Seven months ago, those same onlookers watched as the southpaw made fools out of hitters at the Class A level in Stockton, Calif., about 75 miles from Oakland, where front-office people used to dream of the day Doolittle would dazzle as a power-hitting Major League infielder.
Five months ago, those front-office folks pulled the trigger, calling up Doolittle nearly five years to the day after snagging him in the first-round as the 41st overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. Their first baseman was now a pitcher, and it's in that role the 26-year-old Doolittle has found much comfort and success. And plenty of gratitude.
"I feel like, in a short time, I've accomplished quite a bit," Doolittle said by phone this week. "I know I still have a lot to learn, but it just feels like this is what I was supposed to do, and I couldn't be more thankful for the way things turned out."
It's hard to find a better story in baseball this year than the one Doolittle lived, one that will likely be reflected upon when he sits down for a Thanksgiving meal with four family members in his offseason home in Phoenix -- the spread he deems a team effort.
"I don't know if I can handle the kind of pressure of cooking for everyone," Doolittle said, "but together we should have it covered."
The next day, Doolittle will resume a normal offseason routine he hasn't enjoyed since 2008, a triumph of sorts for the pitcher, whose career was disrupted by knee injuries much of the previous three seasons.
It was in the summer of 2011 when Doolittle, still manning first base at the time, made his way to Triple-A Sacramento, convinced that the stop would be a short one before he was back on the road to Oakland to play for the A's. Yet his body, again, had other plans, and a tendon problem in his right wrist stalled such hopes -- until a conversation in a golf cart with Keith Lieppman, the club's director of player personnel, revived them.
"He suggested I start throwing," Doolittle said. "It was more for something to do to keep me sane and give me something else to do besides the exercises I had to do for rehab. He basically said, 'We'll get the wheels turning on this just in case something happens down the road in this process. They may tell you that you need wrist surgery.'"
That's exactly the news Doolittle received that August, when he was informed an eight-month recovery process would follow the procedure. His other option was to rest the wrist through the remainder of the year and begin work again in Spring Training to test it out in game action.
"It was going to be really tough for me, mentally, going through another offseason doing rehab instead of trying to get ready for the next season," he said. "I wondered if it was time to say, 'Enough's enough and it's just not meant to be.' But it got to the point where I didn't want to go out on the training table, and I also didn't want to leave any stone unturned. If I tried pitching and it didn't work or, God forbid, I got hurt doing that too, I could look back 20, 30 years from now and say I tried everything I could."
Doolittle had a pretty good idea of what he was doing, having pitched in college at the University of Virginia. Yet this was the first time he was able to truly commit himself to the art, and though knowing that he could probably get by exclusively on his fastball, he figured more time in the Minors was needed to develop secondary pitches and something that resembled a pickoff move.
He was right. But his timetable was off by about a year.
Doolittle instead completed a two-month surge through three levels of the A's Minor League system, compiling 48 strikeouts in 25 innings along the way, before getting the call to Oakland on June 4. One day later, he made his debut, fanning three of the four Rangers batters he faced.
"I surprised the hell out of myself that night and, at the same time, proved to myself that I belonged at this level and I could compete and have success there," he said. "That's a night I obviously won't ever forget."
Nor will he ever erase the memory of July 21, of being summoned out of an otherwise fatigued bullpen for a save against the Yankees. Doolittle quickly allowed a leadoff single to Alex Rodriguez, then the potential go-ahead run, Robinson Cano, stepped to the plate.
Doolittle struck out Cano. Mark Teixeira, too, for out No. 2. And, finally, Andruw Jones also surrendered to the southpaw, going down on strikes, as Doolittle and Oakland celebrated a 2-1 victory.
It was one of 94 the A's compiled en route to securing the American League West title on the final day of a remarkable season that ultimately ended with a Game 5 loss to the Tigers in the AL Division Series. Doolittle, who made three postseason appearances, exited the campaign as the club's top left-handed setup man.
"At this point last year I had maybe a handful of outings under my belt, all in instructional league," Doolittle said. "I was feeling my way through the offseason with my workouts, and to think back on how everything unraveled from there is kind of surreal. Now I want to see what I can do with a full offseason, because I realize how special and how rare what I did was last year, and if I can help myself out a little bit by doing some extra stuff in the offseason, I'd like to see what I can do as an encore."
He has plenty cheerleaders awaiting one, and one of his biggest happens to be his roommate -- and his brother. Ryan Doolittle, also a pitcher in the A's organization, is stationed with his older brother in Phoenix while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Sean can tell him a thing or two about comeback stories.