KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ryan Madson carries his career in a black backpack.
The bag grips to Madson’s 6-foot-6 body wherever he goes, its contents a constant reminder of his past struggles and his present triumph. It follows him through Kauffman Stadium into the Royals’ clubhouse and accompanies him into his bedroom before he tucks in his toddlers. Madson is responsible for the backpack, and it for him.
An Accelerated Recovery Performance machine lives in the backpack. Like a shunned hermit, the machine hides in the shadows of Madson’s locker. It weighs only three pounds and fits snugly enough to follow his every move. Its wires dangle and its pads tingle. Conventional medicine it is not. An everyday tool it is.
"It’s the reason I’m here," Madson says.
Text messages carry its instructions as 1,200 miles separate trainer and patient. Protruding electrodes define its existence while static workouts offer Madson something nothing else can. The machine is an answer to massages and a retort to acupuncture.
The ARP machine helped bridge the 1,277 days between Madson’s major league appearances, the right-hander’s hiatus caused by a seemingly endless slew of arm injuries and an indifference toward the game he grew up playing.
The equipment possesses four pads that clutch to Madson’s skin, sending electricity through the part of his body that splits the positive and negative charges. It resets his nervous system, relieves stress and vanquishes anxiety.
The ARP machine is founded on the idea that injuries occur when muscles cannot absorb force because of a lack of communication between them. According to its developers, the machine’s waves affect the nervous system and allow for better communication between the muscles, reducing the risk of injury.
But Madson had already suffered the injury. He tore his right ulnar collateral ligament in 2012 spring training and required Tommy John surgery. The typical year of recovery reached far beyond that. In two years, he went from Philadelphia’s shutdown closer in 2011 to a spectator in Cincinnati and a castoff with the Angels.
Madson had 32 saves in 34 chances for the Phillies in 2011, then saw his career fizzle after suffering an elbow injury in spring training with the Reds in 2012. He underwent Tommy John surgery shortly thereafter.
He didn’t throw a pitch in 2014 before the Royals offered him a spring training invitation this season. Madson, 34, shoved his way onto the Opening Day roster and has become a key cog in Kansas City’s bullpen, owning a 1.82 ERA in 29 games, his 93-mph fastball paired with a devastating changeup. On Wednesday, he won his first game since Sept. 7, 2011.
In every city the Royals visit, every stadium they explore, every clubhouse they occupy, Madson’s contraption follows. Before games, it hooks up to him as a workout. He’ll step out into a tunnel if needed to mimic his delivery, to practice wall squats as pulses reverberate through his body. On nights he pitches, Madson will sometimes sleep with the wires attached to him. The cords are the latest addition to his bed, joining his 1- and 3-year-old sons.
Before Madson found the ARP machine, he tried everything to loosen his surgically repaired elbow. Nothing did the trick. Platelet rich plasma therapy failed. Active release techniques sputtered. Countless needles wandered through his arm as heaps of hours slipped away. He deemed himself "the impossible case."
At the recommendation of then-Angels teammate Robert Coello, Madson sought out EVO Ultrafit in Phoenix. EVO — short for Evolutionary Training — was a last-ditch effort for Madson to rejuvenate both his arm and his career. It was a gasp for air as his elbow suffocated his livelihood.
"Once you’re down in the weeds, it’s hard to get out," Madson says.
Madson slumped onto the premises for the first time. His shoulders drooped and his head dropped. EVO founder Jay Schroeder called him "a little puppy." The disappointment of his previous endeavors weighed on him. The soft-spoken and polite Madson felt he needed to fight someone. Instead, he opened a door.
Madson underwent exercises that summoned expletives and commanded tears from grown men. For some, the workouts bordered on torture, the pain too excruciating and the treatment too intense. Madson would see people at EVO once before they vanished, chasing comfort and escaping torment. But he needed to regain his arm strength.
"That’s what I had to go through to get it back," Madson says. "Not everybody is willing to go through that. Flat out. That hard work, pain, that’s what it took."
He would sit in his SUV in the parking lot under the blazing Arizona sun, dreading crossing the threshold of both agony and aid. He wondered if it would work, if it would fix his creaky arm, if it was worth it.
He first went to EVO in June 2013, while still a member of the Angels organization. The first day of treatment, Madson felt a difference. The machine zapped him and he could rotate his arm inside and out without pain. It felt like a new arm and a fresh chance.
Two months later, the Angels released Madson, who said his involvement with EVO Ultrafit contributed to the team’s decision. The club had grown weary of a third party fiddling with its $3.5 million arm after so many medical resources had been devoted to it, he said.
He remained involved with the program until October 2013 and returned briefly in January 2014, when he touched 93 mph with his fastball. But baseball had become stale and his desire to continue had been extinguished. Madson went home to Southern California to be a father and spend time with his kids.
"Burnt out," Madson says.
Madson was with the Angels when he first explored the Accelerated Recovery Performance machine.
Madson spent 11 months away from both organized baseball and EVO before Jim Fregosi Jr. and the Royals beckoned. Fregosi had scouted Madson — then a blue-eyed, fresh-faced teenager — for the Phillies and now worked in Kansas City’s front office. He gave Madson an opportunity to pitch again. Madson couldn’t ignore it, signing a minor league deal in January.
Johnny Morell is part of the reason why. During his brief retirement, Madson worked with Morell, a 17-year-old pitcher at Murrieta Valley High School in Temecula, California. Introduced through Fregosi, the pair would throw and work out together, Madson acting as Morell’s pitching coach during 90-minute sessions. They served as each other’s bullpen catchers, exchanging low-90s fastballs.
Morell and his father, John, nagged Madson "pretty much every day" about returning to the big leagues. They noticed Madson’s live arm, but recognized his resistance to sacrifice his comfortable life with his family for a daunting comeback.
"He knew what he had to do," Johnny said. "He was reluctant to go back in because of all the work that had to be done. He knew that he could do it, but he was comfortable at home with his family and his kids."
As Madson worked with Morell, his itch for the game reappeared. He wanted back into baseball and the Royals gave him a chance for $850,000 if he made the major league roster.
EVO Ultrafit was his first destination after they struck a deal. The yearlong break from baseball meant Madson had to relearn everything. He had three months to scrap his nine-year big-league career and remold his craft, teach his body a set of foreign mechanics.
The transformation began to take shape. EVO’s staff would hook up Madson to the machine, the intensity ranging from 0 to 100, and ask him to repeat his delivery. The pads clung to his elbow and the back of his nearly bald head as the machine ramped up to 20 units.
"OK, pitch," the staff instructed.
Madson would grip the ball like he had his entire career. But his right elbow pinned to his ribs. His wrist stuck to his sternum as his hand curled down toward his abdomen. The voltage paralyzed Madson until he could work through the resistance. His motion could take up to 10 minutes to complete as sweat bubbled on his forehead.
Higher and higher the potency would climb. Up and up the electricity went. Then, it reached the apex.
"Sorry, this is going to hurt," they said, "but we’re going to put it all the way to 100."
Madson’s five kids would sometimes visit EVO to see their father at work. Occasionally, they participated in the workout — pumping up the electricity on the person they knew as "Dad" and not as a right-handed reliever.
"They liked to turn it up on Dad to see him squirm," Schroeder said.
Now, during the season, Madson’s daily workouts typically hover around 30 to 40. He admits he doesn’t want to go any higher. EVO’s Schroeder and Charles Maka determine his routine, passing along instructions on where to place the pads and what to do with them on.
When Madson feels pain, he scours the Internet to find the precise muscle that is bothering him. He tells Schroeder and Maka, occasionally sending a video to assist in the understanding. They reply with the antidote in a text message despite being a time zone away.
Madson’s self-diagnosis habits make Schroeder chuckle. Not many of his clients scrub the Internet, nor do many text him three times a day — when Madson wakes up, after a workout and before bed — to update their status.
Madson rarely occupies the weight room, but the Royals are accepting of his unorthodox treatment. Head trainer Nick Kenney said the club researched it and watched his workouts before endorsing the action. If it helps Madson, it helps the team.
"The sky is the limit," Kenney said, "if you believe in something or are committed to it."
Madson proved his commitment by adding to his normally slender, lean frame. As he fought for a spot in the game’s best bullpen during spring training, Madson worked out twice a day at EVO, once at 6 a.m. and again in the afternoon. He added 20 pounds during his workouts, tipping the scales at 230 pounds.
He would guzzle a concoction of orange juice, eight raw eggs and two tablespoons of olive oil twice a day. One spring day, Madson upped the dosage to 12 eggs at a time in two separate sittings.
Whispers surrounded Madson’s sudden weight gain. People who saw him assumed he was cheating, taking banned substances. Instead, workouts and a protein-heavy diet were Madson’s remedies.
"If they only knew how hard that was to do," Madson says of his bulked-up physique.
He has since stopped downing dozens of eggs, adjusting his diet at the end of spring training when he noticed "soft" weight gathering around his midsection. Madson’s focus has shifted to replicating his mechanics and avoiding the excess stress on his arm that caused his initial elbow injury.
Madson finally figured it out three months ago. He blames two years of bad deliveries for his elbow surgery. A back injury in 2010 forced him to throw more upright, negating his legs’ power and placing unnecessary strain on his elbow. His body had had enough.
But Madson swears the ARP machine could have prevented his fall. The machine, when applied to the right places, shackles Madson and stops him from standing too tall. It keeps his legs engaged and his arm pain free.
"You can’t move any other way than what you’re supposed to," Madson says.
According to Schroeder, the EVO program and the ARP machines are a process that allows people to "perform the way we were designed to perform." It sends information to the brain on how to execute certain actions, opening up the potential all humans have, he said.
Schroeder, 59, races motorcycles when he’s not at EVO. The decades-old origin of his program is rooted in Soviet literature. He counts a 2-week-old child, a 96-year-old woman and a paralyzed motorcycle racer among his clients.
Although EVO manages 41 athletes, Madson is the only major leaguer who attends the facility. Coello toiled in the minors and was recently released by the Giants. Former first-round pick Jed Bradley shuffles through the Brewers’ minor league system. Madson is an anomaly in a sport full of them.
Schroeder accepts his program is not for everyone, the amount of work and sacrifice scaring potential clients. Then he thinks of Madson.
"Not everyone is like Ryan Madson," Schroeder says.
Schroeder realistically expects Madson to pitch until he’s 50 or 55. Only two big-league pitchers in history have been 50, and none since Satchel Paige in 1965. Schroeder thinks the prediction is neither unreasonable nor farfetched, impossible nor cartoonish. Madson’s desire to retire would be the only reason to stop, Schroeder says.
The program’s impact caused Madson to recommend Morell (an Auburn commit) use EVO on a regular basis. Morell’s fastball jumped to nearly 94 mph since working out at EVO, and his parents and grandparents are planning a move to Phoenix for his senior year. They hope everyday involvement with EVO can move his fastball above 95 mph and himself up in the MLB Draft.
Madson allows himself to dream of the technology’s future. He envisions wireless pads able to keep your arm charged while waiting in the bullpen. He fantasizes about sensors so advanced imperfections could be corrected between pitches if needed.
But his mind returns to his career now. He already knows he must endure the workouts after this season ends, and the one after that, too. Madson understands this is the burden he must shoulder. He carries around this duty every day, the black backpack an allusion to the daily effort he must exert.