CHCAGO -- Inside the Chicago White Sox spring-training clubhouse in Sarasota, Fla., one day in 1994, 11-year-old Philip Humber struggled with control as much as he ever would on a major league mound.
It can be tough for a kid from small-town Texas to keep his emotions in check meeting Sox stars Frank Thomas and Ozzie Guillen. How many children could play it cool with Michael Jordan -- a Sox farmhand the spring of '94 -- saying hello in front of his locker?
"I still have Jordan's autograph," a smiling Humber recalled in the Sox dugout. "Seeing Frank and Ozzie, that whole day was a huge experience for me."
Humber had traveled to Florida as a guest of former Sox minor-league pitcher Robert Ellis, a family friend and mentor from Humber's hometown near Carthage, Texas. Ellis remembers Humber declaring his goal of being a major league player after that visit and laughing at "how crazy," the Sox were -- especially Guillen.
With every game Humber wins in a Sox uniform, the trip 17 years ago takes on added significance in Ellis' memory.
"It's funny how it has come full circle," said Ellis, 40, a right-hander who made 29 appearances for four teams from 1996-2003 and still regularly counsels Humber. "Philip looked up to Ozzie as a player after that day and now that he is pitching for the guy, it reflects back to when he was 11 years old and thought, man, this guy's awesome. You don't want to let the guy down."
The surprise of the Sox season so far, Humber hasn't come close to disappointing Guillen or anybody else. Desperately needing consistency in the rotation with Jake Peavy's chronic health concerns, the Sox have gotten their Phil.
Nobody expected much last January when the Sox picked up off waivers a once-promising right-hander out of Rice University who was the Mets' third overall pick of the 2004 draft, one spot behind Justin Verlander. Humber is 6-3 record and 2.95 ERA as the unlikeliest of Sox aces because of the way he improved his mechanics and loosened his grip -- on himself, not necessarily the baseball.
"I've been through everything you can go through in baseball so far," said Humber, 28, already traded or released from four teams. "I've had Tommy John surgery, been the hot prospect, been a bust, been given a lot of opportunities and been given up on. You get to the point where you say, you know what, baseball's not my whole life and if I'm going to play it I'm going to play because I enjoy it. That's where I'm at."
Chicago's South Side is a long way from where Humber grew up in the rural East Texas community of Buncombe, nine miles southwest of Carthage. For the map in Chicago sports fans' heads, that's about an hour south of Big Sandy, the hometown of Bears coach Lovie Smith. But to call Buncombe a dot on the map might be exaggerating. The last census estimated 87 people. That's more like a speck.
"I was a country guy and it's still a big part of me," Humber said with the slightest hint of a Texas drawl. "It's peaceful and quiet. The people back there don't care what you're doing in Chicago or wherever but they care what kind of person you are. The biggest thing is it keeps you humble."
When the Twins designated Humber for assignment at the beginning of the 2009 season, the low point of his career, he wasn't worried about staying humble. He worried about staying in baseball.
The setback felt more disappointing than having Tommy John surgery in 2005, more bewildering than losing his first career start for the Mets on Sept. 26, 2007, in the midst of one of the sport's biggest collapses ever. The pitcher who was the key prospect in the Mets' trade for Johan Santana was close to becoming nothing more in baseball than the answer to a trivia question.
"At that point it wasn't fun for my wife, wasn't fun for me and I had gotten so wrapped up in baseball being my identity," Humber said. "For me, just getting back to who I am and my identity comes through Christ. I got my focus back."
Replacing an average cut fastball with a wicked slider to give him a fourth out pitch also helped.
Sox pitching coach Don Cooper made that suggestion two days before Humber gave up one hit in seven innings in a gem against the Yankees. The latest Cooper reclamation project has seen the biggest difference making little mechanical adjustments at the behest of one of the game's best pitching coaches: getting over the ball, staying tall in his delivery and maintaining balance in the stretch.
"Philip has good stuff but it's not eye-opening, blow-away stuff," Cooper said. "What I always say is in baseball you get your first check for potential and maybe velocity. But every check you get at the major league level has nothing to do with velocity, it has to do with hitting the glove with movement and changing speeds like he is now."
Told of Cooper's assessment of Humber, Ellis just chuckled over the phone back in Texas. During Ellis' six-year stint in the Sox system, Cooper was his Triple-A pitching coach and espoused the same simple philosophy Ellis later pounded into Humber as a boy.
"For what Philip has been through and where he is now, Coop is a big part of that," said Ellis, now coaching in Henderson, Texas. "He's learning to pitch. I'm sure there are times he has wanted to show everybody his stuff was still good but it's not about that. I vividly remember Coop telling me, 'You get guys out, that's what's important.' A lot of what I teach is what Coop taught. Phil's beginning to hear it from him now."
The results make Humber feel like a kid again.