Major league debut. 25th birthday. Some 44,000 fans at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park to watch the Phillies face the hated Mets.

What could go wrong? David Wright.

Wright, the Mets third baseman and the first big-league hitter former Charleston Southern pitcher R.J. Swindle ever faced, took Swindle's seventh pitch deep for a home run.

"It was my notorious curveball," said Swindle, recalling his MLB debut on July 7, 2008. "I thought, 'Well, welcome to the big leagues.' "

The 6-3, 190-pound left-hander gave up four hits and two runs over three innings that day, and in two major league stints with the Phillies and Brewers has pitched in just nine games with a 12.71 ERA.

But four years after his MLB debut -- and nine seasons into his pro career -- the 28-year-old Swindle is working out at CSU, preparing to pitch this spring for his seventh organization, the world champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Also chasing big-league dreams are ex-CSU pitchers Tyler Thornburg, a top prospect for the Brewers, and Ali Williams, picked by the Royals last year. Three players, in three different stages of their pro careers: journeyman, prospect and raw talent.

The journeyman

Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, Brewers, Rays, Indians, Rays again, and Cardinals.

Those are the organizations Swindle has pitched for since leaving CSU as the Red Sox's 14th-round draft pick in 2004. It's been a grind of 13 minor league teams, 252 games and 493.2 innings over eight seasons, including two in independent leagues. With a baffling 50 mph curveball, Swindle is the polar opposite of former CSU star Bobby Parnell, a Mets reliever who can throw 100 mph smoke.

But at 28, with a wife and an 18-month-old daughter at home in Summerville, Swindle started to ponder the real world this fall, when a new offer was slow to come after he was released by the Rays.

"I was up at Charleston Southern meeting with some of my old deans and advisors," he said. "I was asking them, 'What do I do? I have my accounting degree, what do I do to join the real world?' It had been eight years since I thought about accounting."

Swindle was picked up by the Cardinals, and will go to camp this spring with an outside shot at sticking as a left-handed specialist. If he doesn't make the big club, he'll likely pitch at Triple-A Memphis.

"The drive is to make it and stick," said Swindle, who has pitched for his native Canada in the Olympics and World Cup. "I've had my cup of coffee, so to speak, but I didn't throw my best and didn't stick. As tough as it is to make it up there, it's tougher to stick.

"There's a dozen guys like me as opposed to the one guy who makes it and sticks. But that's why I keep at it. I don't want there to be any regrets."

The prospect

As a third-round pick by the Brewers out of CSU in 2010, pitcher Tyler Thornburg had high expectations for his first full season of pro ball.

But the 5-11, 185-pound right-hander surprised even himself, winning his first seven decisions at Class A Wisconsin.

Thornburg earned a spot in the midseason Futures Game for top prospects, and comparisons to MLB pitchers Tim Lincecum and Roy Oswalt. He was promoted to High-A Brevard County, finishing the season with a 10-6 record and a 2.48 ERA. He hopes to start this season in Class AA.

"I've been trying to put on some good weight in the offseason to try to be as explosive as possible," said Thornburg, who throws in the 90s and has a changeup that's been called the best in the Brewers' farm system. "And I've been trying to build some rotator cuff strength in my shoulder by doing a lot of swimming. I hope that will help me hold up this year."

Top prospects often jump from AA to the majors, so this year could be crucial for the 23-year-old Thornburg.

"My first full year was a huge step for me," he said. "I hope to make another big step this year. I have high goals for myself, and I want to accomplish everything."

The raw talent

Two years ago, Ali Williams was a backup third baseman at USC Salkehatchie, staring at limited duty behind starter Oliver Santos, who went on to be drafted by the Reds.

"It didn't look like I'd get to play much," said Williams. "And one day the coach asked me if I'd ever pitched."

A lanky 6-2 and 185 pounds, Williams popped 90 mph on the gun that first day.

"The coach said, 'Son, that's your ticket,' " Williams said.

After one season at CSU, he was picked in the 34th round by the Royals last season and is preparing for his first full season in the minors.

A stellar athlete -- he also played basketball at Crestwood High School in Sumter, and some thought he could have played for CSU -- Williams is the prototypical raw rookie with tons of potential. He was 1-1 with a 3.89 ERA in 13 games for the Royals' rookie team last year.

"I was so raw as a pitcher," said Williams, 22. "I needed a lot of help with mechanics and stuff. But they love my arm, and I think I turned a lot of heads."

While pitching in Surprise, Ariz., Williams got a lot of advice from big-league catcher Jason Kendall, who took him under his wing.

"That meant a lot," Williams said. "It wasn't just all about baseball, it was more about life and how to manage your money and your career. He told me a lot about just focusing on what you can control, and not worrying about the rest."

Good advice, no matter what stage of your career.


Charleston Southern has four pitchers in pro baseball, including Bobby Parnell of the New York Mets:

Pitcher Age Org. Last year

Bobby Parnell 27 Mets 4-6, 3.64 ERA for Mets

R.J. Swindle 28 Cardinals 2-0, 4.15 ERA for AAA Durham

Tyler Thornburg 23 Brewers 10-6, 2.57 ERA in Class A

Ali Williams 22 Royals 1-1, 3.89 ERA in rookie league