The journey to the big leagues is a grind. Getting there, suffering a career threatening injury and starting over challenges the strength of even the most conditioned mind. Collin Balester is prepared for that challenge. I’ll let him break it down.
I always considered myself a relatively healthy pitcher. When that belief went the way of Tommy John surgery, I was forced to re-evaluate everything in order to come out on the other side.
I was drafted in 2004 by the Montreal Expos and spent eight years with the combined Expos/Nationals organization. I was blessed to continue my career with the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Through my first nine seasons, I bounced between starting and relieving. As long as I got to pitch, I didn’t mind. In 2013, however, I started experiencing some discomfort in my elbow. It was the first time I had felt anything like it, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. Throughout April, I kept pitching, but the pain didn’t subside. Eventually, it worsened to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore.
I had no frame of reference for this; I was sick to my stomach, and the specter of Tommy John surgery loomed in my mind. The transition from going out to play every day to being on the DL with no clear plan for a return is a terrible one. In this case, my worst fears were confirmed, and I went under the knife on June 3rd, 2013. I had no idea what was in store for me, other than a very long year of rehab.
These days, people see Tommy John as a routine procedure. Because the success rate is so high, some people expect you to breeze through it and come back stronger and throwing harder. In order to be one of those success stories, it takes a year of hard work, determination and countless hours by yourself; not an easy path for someone used to being part of a team.
The first 4 months of rehab, I was fortunate to be surrounded by a great team of people from the Texas Rangers who were all devoted to helping me get right. I would spend 4-5 hours a day cranking, exercising, icing, doing movements and enduring a lot of pain. In September, I headed home, not knowing what the 2014 season would hold for me. I continued rehabbing for another 2 months at IMG Academy.
The next stage of my rehab was to begin throwing again. Since I was 5 years old, I’d grab a ball and chuck it without a second thought. After surgery, all I could think was “I hope my ligament doesn’t snap like a rubber band.” The physical pain wasn’t pleasant, but the mental obstacles presented the biggest challenge during my rehab.
In November, I signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I view it as a blessing from GOD that the Pirates were willing to take a chance on a guy 5 months removed from Tommy John. I reminded myself of two things every day, first, to thank GOD for this blessing, and two, to prove to the Pirates that they didn’t make a mistake in signing me.
The next 5-7 months were continual ups and downs. One day, I’d feel 100% and would paint the corners in my bullpens. The next, I’d feel about 10% and consider throwing left handed. It took 13 months from my surgery and countless throwing programs, bullpens, batting practices and sim games for me to make it back into a real game.
10 years after I started my career in the Gulf Coast League, I found myself back there. My road back had to go through rookie ball, the lowest level in professional baseball. The players on the team heckled me pretty good; I’d hear “You’re old enough to be my dad,” “Why are you here, you’re way too old,” and “I was in 4th grade when you got drafted.”
I was a good sport and took it all in stride. Let them laugh, I’d show them when I start carving up these 18 year olds. Little did I know that pitching in those first couple of games after Tommy John is like going to a sword fight with a thumb tack. I hadn’t pitched in game situations for over a year and my stuff wasn’t quite there yet. 1 1/3 innings, 10 hits and 10 runs later, my plan of carving up anyone went out the window.
I began to worry about whether I would ever come back. I honestly didn’t know how to pitch to these kids. The Pirates kept faith, however, and sent me to Bristol, VA to the Appalachian League. It’s still rookie ball, but instead of day games in the Florida sun, I’d be playing night games under the lights. Plus, I was ready to get as far away from the GCL as possible! I felt really positive about it.
So far, I’m only two outings into my tenure in Bristol. My stuff has gotten better each time out, and I’m beginning to see the light at the end of this very long tunnel. As I continue on this journey, I have learned so many things, not only about myself but also about what really matters in my life. Without Jesus, my family, friends, coaches and everyone else stood by me, this 13 month journey would have been much harder. Knowing that this is a new beginning to my career, I truly believe that this process has happened for a reason. I can honestly say that I have become a better person, player, teammate, husband, father and human because of this process. I also want to thank Gabe for giving me this platform to talk a little about my experiences.
I will end with this. Set a goal, and no matter the obstacles that arise, keep your eye on it and power towards it. Never give up; you will get there and your time will come.