How Brock Purdy’s Super Bowl journey was forged by his dad’s minor-league baseball career

Allegiant Stadium can host up to 72,000 fans for special events like Super Bowl LVIII. If every player in the history of Major League Baseball got a ticket, there would still be almost 50,000 available for Sunday’s game in Las Vegas.

Pat Mahomes, whose son Patrick is the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, would have a seat. Shawn Purdy, whose son Brock is the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, would not. Pat Mahomes pitched 11 seasons in the majors. Shawn Purdy pitched eight in the minors.

One game at the highest level, just one, and you’ve got a halo for the rest of your life. Otherwise you’re just like the rest of us, at least when it comes to service time at the summit of baseball. What’s the word? Irrelevant. The sliver of difference seems cruel.

“I played with guys that got called up, and they didn’t have the baseball IQ, they didn’t have the discipline, they didn’t have the winning attitude, all that stuff,” said Russ Ortiz, who pitched in the majors for 12 seasons. “And I was always like, ‘Man, I played with guys in Double A and Triple A that had all those intangibles but never got the chance.’ I would put Shawn down as one of those guys.”

Ortiz was roommates with Purdy in 1997. They were Phoenix Firebirds, one rung below the majors for the San Francisco Giants. He remembers a contraption Purdy lugged around the Pacific Coast League to strengthen his arm away from the park. The squeaking of the ropes lingers for Ortiz, part of the soundtrack of the minors.

“Yeah, that came from our physiotherapy people with the Angels,” said Eduardo Perez, who roomed with Purdy at an earlier stop. “We all had one; it was a weighted thing with a pulley system on the door. We marked every door in every hotel and every apartment we rented.”

Perez was the Angels’ first-round draft choice in 1991, 17th overall, a Florida State infielder with a star pedigree and a slugger’s build. Purdy was the Angels’ 16th rounder, 428th overall, a starter from the University of Miami with ordinary stuff, a smallish frame — and, as the old scouts would say, a belly full of guts.

The Angels had a habit of finding bright, tough-minded players from Florida; Howie Kendrick, Jeff Mathis, Mike Napoli, Darren O’Day, Orlando Palmeiro, Scot Shields and Perez would all play at least a decade in the majors. Tom Kotchman, the scout who signed Purdy, saw a durable, competitive righty with a sinker, slider and changeup whose confidence belied a low-90s fastball.

“You would have thought he threw 105,” Kotchman said. “And he wasn’t afraid to get on the bus and say something to me. He’d talk some trash, but it was respectful trash.”

That first season, between Miami and the rookie-league Boise Hawks, Purdy threw 218 2/3 innings with 10 complete games. The innings total — unfathomable now — spiked a bit from all the times Purdy fought Kotchman, who also managed Boise, to stay in the game.

The Hawks went 50-26, and Purdy was their ace. Kotchman gave him the ball against Yakima for the Northwest League championship game, even though Yakima had shelled Purdy the start before. He knew he’d made the right call when Purdy said nothing to his manager in the clubhouse. A self-assured nod was all he needed to see.

Purdy went six strong innings for the win. Teammates mobbed the Hawks’ closer, Troy Percival, after the final out. When Kotchman found game footage recently, he eagerly sent it around to his former players. Purdy got the last word on the local news that night.

“I didn’t get to go the whole distance like I dreamed to, but I held ’em down, the guys got some runs, and I got – we all got – our revenge,” Purdy shouted, above the din in the locker room. “And we’re the champs, baby. We’re number 1.”

The 49ers will seek their own revenge on Sunday against the Chiefs, who beat them in the Super Bowl four years ago. Brock Purdy was at Iowa State then, on his way to the NFL as the final pick of the 2022 draft — the infamous Mr. Irrelevant.

The 16th round, where Shawn Purdy was chosen, would now be close to the end of the MLB draft, which lasts only 20 rounds. Teams could keep drafting as long as they wanted in 1991 — that draft lasted for 1,600 selections — but by round 16, most of the top prospects were long gone. Nobody from Purdy’s round reached the majors.

“Shawn could have been the last guy drafted, too,” said Joe Maddon, then a roving instructor in the Angels’ farm system. “When they describe Brock, they could be describing Shawn: great makeup, very highly competitive, never quit, tools are a little bit short, but he makes it work.”

Maddon, who managed parts of 19 seasons in the majors, hosts a podcast now with Tom Verducci. They tried to book Shawn Purdy as a guest last winter, when Brock was leading the 49ers to the NFC championship game, but Shawn declined until the season was over.

Likewise, Shawn Purdy did not return messages from The Athletic last week, though he was in contact with old teammates.

“Oh look, Purdy just texted me,” Perez said, chuckling in mid-interview. “I go, ‘Dude, I’m diverting so many calls from media, they want to talk to you and I’m your buffer now. LOL.’ And he goes, ‘Now that’s funny.’”

In 1992, Perez and Shawn Purdy were roommates in Palm Springs, where the Angels had a team in the Single-A California League. A college friend of Perez’s was visiting and mentioned that his father, a sportswear executive, knew some models who would be in town.

Implausible as it seems, Perez said that his roommate was so focused on baseball that he was reluctant to meet the women. But Purdy’s enthusiasm changed in an instant.

“When he saw Carrie, he looked at me and goes, ‘I’m gonna marry this girl,’” Perez said. “I’m like, ‘Right, brother, whatever you say.’ And he married that girl.”

The next summer, Perez was in the majors and Purdy was back in Palm Springs after straining his ulnar collateral ligament in spring training. He split that season and the next between Single A and Double A, where his progress stalled.

Purdy’s sinker was still keeping the ball in the park, but plenty of hits were dropping in: 86 in 68 Double-A innings across the 1993 and 1994 seasons. His earned run average at that level for the Angels was 7.01, but he fearlessly pounded the zone.

“He had a short, fast arm which gave him good deception, and a very good changeup,” said Todd Greene, who caught Purdy at Single-A Lake Elsinore (Calif.) in 1994 and would play 11 seasons in the majors. “Not overpowering, but he knew how to pitch, he knew who he was and he threw a lot of strikes.”

Purdy moved on to the Giants organization in 1995, again in Double A but now in a short-relief role, perhaps better suited for a pitcher rarely beaten by homers or walks. Ron Wotus, Purdy’s manager that season in Shreveport, La., said Purdy had an ideal closer’s makeup: steely, persistent, resilient.

“Felipe Alou used to always say something: ‘Trust the man before the player,’” Wotus said, referring to a Giants manager he served as a bench coach. “It’s not the skill or the talent that they have, it’s who they are as a person: their will and desire, those types of things. Brock obviously has that, and so did Shawn.”

Wotus said he considered Purdy a prospect, but the term covers a lot of distinctions. Purdy was not a phenom but a so-called 4A guy, capable of complementing a major-league roster but unlikely to be a star.

That became clear the next season, his fourth at Double A. Purdy was thriving as a closer but lost his job to Ortiz, a younger pitcher and future 20-game winner who was tearing his way through the farm system. The Giants had high hopes for Ortiz and wanted him to close in Shreveport, so that’s what he did.

“I felt bad because I was like, ‘Shawn’s earned it, he’s done well,’” Ortiz said. “I was still learning, and I watched him pitch and the way he handled himself. He was someone I looked up to because of his mental strength and the way he went about his business.”

For Purdy, that business extended beyond the field. At spring training in 1997, as Ortiz recalls, the Giants let Purdy’s fledgling company — then known as Purdy E-Z Pools & Spas — set up a booth at the ballpark.

Promoted that season to Triple-A Phoenix, Purdy heard rumblings of a call-up in July, but the contending Giants added three veterans in a trade instead. Back in Triple A the next season with the Braves’ affiliate in Richmond, Purdy had a 1.83 ERA through 16 games. Certain he was about to join the Braves — he’d overheard a coach mention the possibility — Purdy felt pain in his elbow while playing catch before a game.

“They flew me to Atlanta, got a needle in the elbow, tried rehabbing for a bit, and it didn’t take,” Purdy said last spring on Maddon’s podcast. “Went in and had surgery, had some bone spurs removed and that was it. My elbow was fine. My business started taking off. I just chose to be a big-league dad.”

Shawn and Carrie have three children; he coached their oldest, Whittney, in softball, and has told Perez that she is the best athlete of them all, with Chubba — the youngest Purdy and the quarterback at Nebraska before recently transferring to Nevada — the second best.

That would put Brock Purdy third, which matches the broad strokes of his story. He is listed at 6-foot-1, an inch taller than Shawn, an inch shorter than Chubba, but his supposed lack of athleticism is probably overplayed.

“He might not be Deion Sanders, I get that, but the guy has touch, he’s got enough speed to keep defenses honest, and he can drop balls on a dime,” said Bill Bavasi, the Angels’ farm director when Shawn Purdy pitched in their system. “The guy gets written up for great makeup and personality traits, but he’s got athleticism, man.”

Whittney, Chubba, Shawn and Brock Purdy (l-r) with Eduardo Perez in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Eduardo Perez)

Yet there has always been something extra with Brock, an aptitude his father recognized early. When the Purdys would host Super Bowl parties, Shawn told Maddon, most kids would be playing outside. But Brock, at five or six years old, would stand on the coffee table and study the action, trying to think along with the quarterbacks.

“It must have been like his second year of Pop Warner, and I remember talking with Shawn about how smart he was.” Ortiz said. “It was like, yeah, of course he can throw a football, but a lot of kids can throw a football. Being accurate and then actually knowing how to play the position is a different story.

“It’s like with our daughter, we put her in piano at six years old and then really quick her piano teacher was like: ‘She gets it. She can just hear all the notes.’ You hear the same thing from Kyle Shanahan with Brock. You know he’s just got it.”

Shawn Purdy’s experience with a UCL injury helped Brock focus on small, daily milestones in his own recovery from a tear in the playoffs last winter. Brock, a former middle infielder, has also said that playing baseball as a boy — he stopped after his sophomore year in high school — has helped him master different angles as a quarterback.

What Brock inherited most clearly from his father is harder to define, but those who know Shawn can see it, unmistakably. Shawn’s career statistics were mediocre: a 3.91 ERA, more than a hit per inning, 5.6 strikeouts per nine. Yet somehow he was 21 games over .500, at 58-37. He was a winner.

Brock Purdy has started 26 NFL games, and his team has won 21. The next game will mean more to a lot more fans than Boise versus Yakima in 1991. But expect the son to handle his title shot the same way his father did.

“Look at Brock and look at Shawn, it’s the same guy,” Maddon said. “Nothing overwhelms you, but he beats you.”

(Top photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images and iStock: bmcent1)