GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Bronson Arroyo vacated his dressing cubicle and headed for the training room, but it was routine. Nothing wrong. Nothing amiss. No special medication to throw down his throat.
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“I haven’t contracted Valley Fever yet so I’m way ahead of the game,” said the Cincinnati Reds long-haired, straight-legged starting pitcher.
Valley Fever? That is what Arroyo is calling mononucleosis, the ailment he contracted last spring training that wrecked his body and demolished his season, helping take the Reds down with it.
Arroyo lost 10 pounds and 5 mph off his fastball, major contributors to his 9-12 season. Nevertheless, he never complained or became Alibi Ike.
He took the ball. He pitched. He still made 32 starts and was only one inning shy of his seventh straight season of 200-plus innings.
“I talked to some kid who had mono, and it affected him for a year and a half,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “Perhaps it was more serious than any of us knew about in Bronson’s case.
“Bronson took his lumps, and we took our lumps with him. We need him to return to form. He is big in the equation.”
Arroyo said that when the mononucleosis hit last spring, he spent 40 days and 40 nights in misery.
“You know how you feel with the flu? Body aches from head to toe? You feel like you don’t even want to lay down because everything hurts? I felt like that for 40 straight days,” Arroyo said.
“That really set me back. If I could have had a whole another spring training, that would have helped.”
That, though, was not possible, so Arroyo tried to pitch through it. As a finesse pitcher who works the corners and depends on precise location, it didn’t work.
“My velocity was down 5 miles an hour, and coupled with the sickness it was hard for me finish the hitters when I had two strikes and hard for me to finish games,” he said.
Arroyo was less concerned about the velocity than the location. “Because,” he said, “my velocity was a bit down the year before, when I was 17-10.”
To remedy the situation, Arroyo altered his offseason program, something he normally does by himself through trial and error. Last winter, he visited trainer Rich Lademann every other week in Naples, Fla.
“That was my first disappointing season in the last eight,” he said. “Even when I went 9-15 in ’07, I still had 22 quality starts. So I relinquished my own workout program in the offseason that I had done for 16 years.
“I had to let somebody else give me some different ideas, and I think I have it back,” he said. “I feel as good as I have my whole life, to tell you the truth. I’ve been able to do some things physically, some exercises, I haven’t been able to do the last few years. I have some flexibility back in the hip region and a healthy back.”
Arroyo believes flexibility in his hips and a stronger back will lift his velocity back to where he needs it.
“If you look back at 2006, I had more explosiveness and I was using my legs more,” he said. “On film, the last couple of years it looks as if I was just throwing batting practice in comparison.”
Although Arroyo is optimistic, he knows the revelation will arrive when he puts his body back on the mound.
“It is still a crapshoot, and I won’t know until I get four or five innings under my belt, as far as velocity,” he said.
“The only thing that was missing was the velocity. I still know how to pitch. I know you can still have a bad year even if you feel good. I get all that. There are a lot of variables in this game. But if can reach back and get in the 90s instead of reaching back and getting only 85 to 86, well, that’s big.”
Baker, though, says location has to come with the added velocity.
“It is a matter of location, most of it,” Baker said. “Don’t forget, everybody is entitled to a bad year once in a while. That’s been lost in modern sports. You’re not entitled to a sub-par year. They talk about career years all the time on the top side, but they never talk about the sub-par years on the bad side.”
Baker smiled and said, “Do you realize Steve Carlton, a Hall of Fame pitcher, lost 20 games one year (13-20 with the 1973 Phillies)? You do that in modern times, they’ll bury you.”
Arroyo, though, requires the extra velocity when he needs it. Baker realizes that.
“His margin of error isn’t very big,” the manager said. “Power guys have a greater margin of error. They can make mistakes and the hitter might pop it up or foul it off from sheer velocity. But Bronson is a pitcher.
“He works harder than anybody we have and is a great example for the young guys on how to go about your business. Everybody sees him as a fun-loving, guitar-playing dude, but this cat works hard. I have never seen a dude who never takes the All-Star break off. He comes in and works.”
Arroyo was not a guitar-playing dude this winter. Every winter, a group of baseball people get together to record an album. Arroyo was asked, but declined and said, “I’ve got stuff to do for my baseball career, can’t do it.”
Baker said, “Yes, he takes his career very seriously. But does he enjoy life? Definitely. Someday, when he retires, there will be Bronson sightings all over the world.”
This year, though, Arroyo wants the Bronson sightings to be on a pitching mound, with him throwing 92 mph to 93 mph, when needed, finishing hitters, finishing games — and winning games.