Hefner relishing one more chance at the bigs

After two surgeries and a return to college, right-hander taking one last crack at baseball

March 6th, 2016
Jeremy Hefner is looking to pitch in the Major Leagues for the first time since 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)Jeff Roberson/AP

JUPITER, Fla. -- This time a year ago, Jeremy Hefner was handling the coursework of a college student.

He walked around the Oral Roberts University campus inconspicuously, focused on balancing homework, three kids and one last try at a baseball dream he feared had ended so much earlier than anyone anticipated. Most of his classmates didn't know his age (29), nor were they aware of where the untraditional student now pursuing a Business Administration degree had come from.

"I'm very quiet," Hefner said, sheepishly.

Now, however, he's content to make some noise.

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What may have appeared as an inconsequential spring performance to the couple thousand in attendance was a monumental one to Hefner last week when he pitched two innings in the Cardinals' Grapefruit League opener. His once-promising big league career had been interrupted by one arm surgery and then seemingly derailed by a second, leaving Hefner, less than two years ago, to seriously consider whether the dream was worth it any longer.

"I was in the big leagues, doing fairly well, and then it just gets taken away from you," Hefner, a non-roster invitee in Cardinals camp, said. "I wasn't guaranteed another Spring Training, nonetheless another big league Spring Training. So to be on a big league field facing big league hitters was very special."

Ascending to the Majors had already been arduous for Hefner, who was twice drafted in rounds that are so low they no longer exist and shuffled between three organizations before a big league summons came. But upon making his Major League debut in 2012, Hefner pitched as if he may stick.

He made 26 appearances -- 13 starts -- for the Mets that season and cracked an Opening Day roster for the first time in 2013. In August, after 23 starts, his elbow gave out. Hefner had Tommy John surgery, a procedure so common that it's often just assumed a pitcher will be back on the mound the following year. He was the exception.

Hefner's rehab process started innocuously enough until he hit a point in July 2014, where he just couldn't muster the velocity. The fastball he used to throw at 91 mph was gone. One inning into his sixth Minor League rehab start that summer, Hefner pulled himself out.

"I just didn't have any life on my ball," he said. "I would try to throw it as hard as I could, and I would throw it 81-82 mph. It was just really odd."

He left Florida the next day and met with a doctor who found something unexpected on the MRI. While the repaired ligament was still intact, Hefner had an ulna (bone) fracture. The diagnosis, which Hefner was told was exceedingly rare, explained the lack of elasticity in his elbow. It also meant another surgery would be needed.

"I went home and I didn't think about baseball," Hefner said. "Initially, I wanted to retire because I didn't want to go through the rehab process again. I'd almost have to start all over, work my way back up again. I didn't know if I wanted to do that."

It was a question he contemplated for the next three months. While doing so, Hefner enrolled in college courses so that he'd have options. He completed the fall semester and then, when no team would give him as much as a Minor League contract for 2015, he continued through the spring semester.

Along the way, he decided to give baseball one more try. He underwent his second elbow surgery in October 2014.

"I still felt like I had value to a team," Hefner said. "I still felt like I had something I could offer. I still felt like I could compete."

He did much of his rehabbing alongside members of Oral Roberts' baseball team. When he was strong enough to get back on the mound, those Division I hitters gave him his first test.

He began sending Major League clubs video of himself late last summer. No one called. He hoped for interest from a club in Asia. There was none.

"I was like, 'Great,'" Hefner said, "'I did all this and no one is going to give me a chance.'"

With nothing to lose, Hefner agreed to pitch in the Dominican Winter League. Two weeks into his stint, the Cardinals called with an invite to big league camp. He had two such invites and interest from other teams by the time he accepted St. Louis' deal in December.

"I wasn't anticipating getting invited to big league camp," Hefner said. "I thought I would have to go to Minor League camp and work my way back up. I was ready to do that just to give it one more time. This is all extra for me."

Considering how long it's been since Hefner last appeared in the Majors, it's unlikely he'll crack the Cardinals' Opening Day roster. But the Cardinals are intrigued by his potential and ability to fill starting and relief roles.

They registered his fastball velocity in Thursday's appearance at 90-92 mph. That's even more velocity than Hefner had shown in the Dominican. He also got a strikeout on a sinker, a pitch that Hefner had been struggling to get a feel for.

"I was watching him as soon as he came out, concerned with what his range of motion [would look] like," manager Mike Matheny said. "It never looks like he's had one [surgery] done because he's loose and he's fluid. Now it's just going to be how the strength comes together and how his mechanics click."

Hefner said he would take a Minor League assignment, as well as any role the Cardinals would offer, in order to stay in the organization beyond the spring. Hefner is one class -- Business Law 2 -- short of his degree, which he does intend to finish. He just has something else he hopes to achieve first.

"I want to win a job," Hefner said. "And if I can help the team, that would mean something. But realistically, I haven't played in two years, and I have all these things that are against me. But it'll work out, just like it has to this point."