Note: Since 2012, I sent out a weekly update to a newsletter list of family, friends and many clients called You’re My Boy, Blew. It was a way for me to privately share what was going on in my career without excluding or forgetting people. This was the last installment, Volume 60.
My heavy eyelids drew open as the hotel TV came into focus. I snaked my right arm out from beneath the comforter and reached for my phone. A bolt of pain shot down the front of my arm. Where was my bottle of Aleve, I wondered?
I got up and sauntered over to the bathroom. As I reached for my toothbrush, someone stuck a knife in the front of my shoulder, and rudely twisted it as I brushed my teeth. I got in the shower, and decided it best that I shampoo my hair with my left arm, lest the assailant come back.
It was opening day, which meant that I was “up” – we all were. Not “up” in the sense of awake, but “up” in the sense that I was an available bullpen pitcher. Everyone is up on opening day, because everyone is fresh and rested from a long offseason. I wasn’t feeling fresh, but it was no one’s business but my own.
I’d been hiding my pain since last September, when I limped to the finish line of the best season of my career. Warming up in those last three weeks, was a clinic in mind over matter – my mind said that the way my shoulder and elbow felt…it didn’t matter. My shoulder hurt on every throw, and my elbow had been high on the pain scale since June. Hurt means you pitch; injured means you’re at home, and I had had enough of sitting at home years ago.
As luck would have it, in the 7th inning, I got my wish – I’d get to test her out. “Blewett’s in the game, Coach” – our pitching coach radioed the bullpen, referring to us collectively as “Coach.” We were up 4-0 and I jogged in as one of the back-end guys.
Pop up. Pop up. Punch out.
I was nervous – it was opening day playing for a new team – The Long Island Ducks – and I wanted to get off to a good start. I had an MLB team interested in me, and all I had to do was do what I had already done. I did just that, and started 2016 with a quick, 1-2-3 inning. It was underway. What did that earn me?
I pitched the next game. And three of the first four. And four of the first six. By the sixth game, I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t make it 134 more games like that.
No less than 6 times in my career, my arm hurt so much warming up to enter a game that I made peace with my career possibly ending that night. I made that jog from the bullpen to the game mound, telling myself that this very well could be it, and that I was going to throw every pitch with 100% of me, in case one of them was truly my last pitch. Two of those times, I walked off the mound for the last time that season. The other times, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and thanked the baseball gods for another day. I hope no young player that I train ever has to pitch with that level of fear. That fear of failure and of “the end” also brought out the best in me, so I’m still thankful those fateful jogs.
In 2010, my first professional season, I would occasionally take a caffeine pill before starts – caffeine is proven to enhance alertness and decision-making. In maybe the third or fourth start of my career, I sat in the dugout and raised my water cup to take a sip between innings. My catcher turned to me, and in his thick New York accent, said:
“Bro. You gotta stop taking those caffeine pills. Dude. Your hands are shaking!”
I didn’t really notice, and I told him that I hadn’t taken any caffeine that day. I had, however, taken 12 Advil, which was the only thing that allowed me to make my start. I’d be damned if my elbow, recently repaired, would blow this one chance at getting established in pro baseball.
I didn’t need to have steady hands in the dugout; I just needed to pitch. So, I pitched. And those Advil and the countless lies of “I feel good” bought me five additional seasons, including two All-Star selections. But, I cannot remember what it’s like to pitch without pain, as I have not done so for any legitimate stretch of innings since the age of 14.
I had a conversation with a teammate about retirement. I never thought I could walk away from the game voluntarily, but I watched teammates do so each year. They’d give out their final hugs and were ready to move on with their lives. We discussed quitting versus retiring, and the Philosophy behind each.
One school of thought was that you were only “retiring” if you had made it to the top – the Big Leagues. Everyone else who “retired” was really just quitting, as they hadn’t completed the journey. And the word “quit” implies that you gave up on something. Minor leaguers could only quit, whereas Big Leaguers could retire.
I sided with this theory, until now. I think I’ve endured enough to earn the right to “retire.”
In a lot of ways, I do feel like I’m giving up. The 22-year-old version of me had unrivaled resolve. The 26-year-old version decided, with tears streaming down his face, that he would undergo Tommy John Surgery a second time, and wait another 20 months on the shelf to pitch again. He didn’t quit.
But the 31-year-old, present-day version of me remembers all of that pain, and all of that arduous rehab. When I got released in June, to drive home with a throbbing shoulder, I didn’t put forth the same effort in rehab. I had to overhaul my mechanics and every throw hurt. When I was back on the mound, 6 weeks later in a local beer league, I felt like the herd was too far ahead to catch back up that season. I told my agent that it was the first time in my life that I didn’t want to go back to baseball and decided to wait until 2017.
And now, as I tally up the effort required of me to take the field once more, the list seems impossibly tedious and exhausting. I’ve been pious to the baseball Gods since I was 18-years-old. Thirty minutes of mind-numbing shoulder and elbow exercises nearly every day for 13 years. Running, to stay in good shape, is a bitter pill. I utterly burned myself out on strength training five years ago, and it’s a chore on my daily list. Stretching, yoga, meditation, and four-and-a-half years combined of elbow rehab (from two partial and two full tears). All of these things were necessary evils, and I’m proud that I put in such a huge body of work over the years to build an 80-mph college freshman into a successful pro pitcher. I have no regrets.
To put it simply, I feel totaled by this shoulder injury. It’s not that I haven’t had bigger wrecks and been repaired – because I have. Rather, it’s that I’ve driven myself so fast, for so many miles, over so many speedbumps and potholes, that I feel like it’s due time for the scrapyard. It’s more effort than it’s worth to keep me on the road, and I was never built for this many miles in the first place.
I’ve gotten so, so much out of my career. Despite sitting out for much of it, I was privileged to play professionally until I was 30 years old, during which time I also built a business. I gave 100% to two different, equally-consuming endeavors these last 7 years.
What started in Maryland, playing baseball as a little kid, also ended in Maryland. I threw my final inning in Southern Maryland, getting the final three outs for the Long Island Ducks in a blowout victory. My parents were there at the beginning, and in the stands at the end.
It’s been incredible, and thank you all for sharing in this with me. There’s more to come.