Shortridge finds new 'appreciation' for game following TJ

March 2nd, 2022
Mark LoMoglio/Tampa Tarpons

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Life has a tendency to be twisted. Sick. Cruel. Aaron Shortridge found this out firsthand.

In January 2021, Shortridge was in a good place. He had performed well since turning pro. When the Minor League season was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020, Shortridge was invited to Pittsburgh's alternate training site. He was trending upwards, and the organization took notice. His work, his performance culminated in an invitation to his first Major League Spring Training. Life was good.

That same day, Shortridge blew out his right elbow. He’d need Tommy John surgery. He’d be stripped of the game he loved. Life was suddenly not so good.

One of the best days. One of the worst days. Twisted. Sick. Cruel.

A year and change following the operation, Shortridge’s return to game action looms close. He’s throwing and pitching again. Several major checkpoints are within striking distance. The journey has been arduous for the 24-year-old. Some bumps and potholes likely remain -- no recovery process is seamless. But after one of the most challenging years of his life, Shortridge has come out the other side with new perspective and new appreciation.

“I did truly need to learn some things if I really want to make a career out of this thing,” Shortridge said.

Among what Shortridge learned was, well, himself. With no baseball to play -- Shortridge said that 2021 was the first year that he couldn’t remember playing ball -- his mind wandered into the realm of existential.

Shortridge’s identity centered around the game he loved. He was Aaron Shortridge, the baseball player. For the time being, he was no longer that. He had to fill in the blanks.

“It was sad for a little bit,” Shortridge said. “It was like, 'Oh my God, I don't even know who I am. I don't know what I'm doing.' I had to dig deep and figure that out.”

The entirety of 2021 was exhausting, but the first days following Shortridge's injury were especially taxing. He said he felt sorry for himself. He was in the doldrums. He needed time to process. He needed time to heal. With time, with grace, came a shift in perspective.

“I realized, 'Dude, it's just part of the journey,'” Shortridge said.

As the initial shock of the injury faded, Shortridge crafted a more holistic view of his identity. Was he still a baseball player? Yes. Was he more? Also, yes. Shortridge cited Dr. Andy Bass, the Pirates' mental performance coordinator, as a valuable resource during the recovery process. At the same time, while Shortridge established a healthier relationship of work and identity, his time away from the game only affirmed how much he loved it.

“I have a lot more appreciation for what I do now,” Shortridge said. “I hate to say that because it took getting hurt to find that out, but I really do have a lot of appreciation for it.”

When pitchers suffer an injury as traumatic as an MCL tear, there’s a question that inevitably floats around: “Can he be the same?” When asked, Shortridge’s answer was nuanced: Yes, and no.

Shortridge believes he will be the same in that he can still be effective. In 2019, his first full season as a pro, Shortridge posted a 3.25 ERA and a 3.68 FIP across 24 starts in High-A. That performance helped land him at the alternate site in 2020, a sign of how he was viewed within the organization.

On the flip side, Shortridge has undergone a bit of a transformation. As mentioned, he possesses a greater appreciation for the game, that it’s not something to be taken for granted. The time away from the mound has made him “hungrier,” and that he has more of a chip on his shoulder. Shortridge added that he’s maintained his strength and mobility, and he wouldn’t be surprised if he's now throwing a bit harder.

At some point in the next couple days, Shortridge will have his first live bullpen session. If all continues to go to plan, Shortridge is eyeing simulated games in early April and a return to the diamond in early May. The process has been demanding -- mentally, physically, emotionally. He won’t get back his lost season. That time has passed. But what he has learned, what he has experienced will stay with him for the rest of his career -- wherever it takes him.

“That sucked really bad,” Shortridge said, “but I'm so thankful for it because of this last year, and all the growth and just being consistently strong throughout it.”