DeLEON SPRINGS, Fla. — In a no-stoplight town, where Spanish moss dangles over split-rail fences and sugar-mill ruins rest along Spring Garden Lake’s shore, Tony deGrom, a retired cable lineman, awaits the return of his son, Jacob, each fall.
Tony and his wife, Tammy, moved to the rural area decades ago because they wanted to retreat inland from Daytona Beach with family and friends. By the time Jacob turned 2, Tony had put a ball in his son’s hands and was watching his greenhorn grow.
Jacob is now 33 and a two-time Cy Young Award winner for the Mets. But the son still drives his pickup truck down a dirt path to his childhood home to throw with his dad.
It is a rite of autumn for men of routine.
“Highlight of my days,” Tony, 66, said.
Life is slower here for the pitcher who throws 102 miles per hour.
The town was named after Juan Ponce de León, the 16th-century Spanish explorer who came to Florida in search of healing waters, and Fountain of Youth tours are organized in a local park, where signs welcome visitors to “the Real Florida.” DeGrom, seeking balance after a season that started with a fusillade of fastballs but was interrupted in July because of a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, plans to rejuvenate amid orange groves and cattle ranches.
“To me, he hasn’t changed a bit,” Tony said of Jacob. “Same goofball he’s ever been.”
Jacob deGrom was always outdoors as a boy, riding horses and romping around. One day, he steered his four-wheeler onto the track at Spring Garden Ranch, a 160-acre complex for standard horses that brands itself as “Where Winners Come to Winter.”
“I never got caught, but they ran me off,” deGrom said.
He resisted all reins. At Calvary Christian Academy, he wore his hair short and always played well against Lighthouse Christian, a rival. As a senior on the basketball team, he was the county’s top scorer, and Lighthouse Christian’s coach, Robert Maltoni, tried a triangle and two or a box and one to contain deGrom, a skilled wing who finished with either hand on dunks. To accommodate the season’s largest crowd of 1,000 spectators, Lighthouse Christian rented nearby Stetson University’s gym. DeGrom scored 39 points in a 69-66 loss.
“He had me pulling my hair out,” Maltoni said.
On baseball diamonds, deGrom helped American Legion Post 6 as a nifty fielder and returned that fall to Stetson, 10 miles down Highway 17, starting at third base before shifting to shortstop and reluctantly assuming relief pitcher duties. His first vehicle was a 1997 Dodge Ram with a single cab, and teammates recalled his trucks — CB radio antenna in the back and mud all over — rumbling as he commuted to and from campus. His parents never missed a game at home or away. In free time, he stoked bonfires with friends before being drafted in the ninth round by the Mets after his junior year.
Four months into his professional career, he needed Tommy John surgery. When he reported to the Mets complex for rehabilitation, Randy Niemann, one of the coaches there, took note of his quiet mien, clocked his fastball around 92 m.p.h. and saw uncommon command.
“He moved so well in his delivery that I thought, This guy has a real chance,” Niemann said.
Lessons came, on and off the field. In 2013, he broke the ring finger on his glove hand while helping a neighbor castrate a calf. While his arm was in a cast, he threw bullpen sessions with no glove and tinkered with his mechanics to regain his old form.
DeGrom soon learned what it was to be a major leaguer. He arrived in New York in 2014 with a cocker spaniel’s coif, a cartoon villain’s narrowed eyes and the 6-foot-4 silhouette of Sidd Finch, the fictitious flamethrower. That summer, Derek Jeter prepared to leave Broadway as deGrom was learning the subway. DeGrom was the National League’s rookie of the year; got married to Stacey, a local girl he had met at a rodeo, in a rustic barn during the off-season; pitched in the World Series the next fall; and threw a one-hitter in 2016, the lone hit yielded to a pitcher. He topped 200 innings in a season for the first time in 2017 and claimed his first Cy Young Award in 2018 with a 1.70 E.R.A.
Two days before he signed an extension worth $137.5 million, he had pitched in a spring training game against Atlanta at Disney World, and his father had picked him up afterward before driving him to Sarasota, Fla., for the final negotiations.
Later that week, they mingled inside the Diplomat Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Va., where the Mets stayed for their season opener against the Nationals. Tony estimated that he had made $163 per week when he started with Bell South at 23. Jacob never saw his father in the mornings because Tony had to be at work by 7 a.m. That September, as his son was nearing his professional peak, Tony retired a month short of 41 years on the job.
“I think I had something like 17 years of not missing a day before I got the flu one year and missed a few days,” he said.
Even as stardom arrived in full, Jacob carried himself as a casual cowboy, slipping in and out of Citi Field wearing a Resistol trucker hat and Rainbow sandals. At home games, the Mets cued up Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” when he took the mound. His jersey was No. 48, and he wore a pair of brown leather boots with No. 4 pressed into the back of a left boot and No. 8 into the right.
He won his second Cy Young in 2019, and hints of star status appeared. Not to be lost among smokeless tobacco tins in his locker were two cards on a shelf, both from the New York Police Department’s Lieutenants Benevolent Association. In the bottom right corner of each card, a yellow label is where the recipient’s name is typed in black. On one, he was Jacob deGrom. On the other, he was recognized by his rank in the game: Cy Young.
Upon returning to Florida, a tradition unchanged by his fame, deGrom lowered the velocity in Volusia County, ordered the best-selling hillbilly sandwich with pulled pork from the local haunt and fished in honey holes. His son, Jaxon, is 5; his daughter, Aniston, is 3. When he doesn’t understand a popular-culture reference, he says, “Two kids, too busy,” and real estate occupies a portion of his time as well. He purchased what he called “quite a bit of acreage” in his hometown and talked about building a “forever house” on what once was an orange grove bordered by a few lakes and dotted with a pond.
“His comfort is out in the middle of the woods with a select handful of people around him,” said Aaron Crittenden, who played with deGrom at Stetson. “He can be perfectly content living out his days doing just that.”
Uncertainty will accompany him home this time. When he wasn’t on the mound this season, he was in a magnetic resonance imaging machine seeking answers for a string of injuries that ranged from soreness to inflammation. Though Sandy Alderson, the president of the Mets, insisted in September that the ulnar collateral ligament in deGrom’s right elbow was “perfectly intact,” the pitcher was officially shut down for the season this week. Relegated to shagging balls most days, he occasionally threw left-handed to keep his mind occupied.
“I’m always testing my arm to see how it feels,” he said. “It’s just something that I do — always moving it around.”
His powerful right arm bears less mileage than those of most pitchers his age because of his multisport upbringing and his late introduction to pitching, but constant throwing of 100 m.p.h. beneath hitters’ hands exacted a toll this season. His father, who attended a few of his early starts in person this season, reflected on the importance of rest. He believes too much specialization is hurting the game.
“I enjoyed seeing Jacob just be a kid, have fun,” he said. “Nowadays I talk to dads, and their 9-, 10-year-olds are playing baseball every day of the year. It’s just too much. Come on. Give ’em a break.”
Each year, at season’s end, Jacob takes two weeks entirely off from throwing and stays off the mound until the following Feb. 1, when he ramps up for spring training. In between the shutdown and the official restart, Tony grabs his mitt, and Jacob furnishes the balls. They start close to each other, but as the winter weeks go by, father and son take steps back as son incrementally stretches out his program. By January, Jacob throws the ball 180 feet. In return, Tony, fighting his own aches and pains, tosses it as far as he can before letting the ball bounce a few times to his boy.
“You have to be tough to get old,” he said.