Father and major league son share life’s experiences
BY BERNIE WOODALL
Chris Flexen Sr. relishes his role as father of a Major League Baseball player.
A career plumber in the Bay Area of California, he and his wife, Desiree, moved to Port St. Lucie following their only child.
He also relishes his role in outdoor operations at the PGA Club in Port St. Lucie, where he is the first person a golfer sees when pulling up to the club and the last one seen as a golfer pulls away from one of the club’s three championship courses.
The Flexens, dad and son, often play the courses at the PGA Club. Each owns a house in PGA Village, three minutes by golf cart from one another. The dad shoots in the mid-80s and the son in the mid-70s with a drive that usually goes 300 yards or more.
Every day it seems more PGA Club members are learning that the younger Flexen is now a mainstay in the starting rotation for the Seattle Mariners.
“He’s got a big support group here in Port St. Lucie,” said the dad of the son who plays for a team that is the farthest away of any in the major leagues. “One of our members is from Boston and said he’s been a diehard Red Sox fan for 74 years, but he told me he rooted against his own team when Chris pitched at Fenway Park,” Flexen Sr. said.
That April 24 Saturday afternoon game at fabled Fenway is the best proof that 2021 could be the year that Flexen Jr., who turns 27 July 1, puts it all together after frustrating, injury-plagued, up-and-down years with the New York Mets organization.
At Fenway, Flexen faced a lineup that at the time was the best hitting team in baseball. Flexen used all four of the pitches he commands to hold the Red Sox scoreless for six innings before yielding a run in the seventh as the Mariners glided to an 8-2 victory.
Fans will have to wait until the end of the season in October to see if the right-hander has a sustained rebound in 2021. As May comes to a close, he leads the Seattle Mariners in wins after taking the mound nine times this season.
For Flexen, it has not been an easy or straight road to being a regular on a major league pitching rotation.
There have been three knee surgeries, an arm operation known to baseball fans as Tommy John surgery, multiple trips up and down between the minor and major leagues. To alleviate stress on his knees, Flexen went on a rigid strength and conditioning program and went on a diet. By 2019 he was down to his current 215 pounds, even if he is still listed as 250 on some baseball websites, including the Mariners site.
When he learned that he needed the arm surgery in 2014, he thought his career was over.
” ‘My arm’s done,’ I thought. Then I do some research and talk to doctors and hear stories that if you do the rehab, more times than not, you’ll come out on top. It was definitely tough at first [after the surgery], but I knew it was a marathon, not a sprint,” Flexen said in an interview from Seattle.
Flexen knows to the day how long it took after the surgery to repair a torn ligament in the elbow to pitch in a game again: 11 months, 14 days. He was happy he made it back within a year.
He even threw the ball harder after the surgery and the time off. As a freshman in high school, he threw the ball at 80 to 82 miles per hour. By his senior year – he grew to 6 feet, 3 inches by the time he was 17 – he was throwing 88 to 91 mph and remained near there until his surgery. But when he returned, he was tossing the baseball at 94 to 96 mph. He says his fastball averages between 91 and 94 these days.
But the biggest change from the disappointing time with the Mets and the success so far in Seattle wasn’t the arm surgery or the knee surgeries in October 2015 after which he had to stay off his feet for two months, or the one in March 2017 or the one in August 2018.
The biggest change was the confidence-building year he spent playing in Seoul, South Korea for the Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization during the pandemic in 2020. That league had a full season, and its games were shown daily on ESPN while the majors did not start until late July and had an abbreviated season in the United States.
While pitchers in the American major leagues were limited, Flexen had a full season. And for minor leaguers in the U.S., there were no games at all in 2020. This made “Flex” all the more attractive to Seattle and other teams interested in luring him back, his agent Tom O’Connell of Tampa said.
After the 2019 season, on the day after the Mets released Flexen, he signed with the Doosan Bears for a reported $1 million.
“He went over there and was able to gain a lot of confidence and understand who he was as a pitcher,” O’Connell said.
He pitched about 150 innings including the postseason in South Korea, and was stronger at the end of the year, posting a 0.85 ERA in his last five regular season starts and had a 1.91 ERA in solid starts in the postseason including the Korean Series, a loss by the Bears to the NC Dinos of Changwon.
Flexen said he grew as a person, too, in South Korea. He learned to live in a vastly different culture and he loved it. His longtime girlfriend and fiancée, Raven Wade, was able to join him for a while.
“It helped me branch out a little,” Flexen said by phone on his way to a practice in Seattle. “I didn’t get to explore too much because COVID was still a thing at the time. I tried to embrace their culture as best I could, among the team. I built a lot of great relationships over there. I still talk to some of the guys over there.”
He loved the food. Korean barbecue, kimchi stew and kimchi fried rice were just three of his favorites.
He was about to sign a two-year contract to remain in South Korea, when the Mariners offered a two-year deal for a reported $4.75 million.
Columnist Larry Stone of The Seattle Times wrote in February that Flexen left the Mets as a “broken prospect” and in 2021 now has a chance, aided by his time in South Korea, to right his career.
“Going over to Korea, I was able to find myself again,” Flexen told Stone. “I really found my breaking ball. That was a huge pitch for me, something I used a lot. I was really able to get a feel in Korea for how to use my curveball a lot more. It comes back to the confidence thing.”
The two Chris Flexens share much more than a name.
Chris Flexen, the dad, is married to Desiree, a girl he met when he was in the 2nd grade and she was in kindergarten in Newark, California, in the Bay Area. They began dating when she was a seventh grader, then drifted apart. They began dating again when they were both graduates of Newark Memorial High School and that time it stuck.
Not long after Chris the younger in 2015 bought a house in PGA Village – he is in a bigger, second house purchased there now – his parents followed him to Port St. Lucie to be near their only child.
Chris, the major leaguer, met Raven Wade when he was in the fourth grade and she was a third grader. They became better friends once they were both at Newark Memorial High School and began dating late in Chris’ senior year.
On Christmas 2019, Chris got down on one knee in front of her parents and the Christmas tree and asked Raven to marry him. They will wed after the baseball season. They had planned a wedding in 2020 but like countless other couples, postponed their nuptials in 2020 because of the pandemic.
There are family stories about Chris starting to throw a ball as young as 2. Chris Sr. played baseball through junior college, and he and his friends, who Chris the son called uncles, played baseball and softball into adulthood. He played first base and the outfield. When she was in high school, his mother played on the varsity softball team all four years.
“I was born into baseball and fell in love with it right away,” Chris Flexen Jr. said.
By the time he was 4, Chris, the son, was playing on a Tee Ball team coached by his mom and dad.
Chris Jr. says that he and his friends used to play a lot of Wiffle ball, and when none of his friends were around, his father and he would toss and hit baseballs in their front yard for hours.
Wiffle ball and tee-ball became competitive baseball, and by the time he was 8, Chris was good enough to be recruited by several travel baseball teams, which he played on even when he was in his early high school years. He was a varsity baseball player all four years at Newark Memorial, where he also played third base and second base. Even though he was the starting quarterback on the school’s football team as a sophomore, he lost interest in that sport and concentrated on baseball.
He was the ace starting pitcher on the baseball team from the time he was a sophomore. As a senior he had a batting average of .368 with two home runs. He had a remarkable 0.44 earned run average, a 9-2 won-loss record and struck out 125 batters in 80 innings.
The tall pitcher was ready to attend Arizona State University, a national collegiate baseball powerhouse, but when the Mets drafted him in the 14th round, he signed and received a $375,000 bonus.
He had some all-star caliber years in the minor leagues, including for the St. Lucie Mets. But he was hit hard and walked a lot of batters when he pitched in the majors for the New York Mets. There were some highlights, though.
More than 40 friends and family traveled to see him make his major league debut at age 23 in July 2017 in San Diego, where he gave up a home run to the first batter he ever faced. But two weeks later in New York, he won his first major league game and hit a double in the fifth inning.
Jake Bailey, a real estate agent who zooms around PGA Village in, what else, a golf cart, met Flexen when he played golf with him. Bailey is a former star pitcher for Lincoln Park Academy in Fort Pierce and he pitched for Indian River and Brevard community colleges as well as the College of Charleston. He was drafted in the late rounds by the Toronto Blue Jays but decided to stay in college.
Bailey, at 6 feet, 6 inches, is even taller than Flexen. The younger Flexen invited Bailey to his house in PGA Village where the two played ping pong, which is often a pastime for baseball players. Bailey was the champion ping pong player among baseball players at Indian River.
“I knew I was good at ping pong and I was talking trash to him,” Bailey said. “We get to playing and I realize within three or four volleys that I didn’t belong at the same table. Every time he hit it, the ball spun about a foot to the side. And it was fast! I swung and whiffed. I knew I was playing against a man who played a ping pong I don’t know.”
Bailey has spent some time with Flexen playing cards and golf as well as being humbled in table tennis.
“Chris is a very, very smart man,” Bailey said. “He could probably do well in any field he wanted to go into. He’s responsible. He lives a clean, organized life. He says things and makes sense, and he listens when people talk. That will take him a long way in the major leagues.”