"I lost it," Mulder said. "When he started crying a little bit, I did, too. It was tough."
Mulder didn't seek a comeback. He was perfectly content with retirement; the knowledge that his shoulder wouldn't let him pitch gave him that comfort. But then he started to feel really good again, and he kept getting better, passing every excruciating test he put himself through, and he started to think this whole comeback thing could actually happen.
The fact that it ended with a lower-body injury -- suffered during a light Saturday morning agility drill, minutes before he would throw his first bullpen session in front of Angels coaches -- makes this potential exit from the game a lot tougher than the first one.
"If it would've been an elbow, a shoulder, something happened, all right -- 'Hey, I'm out, see ya. Thanks for the opportunity,'" Mulder said on Sunday morning, while sporting a protective boot on his left foot. "But to have this happen, it makes it doubly as hard."
Mulder didn't necessarily rule out a return, though. He'll know a lot more when he meets with the doctor who will perform his surgery on Monday. But rehab will be somewhere between five and eight months, which means the earliest he can come back is 2015.
Asked if he'd like to pitch again, the 36-year-old left-hander said: "I'd love to say yes, but I don't know. I have to wait and see what the doctors say -- see what the process is of how healthy I can get it, how good it feels."
The Angels signed Mulder to a Minor League contract on Jan. 1, an incentive-laden deal that would pay him anywhere between $1 and $6 million if he cracked the Major League roster. They weren't counting on him, with 22-year-old Tyler Skaggs the favorite to win the fifth spot of the rotation, but they were definitely intrigued, and they couldn't wait to see him throw on Saturday.
"It's just awful," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "This guy worked so hard. He was legitimately throwing the ball close to where he was in his prime. We were really excited about it. I hope he's not going to give up. It's an incredible setback, it's tough, but he was too close to quit on it. Hopefully, after he gets the surgery behind him, he can start again to make that comeback."
Mulder was the No. 2 overall Draft pick in 1998, a runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award in 2001 and one of the game's premier left-handers for a five-year stretch (2001-05), averaging 18 wins per season with a 3.65 ERA. Then his shoulder went awry, and he had two rotator-cuff surgeries, limiting him to 12 2/3 innings from 2007-08 and forcing him to retire at the tender age of 31.
He called the last day of the 2008 season "one of the best days ever, because I didn't have to go to the field the next day and work for nothing."
Mulder's comeback this offseason -- starting with that October night when he mimicked Paco Rodriguez's delivery, to when he impressed scouts with a mid-November throwing session, to when he pushed himself to new limits with a couple of 100-pitch simulated games in January -- was uplifting because his arm felt better than it had in a long time.
"I can't describe it to you guys how excited I was," Mulder said, "because I knew how good it was, I knew how I was doing and how I could help this team."
Then, on the second day of Spring Training, he lightly backpedaled to one cone, stopped, got ready to jog to the other a few feet away, "heard a loud pop" and collapsed to the ground. Mulder initially thought the heel popped off his spikes, so he stood up, lifted his left foot, and when he put it back down, "it kind of felt like the ball of my foot wasn't attached to my foot."
As head athletic trainer Adam Nevala told him: "Sometimes it's just the perfect angle and that perfect amount of pressure that does it."
"I've never hurt anything below my back my entire life," Mulder said. "All the basketball as a kid or in high school, I never sprained an ankle. I never hurt a lower body part. That's why I didn't even realize how it happened."
Shortly after news broke, Mulder's phone wouldn't stop buzzing with supportive text messages and phone calls from coaches and players around the league, all of whom were touched by his heart-warming comeback story.
"I just had to put it on silent, because I couldn't talk about it," Mulder said. "It was hard."
Mulder will have the surgery near his Scottsdale, Ariz., home and then weigh his options. He could return to ESPN, where he was previously working as an analyst, and he's open to coming around Angels camp from time to time to mentor some of the younger pitchers.
"I tell a lot of young guys to take advantage of these opportunities, because you can throw one pitch and be done. That's part of the sport, any sport. It can be taken away from you in a heartbeat. It just sucks that it's happened again like this."