(Victor Valley)–As appeared in Guidepost
The lights were on at Miami’s Land Shark Stadium that night in August 2009. Fans decked out in Florida Marlins hats and jerseys-and umbrellas-filled the seats and clogged the aisles. Organ music, the kind you hear only at baseball games and carnivals, blared. It was 7 p.m., time for the scheduled game between the Marlins and my Atlanta Braves team to begin. Time for me to head to the bullpen and warm up-if only the rain would stop. I was the Braves’ starting pitcher tonight. I have to admit, I was a little nervous. Well, more than a little. The rain delay didn’t make things any easier. I’d pitched 10 years in the big leagues, most of them with the Oakland A’s. I had led the American League in wins in 2000 and twice been an All-Star. But tonight I felt like I was starting over. I hadn’t played baseball in more than a year. Thirteen months earlier, in July 2008, I’d thrown a pitch off this same mound and felt something grab in my elbow. I tried to pitch through the pain. But by the sixth inning, there was no getting around it. My fastball, which I normally throw at 91 or 92 miles per hour, had dropped to 81. “I think I tore a muscle,” I told a coach when I went back to the dugout. I wasn’t all that worried. A torn muscle is bad but not catastrophic. I figured I’d miss anywhere from two to six weeks, tops. But the injury turned out to be way worse. I needed elbow ligament replacement surgery. At best, the procedure would cost me a year. And if it didn’t take, that would mean something I could hardly bring myself to think about: the end of my career. I loved the game, loved it with all my heart. Almost every night of these last 13 months, it seemed, I’d said, “I’m not ready to retire. I’m not done yet.” I guess you could call it part promise to myself, part prayer to God. Tonight, my first game back after surgery and a year of rehab, would tell me whether my prayer had been answered. If the rain ever let up, that is. “Could be three or four hours before we start, if we play at all,” said a coach. In the locker room, some of my teammates watched TV. Others played video games or talked on their cell phones. A few dozed. I wished I could relax. I called my wife, Kim, who was waiting out the rain delay in the Braves’ family room. I didn’t have to tell her how anxious I was. She knew. “Remember how you’ve gotten here, how far you’ve come,” Kim said. “All you can do now is trust in God.” It wasn’t the first time Kim had reminded me of that. “See you after the game,” she said. We hung up. I flexed my elbow. It wasn’t 100 percent, but it felt okay. I sat back in my clubhouse chair and let my mind drift. How far I’d come… Making it in this game hadn’t been easy for me. At every level I’d had to scrap to prove myself among the big guys. And that’s what baseball players, especially the ones who have any hope of a major-league career, tend to be-big, strapping guys. God’s given me many blessings, but it was obvious way back in high school in Phenix City, Alabama, that intimidating size wasn’t one of them. Spring of sophomore year, I was 5-foot-10, maybe 125 pounds. One day, a coach from a junior college in Georgia came to recruit one of our seniors. “You ought to look at Hudson too,” my coach said. I pitched my heart out and got the win. Afterward, my coach went up to the JC coach and asked, “What did you think of Hudson?” The JC coach said, “He looks like he’s got pretty good stuff, but he’s too small to play at the college level.” It was the same thing I’d hear time and again from other coaches and scouts. Not one major college recruited me, even though I went 12-1 over my high school career and pitched our school to the state championship. I ended up playing for Chattahoochee Valley, our local community college. Maybe I was bullheaded, but I truly believed that if just one coach, one scout, gave me a chance, I’d show them what I was made of. So I kept plugging away. I’d never be big, but I could be the smartest, toughest competitor out there. I showed up early to practice, stayed late. Worked out like crazy. Studied pitching, developed a variety of pitches for my arsenal. Led Chattahoochee Valley to the state championship. That’s when I got the call I’d dreamed of. “Tim, we want you to pitch for Auburn,” Tigers coach Hal Baird said, and offered me a scholarship. He never mentioned my size or lack thereof. Things went even better than I could have dreamed after that. I met Kim at Auburn. Went 15-2 my senior season and was named college baseball’s 1997 Player of the Year. The A’s drafted me. By 1999 I was in the big leagues. The next year I made the All-Star team. I was on my way. Still, I never had the sense that I could relax. For the next nine years I competed against power pitchers and Bunyanesque sluggers a head taller and 60 pounds heavier than me. I pumped myself up for every inning I pitched, every pitch I threw, but even I didn’t realize how much until one night when I saw a replay on TV. I had just struck out Boston’s All-Star shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, to end an inning. I stared at him as I walked off the mound, as if to say, “You can’t beat me.”
Garciaparra got ticked off and shouted something at me. My stare turned into a glare-cold, hard, almost menacing. Watching the replay, I couldn’t believe that was me. I’m normally a laid-back guy. I guess it was like I’d tried to explain to reporters, “I know I weigh a 160 pounds, but when I’m out there on the mound I feel like I’m 220.” Being tough and scrappy was what got me here. It was as much will as skill. Then came the devastating elbow injury in July 2008. With ligament replacement surgery, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to come back. I’d played 10 years in the big leagues, pitched in the postseason, made more than enough for my family to live on. “That’s more than a lot of guys ever get,” Kim reminded me. I knew that, and I was grateful. But this wasn’t how I wanted to go out. I threw myself into rehab, worked as hard in the gym as I would have on the field. I can’t tell you how much I missed being in the dugout, being in the locker room. It ate me up, not being able to compete and help my team win. One night near the end of the 2008 season, we played the first-place Phillies, in Philadelphia. Well, my teammates played. I watched from home. We lost the game, the fourth straight time they’d beat us. I flicked off the TV. If only I could have pitched tonight, I thought. I carefully flexed my elbow. It wasn’t coming around like I thought it would. My surgeon had warned me there’d be days like this, that every rehab had its peaks and valleys. But this particular valley had lasted too long. I went to the bedroom. Kim was still up. “I don’t know what more I can do to strengthen my arm,” I said, “but it just doesn’t feel like it’s getting better.” “Maybe this isn’t about what you can do but about what God can do,” Kim said. “Keep working as hard as you can and leave the rest in his hands.” All my years in baseball I’d willed myself to win-whether it was a spot in the rotation, a matchup with a great hitter, a game my team needed to make the playoffs. Could it be that what needed strengthening wasn’t so much my arm as my faith? Even as I asked myself that, I felt a lightness that told me Kim was right. Okay, God, your will, not mine. Now I was back with the Braves, my elbow surgically repaired, rehabbed, ready to go again. But did I still have what it took to get batters out? There was only one way to find out.
The rain finally let up. I strode to the mound a little after 10 p.m.-a three-hour delay. The first Marlins batter stepped to the plate. I took a deep breath and threw. The batter hit a double to deep right centerfield. The next man doubled too. Men on second and third. Make good pitches, I urged myself. I struck out the next batter. But the man after that singled. Two runs scored. I backed off the pitching rubber, took another deep breath. Do all you can and leave the rest to God, I heard Kim say again. I threw a sinker to the following batter, and he grounded into a double play. Inning over. The jitters went away after that. I threw 4¹/³ more innings and didn’t allow another run. We won, 4-3, my first victory in more than a year. After the congratulations from my teammates and manager, after the TV and newspaper interviews, I left the clubhouse. I found Kim and gave her the biggest hug. I threw well the rest of the 2009 season. Then in 2010 I went 17-9, my best record in nine years. I was named Comeback Player of the Year. That was an honor. But to me, my real comeback was that night early in my rehab when I listened to my wife and finally trusted everything to a will greater than my own. Permalink: http://www.guideposts.org/inspirational-stories/baseball-players-miraculous-comeback