By Kirby Arnold
Endy Chavez, who was the Mariners’ left fielder in 2009 before he suffered a terrible knee injury in a collision with former M’s shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, is back on the field again as a non-roster invitee with the Rangers. And former Mariners pitcher Brett Tomko is on the comeback trail himself after a 2009 injury that left him with nerve damage in his right arm.
Chavez says the knee feels pretty good and he believes he can become the same type player he was before the injury, a guy who relies on his speed to make things happen. insert Here’s my story on Chavez that ran in this morning’s Herald sports section.
Two things struck me in my talk with Chavez. First, he definitely believes in himself (who wouldn’t after pushing himself through nearly two years of rehab?). Second, he retains a vivid memory of the night he was hurt and remains surprised that Betancourt put himself in a position for such a collision on a fly to shallow left field.
“I always know where my teammates are at,” Chavez said. “In that specific fly ball, I was confident that nobody was going to be there. I wasn’t looking for Yuniesky. He surprised me when I saw him there. In another case, that’s not going to happen.”
As for Tomko, he’s pitching with more hope than he’s had since he threw a pitch late in 2009 and felt a pop in his right arm. He’d suffered a pulled muscle in his shoulder and it pinched a nerve at the top of his biceps muscle.
What followed over the next year, Tomko said, “was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.” Within a week of the injury, he said the biceps muscle seemed to have disappeared.
“It’s like it deflated,” said Tomko, who’s now 37. “There wasn’t anything there. I was in a sling for 3 ½ months. Last April, I couldn’t lift a two-pound weight, the nerve was so damaged.”
He lost feeling in the arm nearly up to the shoulder. It returned as the nerve healed, although the progress was slow.
“They told me I’d get my feeling back down the arm an inch a week,” he said. “That’s how it was. I could pretty much calculate how long it would be before I had feeling back in the entire arm.”
The worst came last season after he signed with the A’s and began his comeback pitching Class A games.
“I went to Stockton throwing only 82, 83 mph, and those A-ball kids were pounding me,” Tomko said. “I spent a lot of time in Stockton thinking, ‘I’m throwing only 82 mph. What am I doing here? Am I doing the right thing? Should I shut it down?’”
He and his wife had twin sons approaching their first birthday, and that tugged at Tomko. But so did the game, and he didn’t want to give it up without exhausting every bit of hope that he could throw a 90 mph fastball.
So Tomko decided to keep pushing, and if no big-league organization showed an interest, he would play on an independent team.
“If I had to go to independent ball, I was going to do it,” he said.
Eventually, pitches in the low 80 mph range improved to mid-80s, and Tomko says he’s hitting 90 again. When he pitched an inning against the Mariners on Tuesday, the results weren’t great – throwing mostly offspeed pitches, he allowed two hits, a walk and a run.
But he was back on the mound facing major league hitters, and that’s the important part now.
“It has been an eye-opening experience,” Tomko said. “You realize how fragile your place in this game is. You also realize how much you love this game, how much you love the competition.”