National treasure: Shawnee grad Doolittle continues to thrive in big leagues

The Tabernacle native was the 41st overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft, when he was drafted as a first baseman. What would his 18-year-old self think about being an established big leaguer at age 32? “I don’t know if I would have believed it,” he said. “I probably would have called bull(crap). … I’m very lucky.”

Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, a two-time All-Star closer, collected his 100th career save on June 30. The Tabernacle native is in his eighth big league season. (MILES KENNEDY, The Phillies)

If you spent the week after Independence Day weekend down the shore, there’s a chance a major league baseball player walked by you and you didn’t realize it. 

Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, a Tabernacle native and Shawnee High School graduate, spent the All-Star break in Stone Harbor. It was a relaxing getaway for the two-time All-Star and his wife, who have a permanent home in Chicago. Doolittle’s parents still live in the Philadelphia area (his mother is in Southampton).

When baseball’s midsummer break came to an end, Doolittle and the Nationals visited the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park for a three-game series. Before taking the field for the second half, Doolittle sat down with South Jersey Sports Weekly to talk about his big league journey. 

South Jersey Sports Weekly: So you’ve been out of high school now for 15 years.

Sean Doolittle: Oh my gosh. 

SJSW: If you could go back and talk to 18-year-old Sean Doolittle in 2004, what do you think he’d say about the fact that you’re a two-time All-Star and a major league closer at age 32?

Doolittle: Gosh, I don’t know, man. Because at that point I didn’t even know how I was going to stack up in the ACC (at the University of Virginia). I remember how big of a deal it was when we got to play here in the Carpenter Cup at Citizens Bank Park in 2004. So, you know….

SJSW: … not even a thought, a dream …

Doolittle: It was definitely a dream, but I think it was such an abstract concept at that point. If I knew I was going to end up where I’m at right now, I don’t know if I would have believed it. I probably would have called bull(crap). … I’m very lucky.

SJSW: South Jersey seems to have a lot of success on bigger stages in the last decade: yourself, Mike Trout, Carli Lloyd, Jordan Burroughs …

Doolittle: There have been a bunch of guys from South Jersey who have made their (big league) debut this year. 

SJSW: Right, Zac Gallen went to Bishop Eustace (made his debut with Miami).

Doolittle: (Mike) Shawaryn (Gloucester Catholic) with the Red Sox. (Devin) Smeltzer (with Minnesota).

SJSW: Another Eustace guy.

Doolittle: Pitchers that have glasses, man. They want to be like me I guess.

SJSW: That’s funny. You started pro ball as a hitter (eventually transitioning to pitching after three minor league seasons of injuries, including a torn tendon in his wrist). Do you think that helped you in a way, whether saving bullets or knowing how to attack hitters?

Doolittle: Oh yeah. I think the mental game it helps me because I have a little bit of an insight on how hard hitting is. I think pitchers sometimes fall into trying to be too fine and I think it keeps me in more of an aggressive mindset, just knowing how many things have to go right if the pitcher has a little deception with his fastball and he can locate to both sides of the plate. You can really keep a guy off balance. So I think that insight helped, definitely early on in the process. … It was a tough transition. Hitting, if you’re not going right you can go into the cage and hit for like three hours. But pitching, you have to be more focused on what you’re doing, it’s more quality over quantity and that was a big adjustment. But having the background to call on as a hitter definitely helped, especially early on for sure.

Doolittle chats with a teammate while shagging batting practice last Friday at Citizens Bank Park. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: Do you even go into the cages to hit in spring training? (Editor’s note: Doolittle had an .803 OPS in 1,003 minor league plate appearances. In 2008, he slashed .286/.358/.495 with 22 home runs and 40 doubles in 137 games between Double-A Midland and High-A Stockton).

Doolittle: No, because the last thing that ultimately led to be switching to pitching is I tore a tendon in my wrist, I never really got it fixed because they said I was going to need surgery. That’s when I switched to pitching. I don’t know. I’ve probably taken a combine 20 swings off the tee. Everyone always asks me if I miss it and I’m like, ‘No, man. Hitting it really hard.” I don’t miss it. The amount of time I put in just to get to Triple-A. And seeing what these guys do. And the mental roller coaster these guys are on everyday as a hitter. 

SJSW: A lot more failure.

Doolittle: Yeah, so I don’t miss it. But I also don’t really work on it anymore. [laughs]. I had instructions not to swing in my first at-bat (of this season back in April). Then I swung once and foul tipped it. I struck out both times.

SJSW: The journey you’ve been on, do you have any single favorite moment?

Doolittle: My debut was really special. I pitched well. We didn’t win but …

SJSW: … I saw you struck out the first three guys you faced.

Doolittle: Yeah, yeah. So I mean that was really special. I pitched in the All-Star Game in 2014, that was really special, I’ve got to pitch in the playoffs, that was really cool. And one that stands out the most besides my debut is last year in 2018 I made the All-Star Game and I couldn’t play because I was hurt, I broke my foot, but the reception I got from the home fans in D.C. was really, really special. That was really cool.

SJSW: This feels like a natural follow-up: you’ve played on both coasts and lived in both growing up and as an adult. What do you think the biggest difference is between the East and West coasts?

Doolittle: The humidity. The weather, man. The summer thunderstorms that roll through. It saps your energy when you’re out there. Sometimes I don’t know how our guys do it, our pitchers going 7 or 8 innings. The way the thickness of the air changes the way you breathe. For me, trying to control my breathing, it’s a big thing I key in on late in games. Sometimes it’s tough, man. It just drains your energy. So you’ve got to pace yourself in the bullpen a little bit and really key in on that. 

SJSW: And no rain delays or rainouts in California.

Doolittle: We had one rainout in six years in Oakland and it was because they didn’t tarp the field overnight and it rained. The next day we couldn’t play. That was the only time. We had one rain delay besides that, but we got the game in that day. That’s kind of a once-a-homestand occurrence for us this point (in D.C.). You get kind of good at managing that downtime.

SJSW: You’re active on social media obviously and I’ve noticed the thing you’ve been doing this season with posting about a trip to a local bookstore whenever the Nationals are on the road. What’s it about, giving small businesses their recognition?

Doolittle: Yeah, I didn’t think it was going to catch on like it did, so it’s kind of cool. But it was kind of something I’ve been doing anyway. Reading is one of my favorite things to do away from the field. And I really enjoy that we get to travel and go to different cities. I always try to get out and explore the city anyway and do something that was unique to that city. It really combined two things that I enjoyed doing. I don’t know, I’m glad people have responded to it. In the beginning I didn’t think of it as a way to promote local businesses, I was just kind of promoting reading in general. But it’s been really fun. It’s caught on. And I’ve enjoyed getting bookstore recommendations from people. The book sub-genre on Twitter is really, really cool. I really enjoy it.

SJSW: When do you do most of your reading, on planes?

Doolittle: Most of the time after a game. I don’t read on a plane that much. I’d say after games. I’ve found for me …

SJSW: … winding down

Doolittle: … yeah it’s the best way for me to wind down. A lot of times I’m pitching in the game at 10:30 at night. And if you think about it, if that’s the height of your day essentially, sometimes it can be tough to come down from. There are nights it’s 1 in the morning and you’re still wide awake. It’s my favorite way to kind of decompress. And it’s an escape, that’s why I almost exclusively read fiction. I enjoy the escape of it, I enjoy turning my brain off and focusing on something else for a while. …. The same way you might unwind with a movie or a TV show. You don’t always want to unwind with a documentary, you want to watch something that takes your mind off things.

SJSW: You moved to South Jersey (from northern California) when you were 8?

Doolittle: No I was in first grade. I was 6. 

SJSW: Did you play Little League in Tabernacle?

Doolittle: It was called Babe Ruth back then. We moved from California on my sixth birthday and spent a few months living with my grandparents in North Jersey while my parents looked for a house. We finally settled where I grew up in December of ‘92. We got right into sports. 

SJSW: Did you play any other sports in high school?

Doolittle: I played basketball freshman and sophomore year. I wasn’t that good. But through middle school… I was always that kid that played whatever sport was in season. I chose not to play football in high school. I was pretty undersized until I hit my growth spurt as a junior. I just didn’t like all that practice and you got to play one game a week, you know? Plus it opened up my schedule, I could play fall ball.

SJSW: Do you have a favorite youth baseball or high school baseball memory?

Doolittle: I mean in high school we won the state championship in 2003. That was pretty cool, the run that we went on. That’s probably the highlight. 

SJSW: Do you keep up with anyone from high school?

Doolittle: Oh yeah, yeah. The catcher from our team, Mike Ferrera, will be at the game tonight.

SJSW: (Shawnee) won the Diamond Classic this year.

Doolittle: Yeah, yeah. That was something we never did. We got to the championship game one year and lost to Eustace. 

SJSW: Shawnee also was a part of the Carpenter Cup winning team right here last month.

Doolittle: It’s been cool to see how the program has stayed strong. For a while there it was tough because of how popular lacrosse was. I don’t think they have to make cuts anymore. I think my senior year we didn’t have to.

SJSW: Really, in baseball?

Doolittle: Yeah, well, the football coach was also the lacrosse coach and he had a rule that you had to play a sport in either the spring or the winter to stay in shape. A lot of the guys played lacrosse just to keep facetime with the coach. But they’ve also built a really, really good lacrosse program, too. 

SJSW: Do you get back to this area pretty often?

Doolittle: No, not really. Other than playing the Phillies I haven’t been back in a long time. We live in Chicago in the offseason. My wife is from there. We bought a house in Oak Park on the west side of the city. I love it. Only a couple of my friends are still here. People grow up and move away. But it was a great place to grow up. … It used to be a big thing (playing here) because I was on the west coast for so long. Now they can come down to D.C. and see me play a bunch.