'It is miraculous': Zombro back in action after brain surgery

Righty to 'soak in every day' after long, courageous journey back from frightening head injury

March 3rd, 2022

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Tyler Zombro spent Wednesday morning like just about any pitcher would spend the first day of Spring Training workouts. Hitting the back fields at Charlotte Sports Park on the first official day of the Rays’ Minor League camp, Zombro stretched and played catch and took part in pitchers’ fielding practice.

Just another day? Hardly. The 27-year-old right-hander said he couldn’t have been happier to be in camp. Plenty of people around the Rays facility considered Zombro’s mere participation a miracle.

“You're not going to get many complaints out of me,” Zombro said, smiling. “I'm definitely going to soak in every day and definitely enjoy it.”

Pitching for Triple-A Durham on June 3, Zombro was struck on the right side of his head, just above his ear, by a 104 mph line drive. He had a seizure on the mound, a terrifying scene that became national news, and underwent emergency brain surgery that lasted 2 1/2 hours and left him with 16 plates and 36 screws stabilizing his skull. He doesn’t remember the moment it happened or anything else that took place the next five days in Duke University Hospital, but he recalls the “tough” two months of speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy with his wife, Moriah, by his side the whole time.

Now, here he is, wearing a protective cap but fully cleared to participate in Minor League Spring Training. Zombro is scheduled to throw a bullpen session during Friday’s workout then get back on the mound to face hitters in live batting practice in the days after that. If everything goes well, he’ll be ready for the start of the season in early April.

“That's my full intention. I'm ready for Opening Day,” Zombro said. “Somebody asked me if I was, you know, [in] a rehab group or on a slow ramp up, etc. And I said my intention wasn't to come back and be delayed. I'm ready to go and ready to play.”

The fact that Zombro has returned ready to work is hardly a surprise. Undrafted out of George Mason University, he signed with the Rays as a free agent in 2017 and began pitching his way onto the radar. In 2019, Zombro was named Tampa Bay’s Minor League Reliever of the Year. He started the past two seasons in Major League Spring Training and broke camp in Triple-A last year. And he did all that while holding down a separate job in the industry, first at the R&D Baseball Academy and now with Tread Athletics, helping hundreds of college and professional pitchers refine their skills through data analysis and training.

But the fact that Zombro has returned at all, considering the trauma he endured, is still a remarkable achievement.

“I think it's all part of God's plan for me. I mean, a lot of it has to do with my faith. I certainly think that I can't dictate my future, that he's in control of that,” Zombro said. “And I think with all the circumstances that have happened for me to be cleared back here, feeling normal, feeling good -- like my arm is 100 percent ready to go -- it is miraculous. But I think that scenario wouldn't be in the cards if it wasn't meant for me to be here.”

After about two months of physical therapy, Zombro felt like he had turned a corner in his rehabilitation. He was getting back into good shape. He could perform bodyweight exercises. His reaction time was improving. He’s still working to push himself to maximum intensity, but once he started long tossing from 90-120 feet, throwing felt natural again.

His neurologist, Dr. Steven Cook, told him all along he could be ready for Spring Training. After a CT scan in December, Zombro was cleared.

“My support community has been great with that, but being out there today, I feel like nothing happened,” Zombro said. “I feel 100 percent like myself. Throwing feels the same. PFPs feel the same. And I'm grateful for that. And again, I think just with how the stars have aligned, I definitely feel like I should be out there.”

With the C-shaped scar on the right side of his head now covered by brown hair, the only thing that looks different is Zombro’s cap. Inside, there’s a protective Kevlar insert with padding underneath it. There’s also a small flap sticking out to cover his right temple, specifically designed to protect his fractured zygomatic bone. The insert, created by Rob Vito with Unequal Technologies, adds about 10 to 12 ounces to his hat -- but Zombro has grown comfortable wearing it.

“Unbelievable. He’s so excited. He’s back to 100 percent,” Rays field coordinator Michael Johns said before the club’s first Minor League camp workout for pitchers and catchers. “It's awesome, just the fortitude that guy's shown to get through that.”

Zombro credited the Rays for being part of the massive support system that helped him through his recovery. Teammates constantly offered their encouragement, and still do. President of baseball operations Erik Neander checked in weekly. Senior director of pro personnel and pro scouting Kevin Ibach had Zombro help the club last September by doing some advance video scouting work on the Mariners, a potential postseason opponent. (“At that point, I’m trying to occupy my mind,” Zombro said. “So I enjoyed that.”)

After Tuesday’s optional workout, Zombro figured he and teammate Aaron Slegers were two of the last players to leave the clubhouse. On Wednesday, he said they were “like little kids out here today, just having fun.” Having the game taken away from him last year has given him a new appreciation for it now.

“I think it's a little bit of a shell shock to everybody when I first see them,” Zombro said. “Everybody's pretty much greeted me with a hug, and I think that speaks to the environment and the culture we do have here. It says a lot to me that people care more about me as a person than me as a player. That really does carry a lot of weight, and really, it takes the stress of playing away from me.

“I'm out here with house money just having fun, just grateful to be out here. And of course, my teammates have been super motivating to push me to get back on the field, and I really appreciate them doing that.”