PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- They pulled out the jersey recently. Its resplendent red lettering and 2011 All-Star insignia are reminders of a day when the left sleeve was wrapped around an arm that was one of the most dominant relief weapons in the big leagues.
Little Wyatt Venters put the jersey on and flashed a proud smile as it hung ludicrously loose from his 6-year-old body. And that, his father will tell you, is the kind of moment that testifies to what this keep-driving-until-the-wheels-fall-off journey through four elbow surgeries, including three Tommy Johns, is all about.
As we sit here, on a hot Florida morning with the sky so blue and all that epic Spring Training optimism in the air, it has been 1,963 days since Jonny Venters last pitched in the big leagues. His most recent appearance came in the 2012 National League Wild Card Game, which doubled as Chipper Jones' final game. And Jones is now headed into the Hall of Fame this summer.
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That's how long it's been.
But here we sit outside the Tampa Bay Rays' clubhouse, and here's Venters, in big league gear, in a big league camp, and he's telling you that his elbow doesn't hurt. And it's enough to make you believe, because there is no easier player to root for in the game right now, especially when you think about what Venters' return would mean for Wyatt and for his little brother Walker.
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"One was little and I think one was in my wife's stomach the last time I pitched in the big leagues," Venters says with a smile. "They're 6 and 4 [years old] now. They both play baseball and are starting to understand it and what I do. One of the coolest things would be to see my boys when I'm in a big league stadium atmosphere. That would be pretty special."
There was a time when what Venters did on the mound was special. He was unhittable in the eighth, the left-handed complement to Craig Kimbrel.
Now, though, the soon-to-be 33-year-old has a chance to be a different sort of special. It's unprecedented for a three-time Tommy John recipient to make it back to the big leagues, as Venters is trying to do. But Venters is also a veteran of a fourth procedure -- a sort-of "half-Tommy John" -- that itself is also extremely unusual. And that procedure might be the one that keeps his long-burning dream of getting back to the bigs alive.
"It's been a long road," his wife, Viviana, says. "It almost doesn't seem real."
From anonymous to unhittable
Venters' unusual medical history begins the way, unfortunately, so many pitchers' medical histories do -- with a torn ulnar collateral ligament.
For Venters, it happened in Class A with the Braves, in late 2005. At that point, Venters was 20 years old -- just your ordinary, obscure 30th-round Draft pick out of high school (Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Fla.) trying to pitch his way onto the radar. Tommy John surgery was an upsetting proposition but not a daunting one. Hundreds of pitchers have it, and hundreds return to a level at or nearing their norm. It was a bump in the road, not a dead end.
"It was tough, just the time of being that young and being away from the game for a year," Venters says now. "But physically, it was easier, because I was younger."
Venters came back in 2007 and eventually converted full time to reliever as he worked his way up Atlanta's Minor League system. And from the time he was summoned to the big leagues on April 17, 2010, he was a force of nature. Or rather, a freak of nature, because you just don't see many left-handers throwing 96-mph sinkers and pairing them with baffling breaking balls.
During the next two seasons, Venters compiled a 1.89 ERA. He struck out 27 percent of the batters he faced. Those who managed to get ahold of Venters' sinker put it on the ground 78 percent of the time. Those who had the audacity to swing at his slider swung right through it 33 percent of the time.
Want a testimonial to Venters' talent? Here's a pretty good one.
"I hated facing Venters," Giancarlo Stanton says. "He was nasty."
This is a good time to remind you that Stanton, who went 1-for-7 with three punchouts in his career off Venters, is right-handed.
So Venters was matchup hell for everybody, and his star aligned perfectly with that of righty Kimbrel, who came of age as the Braves' closer not long after his May 2010 callup, and fellow lefty Eric O'Flaherty, an Atlanta waiver claim gone right. The trio became so inextricably linked in the minds of fans (and opponents) that they came to be known as "O'Ventbrel" -- a nickname that wasn't exactly overflowing with originality but was appropriately as truncated as the innings in which they pitched.
"I say it all the time, when people refer back to that stretch of a couple years in Atlanta," Kimbrel says, "it made my job easier having those two guys in front of me, because those two guys were so nasty and so efficient. If we got to the seventh with a one-, two-, three-run lead, it was going to stay there until the ninth."
For Venters, the apex of the ascension was that 2011 NL All-Star nod, which came via the vote of his peers. It was a high compliment and quite an accomplishment for a non-closer, and it was deceptively easy to assume that, for Venters, it was only the beginning.
That is, until the soreness set in.
Out of the limelight, under the knife
Across the 2010 and '11 seasons and postseasons, Venters' 176 1/3 innings pitched were second among relievers only to Tyler Clippard (179 1/3). And for a time in his rookie year, he had the bad habit of throwing 50 pitches in his warmups, until teammate Billy Wagner talked him out of that.
In other words, Venters liked to throw. You combine all that usage with a ligament six years past its installment date, and what happened in 2012 seems obvious, in retrospect. The throbbing in Venters' left elbow would hound him after outings and didn't go away after a disabled-list stint. His numbers suffered, and he figured the feeling in his ailing arm was one he'd just have to get used to. It wasn't until the following spring of '13, when Venters took the mound in a Grapefruit League game in Lakeland, Fla., and felt a similar sensation to the one that had first put him on the shelf back in '05, that he knew what had happened.
That was Tommy John No. 2.
"I think because my first one was successful, when I had my second, I didn't worry about it not working," Venters says. "That probably worked against me. Because once I started throwing after the second one, I probably threw too much, too hard, just because that's kind of what I did the first time, and it had worked. But I was older, and it was the second surgery and I probably just didn't go at it like I should have.
"That second one was a struggle the whole time."
Venters missed all of 2013 and began '14 on the 60-day DL. It took him until August of that year -- 15 months, post-operation -- to proceed to so much as a live batting practice session. And just seven pitches into that session, the all-too-familiar feeling returned.
Accompanied by Viviana, Venters visited Dr. James Andrews. After reading the MRI, the doctor spent some time alone in a hallway, trying to find the right words to relay that Venters would need yet another surgery. When he did deliver the news, Viviana, who had wanted to stay strong for her husband, couldn't help but break down in tears.
"I probably should have just stayed home," she says now. "That one was pretty hard."
That was Tommy John No. 3.
How many pitchers have made it back to the big leagues after their third Tommy John? Technically, none. Though Jose Rijo and Jason Isringhausen are often cited to have had at least three Tommy Johns apiece, Jon Roegele's oft-cited Tommy John database does not recognize either pitcher as a three-time recipient of the surgery, because, for each guy, at least one of the surgeries addressed a flexor tendon tear, not a UCL tear.
Venters has the dismal distinction of being the only guy on the list thrice. When he went under the knife that third time, he promised himself it would be the last, whether it worked or not.
It did not.
The half-Tommy John
The Braves released Venters at the end of 2014, but the Rays, knowing good left-handed relief is hard to find, signed him to a two-year deal that would give him the time he needed the recover. The goal was to have Venters back in the big leagues by the end of '16, and, for one fleeting moment in the summer of '16, it appeared possible. On June 4 of that year, Venters finally took the mound in a professional setting -- a Class A game in the Florida State League pitting the Charlotte Stone Crabs against the Tampa Tarpons. He worked a scoreless inning and got the fastball up to 94 mph.
It was a long, long way from 2012 and a long, long way from the big leagues. But it was progress.
"I was nervous. I was excited," Venters says. "It ended quick, though."
Venters was just five appearances into his rehab stint when he blew out the elbow yet again.
Surely, this had to be the final setback.
"I thought I was pretty much done," Venters says.
Beyond that whole "definition of insanity" thing is the physical reality the body can only handle so many elbow reconstructions. It is an invasive procedure that requires drilling into the bone, and doctors fear a fourth surgery involving a by-now weakened bone can cause a dangerous break.
But as unlucky as he was, Venters was fortunate in the sense that his ligament graph had, according to an evaluation from Dr. Neal ElAttrache, survived this latest injury unscathed. The way Dr. ElAttrache explains it, a person is born with a ligament layer and a tendon layer in his or her elbow, with separate stresses and strains of those two layers. For Tommy John recipients, the two layers scar together, meaning stress and strain of one layer affects the other. But in Venters' elbow, the doctor was able to clearly see that the tendon had split underneath the attachment site to the bone.
"I told him that if I could anchor some suture into the existing graph and then sew up the tendon scarred to that ligament and do it with minimal invasion to the bone," ElAttrache says, "I thought I could do this and prevent any catastrophic complications that can happen after third-time redos."
This was the most encouraging news Venters had heard in years. The procedure, which ElAttrache had previously performed on big league pitcher Shawn Kelly, wouldn't require as long a recovery time as Tommy John, and Venters had the support of his family -- and, importantly, the Rays -- to move forward.
"If you have nothing to lose, why not try again?" Viviana says. "If you can't, you can't. You come home. But the reward is so much greater than the risk of just trying. So why not?"
One last chance
So that's how we got here, to Charlotte Sports Park, where a left-hander wearing No. 49 throws his bullpen sessions and plays catch with the use of an elbow that, for the moment at least, is a source of possibility and not pain.
"It's way too soon to declare victory on this," ElAttrache says. "But he's having no pain, and he feels really good. So it's functioning every bit the way I hoped it would at this point. I know how much he wants it, and I'm just sort of living and dying with him with this."
Venters pitched 23 2/3 innings during four different Minor League levels last year, striking out 29 batters, allowing six runs and showing glimpses of the stuff he once had. He doesn't throw as hard as he once did. Venters doesn't throw as often as he once did. But he's throwing, and his confidence in his ability to get back in a big league game is growing.
"You can see the dedication with which he's gone after this," Rays vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom says. "And also what he does for other players around him. Every single person who comes in contact with Jonny ends up rooting for him, and he has a wonderful, positive effect on everybody around him. That makes it really easy to want to keep trying with somebody, even through some adversity."
There's an adage in baseball that as long as you are left-handed and breathing, you will always find a job. Venters is taking that notion to an unusual extreme, but he's got people in his corner across the industry.
"It sounds like he's getting pretty close," Kimbrel says. "That's exciting, as a friend and as a [former] teammate, to see him getting back in the league. It had to have been a full-family effort. I'm hoping the best for him, because I know the kind of guy he is and the kind of teammate he is."
The recovery from three surgeries since his last big league appearance has given Venters and his family profound perspective on what it would mean to get back.
Wyatt and Walker don't yet totally grasp the distinction between the Minor Leagues and the Major Leagues (Walker recently told his dad, "I really hope you get to play for the Stone Crabs again!"), but Viviana, who gave birth to the couple's third child, daughter Evie Grace, mere weeks ago, is already vowing to bring the newly expanded family from its Gwinnett County, Ga., home to wherever the clan has to go to see Jonny pitch, should that magic moment arrive.
"This time around, we're not going to take anything for granted," Viviana says. "We'll try to travel as much as we can and take it all in, because you just never know when it's going to end. Looking back, man, we were so lucky to even get that opportunity that most people never get. I want to make sure the boys see how far he's come."
It would be the greatest comeback story in baseball this year. Thanks to that recent foray into the souvenir stash, Jonny Venters knows what it's like to see his young son wearing a Major League jersey. Soon, if the elbow allows and if all the hard work and patience is rewarded, young Wyatt might get to see his dad do the same.