(Staff writer Carroll Rogers is filling in for David O’Brien this week.)
It’s a blustery, cold Monday in Atlanta, and do you know where your favorite jack-of-all pitching trades is, four months into his rehab from “Tommy John” surgery? In shorts and gray T-shirt, Kris Medlen was a blur of activity in the upstairs romper room of the Gwinnett Sports Rehab center.
Just got back from visiting with the young right-hander who is less than a week away now from picking up a baseball for the first time since his Aug. 18 surgery. He was cleared to start doing some light throwing last week by Dr. James Andrews, but the renowned surgeon wanted him to take two weeks working with a medicine ball indoors first before he starts “rainbow” tossing with a baseball next week.
What that looks like is Medlen standing about 15-20 feet in front of a mini-trampoline, propped up at an angle. He starts by throwing a 10-12 pound medicine ball off the trampoline two-handed, like he’s making a pass over a defender in basketball. And conveniently enough, the ball comes right back to him, like a kid throwing against the side of the house, when all the neighbor kids have gone home. (But wait, do kids play outside anymore?)
I know how much the ball weighed because I picked it up, wanting to see what it felt like. It looked like a basketball, the way he was throwing it nice and easy. But let’s just say, Braves physical therapist Lloyd Van Pamelen saw me reach for it and told me to be careful. He must have had visions of me throwing out my back.
The ball was heavy. There’s a reason pro athletes are pro athletes. They can do things with grace and ease that make the rest of us huff and puff, even from 15 feet, with nobody but me watching, and a few snow flurries blowing around outside the window.
Eventually after a series of exercises at various points and positions around the room, Medlen was back to that spot, throwing against the trampoline, with a smaller medicine ball. This one was about two pounds and a little bigger than a softball. And he was throwing from more of a baseball position. The stretch.
He’s still six months from being able to pitch in a game, at best, but for the first time in four months he’s starting to look like a pitcher again. And for the squirmy, admittedly-ADD kid, it’s a good thing.
“The biggest hurdle, for me, is almost over,” Medlen said. “Not being able to do what I’ve been doing all my life, I’m almost over with that.”
Medlen will start “rainbow” tossing next week and should be throwing what they called structured bullpens by spring training. He’s on schedule to come back in 12 months, which would put him back in late August or September.
After finishing more than two hours of rehab, Medlen was getting ready to go meet his new trainer to start his normal, un-arm-related workout. It was his first normal workout, and he was excited.
I’ll leave it at that for now, and tell you to be on the lookout for a story about Medlen early next week. Tease, tease, tease.
Blasts from the past
I ran into some old familiar faces at the rehab center Monday morning. Our old friend Buddy Carlyle was there working out with Lloyd and preparing for the upcoming season. After spending last season in Japan, Carlyle signed a minor league contract with the Yankees.
If you know Buddy, you wish him well. He’s a great guy who gave us a really nice, from outta-nowhere story for a few years for the Braves. He had an uphill climb in 2009, when he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. He said he’s doing well now with that, he and his family still live in Peachtree City, and he’s excited about his opportunity with the Yankees in 2010.
Another old face we bumped into was Nick Green, another former Brave, and a local product of Duluth High, who gave us some great stories of his own with the Braves in 2005.
He also gave the Braves a few nightmares in 2009 with the Red Sox as you recall (walk-off home run vs. the Braves, June 21 at Fenway), but he’s been out of the picture, really, since then. After playing 103 games for the Red Sox in 2009, he played in only 14 games in the majors last year bouncing around with the Dodgers and Blue Jays Triple-A teams. He said he was playing with significant pain in both shoulders, requiring him to take anti-inflammatory medication just to get through.
Green has had arthroscopic surgery on both his shoulders, which is why he was doing rehab. He’s a free agent, feeling much better, and hoping to latch on with somebody heading into spring training.
Kawakami never had a chance
As a favor to the Braves clubhouse guys, I didn’t say anything about this for the last couple of years because they didn’t want to draw Kenshin Kawakami’s attention to it, but now that his tenure as a Brave is likely over, I feel like it’s safe to say – the guy had no chance to succeed with the Braves because he was sitting in a hexed locker!!
A few years back, I wrote about his locker, the locker, a dangerous corner spot at the edge of the “keyhole” shape in the Braves clubhouse, one locker next to where Greg Maddux used to sit. I noticed year after year, there was always somebody new in that locker, that anybody who sat in it didn’t make it back the next season, whether it was Wally Joyner, Ken Caminiti, Bret Boone. I asked the clubbies about it back in 2003, and it was something they’d taken note of for years.
Technically, Kawakami bucked the trend, in that he signed a three-year deal and was sitting in that locker for his second consecutive year last season. But the way things went for him, do we really think the hex was broken? The guy went 1-10 (with a 5.15 ERA) and wound up pitching in Triple-A Gwinnett to try to revive his career.
(The Braves outrighted Kawakami to Double-A Mississippi and are still hoping to get a taker for him on the trade market, although what were initially thought to be possibilities with the Pirates and Orioles haven’t materialized.)
So what do you do? It’s a prime spot in the clubhouse. When the rosters get full, younger guys are already sitting in the outer areas, not even in the circular part. My solution? Put a guy in that locker who has signed a one-year deal and isn’t really in position to stay past that anyway. Why tempt fate?
For those who weren’t around in 2003, or were 7 years old, here are excerpts from that story I wrote….Man, time flies.
Here sat Jeff Blauser, Braves veteran shortstop, team leader and clubhouse prankster, who had the pick of lockers when the Braves moved to Turner Field in 1997. It was a prime choice, a corner spot, spacious and roomy, next to the locker that Cy Young winner Greg Maddux would claim soon after.
But Blauser wouldn’t last a year here, and nobody has since.
Not Dennis Martinez, Bret Boone or Wally Joyner. Not Chris Seelbach, Joe Nelson, Ken Caminiti or Damian Moss. Eight ballplayers have dressed here in six years, and then they’ve packed, leaving Robert Fick to face the demons of a clubhouse closet Maddux characterizes as “a one-year rental.”
“It’s just odd because it’s a good locker, not a middle locker, ” Braves clubhouse attendant Chris Van Zant said. “Everybody wants a corner locker. There’s only one person to the side of you. You get more space, more privacy. Sheff has one, Glav had one, now Smoltz does. Javy. It’s all veterans. Veterans get first choice.”
Sports jinxes so often are so public and so obvious — magazine covers, preseason polls. But until now, this locker quandary has remained private, and powerful.
Like the line of drummers to mysteriously die off in director Rob Reiner’s comedy “Spinal Tap,” baseball players have come to this space to fade out, ship out, or spontaneously combust.
Take Moss, for instance. He moved into the locker last year, having recovered from a bizarre circulation problem. He won 12 games as a rookie.
“We were all excited he had a great year and beat the jinx, ” Van Zant said.
But after the season, on Dec. 17, he was traded to the San Francisco Giants.
Seelbach was once fortunate enough after being struck in the head by a line drive to avoid brain surgery. But he lasted only a month in the locker in 2001. He finished his career with the Nippon Ham-Fighters in Japan.
The next guy lasted only a week. Right-hander Joe Nelson spent the first week of his major league call-up on the road, and his second sitting in the locker at Turner Field with an ice pack on his shoulder. He went on the disabled list with tendinitis after two outings, two innings, and a 36.00 ERA.
Caminiti arrived in the summer of 2001 a Gold Glove third baseman. He committed six errors in a 33-game experiment at first base, hit .222 and got cut from the postseason roster after the division series. His first publicized stop after that was a Houston hotel room, where was busted for crack cocaine possession.
When the Braves broke camp in the spring, Fick was warned by both Maddux and the clubbies that the locker he’d chosen was jinxed. But he didn’t buy it.
“I’m not superstitious, ” Fick says with a shrug. “I’m here for a while. I won’t let them get rid of me.”
I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that Fick was released in November of 2003…..I’ve lost track of who all sat in the locker in the years between this story until now, but that’s probably because they weren’t there long. But seeing Kawakami there reminded me of it. Tell me I’m wrong.
This and that
Now that the winter meetings are over, and the Braves have added George Sherrill and Scott Linebrink to their bullpen, and resigned Eric Hinske for the bench, it’s not like we’re rolling in activity at the moment. There are things to key an eye on – whether the Braves can trade Kawakami, whether they’ll trade for a backup center fielder, whether they’ll reach agreement with Dan Uggla on a contract extension (talks have begun).
I did talk to Eric O’Flaherty today and he’s doing great, completely recovered from his post-mono problems. But I got going too much on other stuff, so I’m going to post that separately. Click on it.
Meantime, you’re stuck with me through the week while DOB is soaking up all the food and music he can handle in New Orleans. I’m here at home, left to hold down the fort…and clean up the mess I’ve made of my Christmas tree. Apparently it was windy last night, even inside my condo, because I woke up to the damn tree toppled over.
I hadn’t decorated it yet, though. See, sometimes it pays to procrastinate.
Keep me company. And happy holidays to you.