DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The inevitable happened for Ricky Romero this week when the Toronto Blue Jays sent him to minor league camp after what had been a limited trial for the majors this spring. It was not an impossibility for Romero to have joined the Blue Jays for the start of the season, and he truly believed it was not a silly dream, but to do so, he had to be mostly perfect, and the 29-year-old Romero hasn't been perfect, or even close to it, in a long time.
"Ricky has been on top of the world in the big leagues in baseball and now he's hit the bottom," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons recently said. "You feel for those guys. It doesn't happen a lot but it's not like it's never happened. He's not the first guy that it's happened to. The key is that we still think he has a chance to bounce back. It eats at you. He starts doubting himself. Everybody and their brother has advice for him. It's not easy."
For those who can't remember that far back, in relative sports terms, the left-handed Romero won 15 games and posted a 2.92 ERA in an All-Star 2011 season. He was considered one of the more promising young promising pitchers in baseball at that time. He had shaken off the tag of being the biggest bust of the celebrated 2005 draft where he was selected fifth, ahead of such players as Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce, among others. Romero, after years of criticism, was finally going places.
And then he hit an unfortunate wall. Romero failed to equal his 2011 in 2012, when he posted a 5.77 ERA and led the American League with 105 walks. His 2013 was nothing short of disastrous. He spent most of the season at Triple-A Buffalo, where he put up a 5.78 ERA.
Nobody could quite explain what had happened, least of all Romero. He had a few nagging injuries that had held him back, but nothing that was so severe that he needed major surgery. Romero had simply lost it and he didn't know how to get it back.
"For a while I would look back at it and think "What happened?'" Romero said recently, prior to his demotion. "The more I look at things, it's not looking backward anymore, whether it was successful or not successful, I think it's just about being present in today and winning each and every day and seeing the positives steps that I've been taking. It hasn't been an easy process, but at the same time, I feel like I've dealt with them fine. I'm just blessed to be able to put on a uniform. Any time you're in this type of environment, you can't complain."
Romero had been one of the first to arrive at Blue Jays camp on a recent day, and he spent the early morning shuttling from room to room as part of his daily preparation. He spends part of the day in the trainer's room and then another part of the day in the workout room. Part of it is regular maintenance, part of it is repair.
This offseason, Romero, who was bothered by knee pain for the last couple of years, went to an orthopedic specialist in Los Angeles, who noticed that wear and tear from years of playing sports had ravaged Romero's knees. The specialist gave Romero two options: surgery, or a fairly new stem cell procedure where the doctor would take stem cells from Romero's back and have them injected into his knees to help repair cartilage damage.
Romero, who had arthroscopic surgery on his elbow in 2012, opted for the stem cell procedure, which was less invasive than having regular surgery. He spent three weeks on crutches and then went through a tedious rehabilitation. At first, even the tiniest of movements required the most effort. Romero became frustrated, but he was willing to put in the work because he was determined to be a major league player again, and in the back of his mind he believed he could be that best version of himself again.
The hassle of success is that it implies that someone is always as good as their best moments. Sometimes success is a single isolated incident, or a fleeting set of moments, and the results are never to be repeated again. In that situation, success can be a burden as much as a boost.
Success brings expectations, pressure, and occasional unwanted attention.
"People ask if I wanted to get back to my 2011 season," Romero said. "Who knows if I'll ever be able to have another 2011 season? Am I aiming for that? Absolutely. But I'm trying to be what's best for me right now. I think every pitcher, everyone that puts on a uniform, comes in with a goal. You're trying to be better than you were last year, and that's what I'm pretty much I'm trying to do."
Sports are the cruelest in regards to success because everything -- a skill, a good year -- can dissipate in an instant, whether it's because of injury, regressing to the mean or simple bad luck.
In no other profession is there such a danger. Accountants don't suddenly find themselves incapable of doing taxes. American history teachers don't unexpectedly forget about the Civil War. But Romero had forgotten how to pitch, or rather, his body, and then subsequently his mind, had made it almost impossible for him to pitch as he once did, so he began a process of mental and physical repair.
"It's pretty obvious what's happened," Romero said. "People keep bringing it up every time. It seemed to be the question the past two years. I just told myself, "Why keep looking back?"
But Romero has the conflicting goal of trying to forget the past while at the same time embracing it. He made the decision not so long ago to quit wondering about what had happened. He felt it did no good to try to pinpoint the exact moment when it all went wrong because the "when" didn't matter, only the "why" did.
Yet at the same time, in order to get back to his successful self, Romero started watching videos of himself from 2009 so that he could try to replicate his delivery. He found that his struggles had caused him to dramatically slow down his delivery. Every movement had become a point of consternation. Part of his task this spring was to speed up his delivery so that it more closely mimicked his 2009 self. With a faster delivery, Romero would also not have time to overthink things.
So even in his mental and physical rehabilitation, Romero, by constantly watching videos of his former self, is constantly reminded of the past, a sobering predicament for someone who so badly wants to move forward.
Romero has tired of remembering and answering questions about that successful 2011 campaign. Now that season hangs over him. He lives with the reality that he'll never be as good as he was then, and he has to accept it in order to move forward. And for the most part, Romero says that he has come to terms with his reality. His immediate goal is simply to make it back to the majors.
"I think I've learned a lot about myself about how strong I really am mentally," Romero said. "Take away everything else, the game and what's happened, I feel like a lot of people, with what's been said, wouldn't have been able to take it. But I think throughout all this I think I've learned how strong I really am mentally. The secret is to keep fighting. It's easy to say that you're not going to work hard, I had it all, but my determination has pushed me forward, no matter the money, the success I've had, I want more success out there on the field."
Romero had made somewhat of a case for himself this spring -- 1.29 ERA in seven innings -- until a wild outing on Tuesday when he walked five batters, hit another batter, threw two wild pitches and allowed three runs in only 2 2/3 innings.
But he wasn't expected to be on the major league roster anyway. Romero -- who signed a five-year, $30 million extension in 2010 -- had been such an afterthought that he wasn't even on the 40-man roster at the start of spring training. Romero was outrighted to the minors on June 1 last year and no other team claimed him.
Essentially, the entire major leagues had given up on him.
"I'm the underdog once again, like I've been pretty much my whole life," Romero said. "You're probably only the second or third media person I've talked to the whole spring. This spring has been different. But at the same time, I'm not complaining. I keep my mouth shut and walk around and I realize that I'm blessed. I work in silence and let success dictate wherever I end up."
Romero grew up in the largely poor Mexican neighborhood of East Los Angeles, and even in his recent failures, he had the perspective to recognize his accomplishments had already caused him to beat the odds. He could ignore the endless questions about what had happened to his career from his neighbors and friends because he had been places, met people, done things that no one from his neighborhood would ever do. If his career ended today, Romero realizes that he's lived a good life already.
But Romero is convinced he's not finished. There is more to accomplish, more games to pitch, one more chance at the majors.
"You're not going to find a better individual than Ricky," Gibbons said. "There's that little extra there that you want to see him bounce back, not only because he can help us, but because of the individual that he is."