies' starting rotation and ended it on the disabled list after undergoing elbow surgery.
“I had a period of about 2-3 years in my career that I was sliding and I was hurt, but I wasn't aware of it and it took me some time to figure out that something wasn't right," Juden said. “Now, I just thank God for good health and Dr. (Arthur) Pappas for a helluva good surgery. From there, things have been moving along in a positive direction."
There were a few detours along the way. After the 1995 season, Juden was traded to the San Francisco Giants, where he went 4-0 with a 4.10 ERA in 36 games all in relief. Unhappy with his role pitching out of the bullpen, Juden was released by the Giants' organization and claimed off waivers by Montreal July 11, 1996.
Juden was on his way to a breakthrough season with the Expos last year when he was traded to the Indians July 31. He got off to a slow start with the Indians, lost his spot in the rotation, then finished strong to move back into the rotation and earn a spot on the Indians' playoff roster, appearing in five postseason games in relief.
Now, he feels like he's back home.
“I'm just happy to be back in a place that I'm familiar with the National League," said Juden, who is off to a 3-1 start and leads the Brewers' pitchers with four hits and four RBIs. “I'm having fun out there and that's all I'm trying to do. Go out and have some fun and win some ballgames and contribute to a winning team here."
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Garner expects big things from his big right-hander.
“He's at the point in his career where he can be a helluva pitcher," Garner said. “It's all starting to come together for him."
The key, Garner said, will be harnessing the wildness that has marked Juden's career since the beginning.
“My first game in pro ball, I threw the first pitch 100 miles an hour straight into the backstop and almost hit the post," Juden said. “My teammates all jumped up off the bench and started sreaming `Nuke, Nuke, Nuke' (for the wild-throwing character in the movie `Bull Durham') and it's stuck with me ever since."
With Juden, it's almost a Catch-22 situation. The same wildness that gets him into trouble with batters also is what often gets him out of trouble. The key is finding the happy medium.
“He throws hard and his ball moves a lot," Levis said. “He is effectively wild at times. It's not really a comfortable at-bat facing Jeff."
Garner said Juden's sinker is among the best he's ever seen, but said Juden needs to be more consistent with it.
“With a big, strong guy like that, I think the more he pitches, the more he gets into a rhythm," Garner said. “The one thing we want to be able to do is give him general control without losing his wildness, which is what makes him effective."
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Juden prefers not to talk about the past. Ask him if he thinks he's been unfairly labeled and he'll tell you it doesn't matter because he's comfortable with who he is.
So, too, are the Brewers. Garner thinks the Brewers need players like Jeff Juden, players who push the envelope a little bit and stir things up. “I don't want Jeff Juden to be like Cal Eldred," Garner said. “God bless Cal, but I don't want every guy to be like him because then we don't have any diversity on this team.
“I don't know that we'll have smooth sailing all the way with Jeff. I'm sure there will be some bumps in the road along the way.
“He's probably going to be the focal point of some controversy. But we need some of that on this team. If you're going to be a winning team, you're going to need some playes to push the envelope a little bit and get things going."