Venters no stranger to long road to recovery

Rays reliever in final stages of rehab from third Tommy John surgery

Venters no stranger to long road to recovery

TAMPA, Fla. -- It was as though no one in the ballpark had any idea who he was or what he'd been through. There were no audible cheers when the public-address announcer said, "No. 26, Jonny Venters."

Venters was a baseball player of another generation. One whose name didn't disrupt the kids scurrying around the stands at George M. Steinbrenner Field or the lines of people waiting to get a cold beer on a 90-degree evening.

It was the first time in four years that Venters heard his name called on his quick jog to the mound. He'd spent six innings pacing around the Charlotte Stone Crabs' bullpen, stretching his arm, watching a blowout game. Six innings to compound a four-year wait. A 1,412-day wait. Venters had been through two Tommy John surgeries, numerous setbacks, sulking and uncertainty.

Even if the name that was once synonymous with an MLB All-Star and an elite Atlanta Braves reliever didn't carry that luster with the 3,498 people in Tampa on June 4, Venters' appearance was the most tangible step to getting back to the big leagues.

"I don't, in any way, feel bad for myself," Venters said. "I've been fortunate enough to hang around for this long. If I get to play any longer, it's just icing on the cake."

The 31-year-old pitched a scoreless inning. Venters walked two batters and struck out one, with his fastball sitting at around 93 mph. He continuously lamented about how poorly he had pitched, but that was by the standards of a man who has a career 2.23 ERA. A man who led the Majors in appearances in 2011, when he was an All-Star. A man who helped formed the best 1-2 bullpen punch in baseball with Craig Kimbrel. A man who has seen the highest of highs, and is trying to taste that again.

About six months after his third Tommy John surgery, Venters signed a two-year Minor League deal with the Rays. They knew he would spend 2015 rehabbing, with the hope that he could make it back to the Majors in 2016.

The loose plan is for Venters to have five appearances with Class A Advanced Charlotte, before he's promoted to Triple-A Durham. He'll need to show Major League-level pitching ability and be able to go on back-to-back days before he's called up to The Show.

"It shows a lot about who he is," said Kimbrel, now the Red Sox's closer. "He has some of the nastiest pitches, pure stuff in the game. … He's giving everything he's got. It's special to be able to play this game, and he feels like he can still do it."

Venters underwent his first Tommy John surgery in 2005, long before he ever became elite. After he went on the disabled list in July 2012, he thought he could rehab his way back. But Venters never felt good in his bullpen sessions, which prompted surgery in May 2013. In his first bullpen session rehabbing from that injury, his arm felt sore and he barely hit 70 mph. Venters knew when he went to see Dr. James Andrews again that it would mean a third surgery.

Venters' agent, B.B. Abbott, knew the Rays had a good training staff and a history of working guys back from injury. Tampa Bay made the initial contact to sign Venters. The Rays looked at his medical history and talked to his surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache. They evaluated Venters in person, and interviewed him on the phone. It resulted in a two-year free-agent deal in March 2015, showing their belief that Venters would beat the odds.

Venters' third rehab process wasn't much different than the first two. He took longer than normal rest and had extended weeks-long breaks whenever it was needed. Only one player, Jason Isringhausen, has ever come back from three Tommy John surgeries.

"Take away the physical side of what he's done; the mental side of what he's done -- going through three of these and not just three of them, two of them so close to each other," Rays athletic trainer Joe Benge said. "He's been to the pinnacle and he understands what it takes to get there."

Venters' family was in Tampa to watch his first game back -- his two toddler sons along with his wife, his sister, her family, his mother-in-law, his parents, his agent. It was a celebration. In 2010, his father, John, saw Venters make his Major League debut. Afterward, he went into the stadium bathroom and broke down crying. That day in 2010 was the most proud he'd been of his son until he saw him pitch on June 4.

They'd taken it all for granted, and four years away from it all makes that easy to realize. Venters walked off the mound following his scoreless inning, and every one of his temporary teammates came to shake his hand. The nerves he'd been harboring all evening had subsided. Four years after his last pitch, Venters was once again a professional pitcher.

"I didn't have any control over it," Venters said of the injuries. "I never really thought of quitting or shutting it down and going home. I felt like giving it another shot."

Sam Blum is a reporter for MLB.com based in St. Petersburg. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.