As the college coaches began to matriculate down to the bullpen to observe his pre-game workout, Brennan Price wanted to give them something that would leave a lasting impression.
The 6-6 right-hander was going through his usual warmups in a bullpen on one of the auxillary fields at the Tampa Bay Rays’ practice facility in Port Charlotte, Fla. Price was priming for his start against a team from Houston at the WWBA Underclass World Championships in early October. He was already amped and the juices only heightened as the birddogs collected behind the catcher to see what he had.
Price reached back a little further than normal, looking to get that extra zip on his fastball. Instead, the only pop he came up with was a pitcher’s worst nightmare.
“My arm went stiff, then numb,” Price said. “I knew there was something wrong right away.”
After consultations with doctors and numerous MRIs, it was determined Price had shredded the ligament in his elbow and would require Tommy John surgery to repair the damage.
The news was startling.
“We were totally floored,” said Price’s mother, Kathy.
While her son pondered the idea of an extended period of inactivity and the forecast of missing his entire junior year at Middlesex High School, which by all indication was gearing up for a promising season, his mom, a former athletic trainer in the clinical field, diligently began researching respected doctors who specialized in Tommy John surgery as candidates to perform the procedure. She found Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the team physician for the Cincinnati Reds, who, over the last 17 years, performed over 1,000 such surgeries.
“He’s probably in the top three in the country doing this,” Kathy said of Kremchek’s impeccable reputation. “Once we spoke to him, Brennan got a lot more hope.”
Off they went, Brennan, Kathy and father Ray, on a nine-hour drive to Cincinnati, where Kremchek performed the surgery in under an hour despite the revelation that Brennan was among the 14 percent of the entire population of the world, according to Kathy, that doesn’t have the particular ligament in his wrist that is generally used to replace the damaged one in his elbow.
As a result, Kremchek had to remove the tendon from Brennan’s left hamstring as an alternative, meaning the 16-year-old would have the added bonus of rehabbing his leg along with his elbow post-op.
“This guy is a machine,” Kathy Price said of Kremchek. “They drilled three holes in the bone and weaved it through. But, because they used the tendon, it delays the recovery because the tendon has to take on properties of the ligament.”
Note, that will be the one and only time you see the word “delay” in this story, because nothing regarding the rehabilitation is designed other than to increase the time of recovery and Price would have it no other way.
While Price attended off-season team functions, he only sat and watched while teammates casually gathered to hit at batting cages. Even though his progression had him getting healthy ahead of schedule, the inability to actually participate only added to his despair.
“I was upset after the surgery,” he said. “It was rough to sit there and not be able to do anything. That was not fun.”
Yet, Price plugged away, diligently abiding by the structured plan to get him back out on the diamond. And, gradually, he saw the fruits of his labor begin to take shape.
When Middlesex convened for its first official team practice on March 2, Price was there only as a spectator. But, 10 days later, he was back in the mix, remaining true to his prescribed routine.
“It’s a very structured program,” Middlesex coach Mike O’Donnell said. “We were throwing from 40 feet away, just lobbing it. We got into it...every other day, throwing. Then, he started hitting, first on a tee, then soft toss.”
As each day past, more things were incorporated into the routine. Fielding grounders at first base, his natural position and the one he seems most intent on concentrating on right now, but still not throwing, except under the controlled formula instituted by Kremchek.
Price began to take batting practice with the rest of the team. And, those shorts toss increasingly got longer, expanding to 120 feet as the recovery excelled.
“He’s probably a month ahead of schedule,” Kathy Price noted.
All the hard work, both to overcome the deep-seeded concerns about his playing future on top of the sweat spilled by the seemingly-endless effort to get healthy, was paying off.
So fast, in fact, that Price made a triumphant and emotional return on April 12, when he drew a walk in his first at bat of the season against New Brunswick.
“I cried,” Kathy recalled as she watched her son step into the batter’s box. “Everyone around me was crying. That moment, I was so thrilled for him.”
“I was so excited,” Brennan added. “I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking.”
Things have only gone up from there. The next day, Price registered his first hit; a hard single up the middle. He is batting .500 (3-for-6) in limited action but will get a full clearance to resume all baseball activities on May 11.
For the time being, Price has no plans to jump back into pitching when he’s given the green light to go full speed.
“I look at myself as a first baseman who can pitch,” he said. “But, I don’t see myself pitching that much. I’m just really happy to be back earlier than expected. Originally, I wasn’t going to start fielding until maybe June. I wasn’t even supposed to be hitting right now.”
Anyone close with Price isn’t surprised by his rapid rate of recovery.
“His story is amazing,” said O’Donnell, whose Bluejays are off to a blazing 11-0 start and are currently ranked ninth in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15 power rankings. “He stuck to this aggressive rehab and worked his butt off.”
As for trying to impress any college recruiters from here on out, Price won’t have to worry about that anymore. What he showed, in terms of the dedication displayed just to get this far this fast, will be tough to top when it comes to revealing his true character and passion for his craft.
The only thing he needs to reach back for these days is his back, which can proudly and deservedly pat for an inspiring job well done.
Gregg Lerner covers baseball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner