Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Comeback Android Of The Year

As our friend Jonathan elocuted in a recent post, one of the most fun parts about spring training every year is scouring the lists of non-roster invitees throughout baseball and going, "hey, I remember when that guy had a career!"

This spring, one particular man caught my eye. But first, it's important to know from whence this man came. So let's get in the time machine and travel to a time when Reggie Sanders reigned supreme and all was right in the world.

September 19, 2003

The scene: A typical late-September Friday-night doubleheader between the Pirates and Cubs. Disregard the fact that the Cubs were in wrapping up a season that would carry them to within four outs of a pennant. Pirates/Cubs games in September were still, just as they always will be, about as meaningless as baseball can get.

This particular twinbill will be most likely remembered, if at all, by diehard Pirates fans for serving as Jason Bay's coming out-party, in which the mild-mannered Canadian hero uncorked eight RBIs in the first game, announcing loud and clear that who the fuck is Brian Giles?

However, I will now remember it for yet another milestone.

I was attending this particular doubleheader with my brother, and we were sitting in our usual seats, about twelve rows off the visitors' dugout. Directly in front of us was a kid, probably 13 or so, and an older guy, presumably his dad. At some point during the early goings of the game, we were informed by the section regulars that these people were the nephew and brother-in-law of none other than Cubs relief pitcher Dave Veres. This had probably first been divulged while my brother and I were up on the concourse partaking in the pre-game ritual of purchasing deliciously greasy food from Primanti's (it worked with Boloco, oh God, please, PLEASE let it work again).

At the time, Dave Veres was pretty inconsequential to me as much more than a boring middle reliever who had a decent Showdown card once.

Very serviceable.

However, just for shits and giggles, my brother began ragging on Veres, knowing of the familial relation of the visiting duo in front of us. When the Bucs chased Carlos Zambrano in the bottom of the fifth, the situation couldn't have been more perfect. Dusty Baker summoned Veres from the bullpen, and me and my brother really let him have it. "This one's in the bag now, for sure!"

The Veres family had had enough. The brother-in-law grumbled that Veres was pitching through a lot of pain, and if he could only get healthy again, he could return to his quietly effective ways. Of course, the man himself shut us up good by working out of Zambrano's mess without incident. When the Cubs scored in the top of the 6th to take a 10-9 lead, that was all Veres needed to record the win for himself.

As it turned out, the family-of-Veres had been more right than even they could know. Veres' left hip was apparently so degenerative, the pain was so much that he couldn't even deliver the ball properly. He scrubbed out during a spring training tryout with the Astros in 2004, then spent the first few months of the season getting pounded with San Francisco's AAA club in Fresno to the tune of a 5.97 ERA. It appeared that it was the end of the road for a man who had, almost unnoticed, served as a very good reliever for a decade. My brother and I had witnessed his last Major League victory.

Or so everyone thought.

Veres went and had hip replacement surgery, which is more common for ex-high school football players in their 60s, not baseball players in their late 30s. After the March, 2006 operation, Veres hung around in a recreational league in the Denver suburb where he lives. One day, Veres threw 12 innings in a doubleheader, a feat that happened to be witnessed by a member of the St. Louis Cardinals front office, for whom Veres had enjoyed some of his most successful years. Word spread, and after a tryout at Coors Field around Christmastime, Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd liked enough of what he had seen to offer Veres, now walking around with three pounds of titanium in his hip, a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

And thus, one of the most remarkable comeback attempts in recent years was underway. Very few athletes have come back from hip replacement surgery. Jack Nicklaus did it, but he played golf. Bo Jackson did it, but then again, Bo Jackson is somewhat special. Hell, hip replacement surgery ended up killing my grandfather.

But if anyone can do it, it's the man now affectionately known as "Darth" Veres.

"Pete Harnisch....I am your father. Search your feelings. You know it to be true."

Veres didn't earn his Major League debut until age 27, and one look at his minor league numbers is all you need to see why. Somehow, Veres parlayed an extremely underwhelming minor league career into a pretty solid big league one. He was even a closer for a couple of years, and managed to put up a sub-3 ERA over an entire season with the Rockies, in the pre-humidor days. He has the distinction of owning a career Major League ERA that's over a full run lower than his minor league career ERA.

Given that I'm such a sucker for cool comeback stories, I shall be following the exploits of Dave Veres as he and his bionic hip wreak havoc in airports throughout the American west. As of Friday, Veres was still being called a "feel-good story" of the Rockies camp, which certainly can't be a bad sign.

It will not be an easy path for this Dark Lord of the Junkball, with other has-been adversaries such as Matt Herges and Danny Graves in the way. But we're pulling for you, Dave. Give 'em hell.

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