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Setbacks can't keep Neal Cotts down
Joe Bick rattles off the date — Feb. 10, 2012. It was the day Bick, an agent, broke difficult news to his client, left-hander Neal Cotts.
“Neal, it’s heartbreaking for me to tell you this, but I think we’ve run out of chances,” Bick recalls saying. “I’d be surprised if we’re able to get you a job.”
No team would take a chance on Cotts, who had undergone Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in 2009 and four surgeries on his right hip starting in '10.
But Bick was wrong about Cotts’ career being over.
Cotts, 33, made his first appearance since May 25, 2009, on Tuesday night, pitching a scoreless inning in the Rangers’ 1-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics. He was even better Wednesday, striking out four in two scoreless innings in a 3-1 victory over the A’s.
As studies in perseverance go, Cotts is difficult to top. While out of baseball, he gave pitching lessons at Slammers Training Academy in Lake Forest, Ill. — and threw bullpen sessions on his own, waiting for a team to call.
“Every once in a while, a scout would come in and look at high school and college kids and take a glance at me,” Cotts says.
Scouts often liked what they saw, Bick says, but then they would request Cotts’ medical records. Shortly after that, the conversations almost always ended.
Cotts, a member of the 2005 World Series champion White Sox, had undergone surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip and three more operations after the hip became infected.
The Yankees brought him to minor league camp in 2011 and then released him, telling him he could not pass their physical. The Phillies were ready to sign Cotts later that season but backed off, citing the same concerns.
“His medical file is the biggest medical file I’ve ever seen in my life,” Bick says. “I’ve got to send like six emails to get it all through.”
But just days after Bick braced Cotts for the likely end of his career, the agent spoke with Rangers general manager Jon Daniels.
“I asked him if he was looking for left-handed pitching,” Bick recalls. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’ I told him the whole Neal Cotts story. And I said, ‘I will tell you right now — there is no way in hell he can pass your physical because of his hip.’
“Jon says, ‘I don’t care. If he’s good enough, we’ll find a way.’ ”
Sounds simple, but it wasn’t.
The Yankees, Bick says, released Cotts out of fear that they might incur a financial obligation if the pitcher suffered another injury on their watch.
Bick recalls Yankees GM Brian Cashman telling him, “If I put him on the 40-man roster, it could be a situation where I’m paying him workman’s compensation for the rest of his life.”
Cashman declined comment, citing medical confidentiality. But he did not dispute that such a conversation took place.
Why, then, were the Rangers willing to take a chance on Cotts?
Daniels cites three reasons:
• Past experience with players who had medical red flags, but defied their prognoses.
“There are times where we have walked past a player — particularly in the draft — and then saw them succeed,” Daniels says.
• A sense that Cotts was motivated only by his desire to return to the majors, and not financial gain.
Daniels recalls Bick telling him, “Technically, we can’t waive his workman’s compensation rights. But that’s not what this is about. This is not about getting someone to pay his medical bills. He just wants another chance.”
• A report from Scot Engler, a Rangers professional scout who went to see Cotts throw and came away impressed.
The Rangers signed Cotts to a minor league deal on Feb. 20, 2012. His physical? “Neal called me and said they took my heart rate and blood pressure and said, ‘You’re good,’ ” Bick recalls, chuckling.
Cotts, who had missed the entire 2010 and '11 seasons, reported to minor league camp, but lasted only about a week before the Rangers summoned him to the major league side. He then had a big spring, competing with fellow lefty Robbie Ross for a bullpen spot. But in the final week of games, Cotts strained his left lat muscle.
He did not pick up a ball for a month.
“It was a definite setback,” Cotts says. “But compared to what I had gone through the last couple of years, I didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t happy. But I knew it was something I could work through.”
He returned and spent the entire season at Triple A. Daniels says Cotts’ command was never quite the same, but the Rangers offered the pitcher another minor league deal last November, and Cotts jumped at it.
“We didn’t look around at anyone else,” Bick says. “We knew it would be a waste of time.”
Cotts failed to make the Rangers out of spring training, but after working with Triple-A pitching coach Brad Holman on the angle of his pitches, he began to get stunning results.
In 26 innings combined between the majors and minors, Cotts has struck out 46 and walked only five.
“Pretty much everyone that went in there and saw him the first six weeks said, ‘You’ve got to get this guy up there,’ ” Daniels says.
Daniels says three or four clubs contacted him after the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo mentioned Cotts’ Triple-A stats in his Sunday notes column on May 12. Those teams said that they could give Cotts an immediate major league job, but Daniels balked, saying that the reliever was in the Rangers’ plans.
On Tuesday, nearly four years after his last major league appearance, Cotts made his return.
“In the bullpen, I was pretty amped up, pretty gung-ho, excited — and a little bit nervous,” Cotts says. “I guess you could say my heart was racing.
“But once I stepped on the mound, I calmed down pretty quickly. I was still more amped up than I would want to be. But it felt pretty normal.”
He had a familiar catcher — his former White Sox teammate, A.J. Pierzynski. After his outing was over, Pierzynski flipped him the ball and said, “Welcome back.”
“He’s a great guy. I’m so happy for him,” Pierzynski said. “I told him he looked the same except that he throws cutters and sliders now. He used to just blow guys away.”
Different pitcher or not, Cotts never accepted that his career might be over, even as he and his wife, Jamie, became the parents of a son, Maddon, 4, and daughter, Stella, who is almost 2.
Cotts said that Jamie frequently would ask him if he wanted to continue pitching. Cotts would respond, “Yes,” and Jamie would tell him, “Then keep doing what you need to do in case something happens.”
“I never got any feeling that she would want me to shut it down — just the opposite,” Cotts says. “I kept throwing bullpens. I didn’t go full bore in workouts, but I tried to keep my arm ready. Hopefully somebody would take a look, and we would go from there.”
He got the chance that not even his agent expected.
He wouldn’t quit.