At 8:50 a.m. on Sunday, Ryan Madson breezed through the double doors of the Royals complex unaware of the landmark awaiting him on his odyssey back from Tommy John surgery. He wheeled a suitcase in one hand. His other balanced two containers of oatmeal and a glass bottle of Kombucha. His schedule called for a task he had not attempted in 18 months.
When he arrived, Madson did not know he was supposed to throw live batting practice on Sunday morning. The prospect of facing live hitters for the first time since August of 2013 left him “a little bit of butterflies” in his stomach. Pitching coach Dave Eiland told Madson to treat it like just another bullpen session.
Even that prospect was a rarity for Madson, who has not appeared in a big-league game since 2011, when he was the hard-throwing closer for Philadelphia.
Before his elbow betrayed him, Madson bullied hitters with a mid-90s fastball and a deceptive changeup. He anchored the bullpen of a Phillies team that won 102 games in his final season. Now, at 34, he admitted his nerves about entering the arena of the game’s most basic contest, the battle between hitters and pitchers.
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“It came about in a good way, because I thought I was just throwing a bullpen today,” Madson said with a smile. “So I didn’t have a chance to get all anxious about it.”
Madson beamed throughout a lengthy interview with The Star on Sunday afternoon. His session against minor-league hitters went well. He impressed both Eiland and manager Ned Yost with the utility of his change-up. Eiland mentioned that “the life to his fastball was a little bit better than I thought it would be.”
The Royals will use Madson without limitations in camp, but he may not be ready by Opening Day. The club could use at least two more arms in the bullpen. The leading candidates are righty Louis Coleman and lefty Tim Collins. Both regressed in 2014 and toiled in the minors for much of the season. Madson would be a welcome veteran addition, if he can reconnect with his fastball and avoid physical setbacks.
“Very impressed with his change-up,” Yost said. “Still has enough fastball left. The command was really, really good. His stuff was really, really live.”
His route to the Royals includes two seasons of fruitless rehabilitation, months of revitalization at a biomechanical facility in Phoenix and a year away from organized baseball. Madson felt inspired to return after mentoring a high school player last year at his home in Southern California. He signed a minor-league deal with Kansas City in January. He can earn $850,000 if he reaches the majors, with another $150,000 in incentives.
Madson is still easing into his throwing program. His performance on Sunday encouraged Eiland, but Eiland was curious to see how Madson recovered from it. If he does not make the big-league club out of camp, Madson indicated his preference was to remain at extended spring training, so he could be near his trainers at EVO UltraFit.
Madson visits there twice a day. He sandwiches a 6 a.m. workout and another in the afternoon around his duties in Surprise. Madson credits the trainers at the facility for reducing his pain and refurbishing his mechanics. He also bulked up his frame to 230 pounds, an addition of about 30 pounds onto his once spindly frame.
“Jeez,” former teammate Joe Blanton told him upon his arrival. “The last time I saw you, you were a kid.”
In the years since they teamed together, Madson weathered a series of losses. First he lost money. Then he lost the function of his arm. Then he lost his desire to play.
On the open market after 2011, he thought he had a four-year contract with the Phillies, but the deal fell apart. “Worst day of my life,” he said. Madson settled for a one-year, $8.5 million deal with Cincinnati. He never threw a pitch for the Reds. He arrived with a sore elbow, a receipt for at least two seasons of improper mechanics, he believes. By March, a team doctor discovered he had torn his ulnar collateral ligament off the bones of his elbow.
After surgery, Madson ventured into free agency once again. This time, the Angels took a $3.5 million flier on him. Madson reported little progress. He appeared in one game, an inning in Class A on May 13, 2013. His arm still refused to respond.
By the summer of 2013, he told his physical therapists he could not play catch any more because “it hurt that bad,” he said. He had to gulp a handful of anti-inflammatories just to complete a bullpen session. The Angels clocked his fastball in the upper 80s during one of his last times on a mound — “with pain,” Madson noted. The team released him in August.
Madson embarked for Phoenix to visit EVO UltraFit. The facility came upon the recommendation of Angels teammate Robert Coello. Madson colored himself as skeptical upon arrival.
“At that point, I had tried a couple different doctors, different places to go to,” Madson said. “I was like ‘How is this going to be any different?’ And on the first day I went in there, they relieved my pain.”
The trainers strapped him up to a machine that stimulated his arm with electrodes. The discomfort dissipated. He worked out there for the next three months. During the winter, he staged a tryout session for interested teams. Madson recalls one of the visitors was Mike Arbuckle, the Royals executive who knew Madson from his time as Philadelphia’s scouting director.
With curious eyes upon him, Madson said, he delivered a fastball in the mid-90s. The response was still tepid. The prospect of only minor-league deals deflated him. At the time, his wife was pregnant back in California with their fifth child.
“I was mentally drained,” he said, adding he felt like “I need to go home. I don’t love baseball right now. I need a break.”
Madson spent the entire season there. He lives in Temecula, about 45 minutes south from where Jim Fregosi, Jr., scouted Madson as Valley View High School. Now a special assistant to general manager Dayton Moore, Fregosi signed Madson in 1998. The two stayed in touch over the years.
During the year, Fregosi put Madson in touch with a local high school pitcher named Johnny Morell. Fregosi asked Madson if he could provide a few pointers. Morell made a verbal commitment to Auburn last summer. He also reinvigorated his tutor.
“That really gave me that itch back, when I started working with him,” Madson said. “I saw how bad he wanted it.”
As the new year dawned, Madson began informing teams he was interested in a comeback. Fregosi watched Madson throw a 20-pitch session and stamped his approval in a report to Moore.
“You always stay with the talent,” Moore said. “If he has a mind-set to pitch and return to the game, then you always give that credibility.”
Just after 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, Madson walked off a mound on a back field to shake hands with minor-league catcher Cam Gallagher. He thanked Gallagher for catching the session of live batting practice. Then he spoke with Eiland, who was observing nearby. The response was encouraging, but realistic.
“I feel like I’m a lot closer to the end than they seem to be implying to me,” Madson said. “Because I felt really good today. And then I talked to Dave, like, ‘Was it coming out pretty good?’ And he kind of hem-hawed.”
The club views Madson almost like a lottery ticket. The investment is small. The return could be sizable. After he met with Eiland, Madson chatted with a pair of trainers from his rehab facility. Madson understood the amount of work still ahead of him and the hurdles still in his path. He welcomed the challenge.
As he approached the clubhouse, Madson caught sight of Moore. They stood together for a few minutes as wind swept through the complex.
“Great to meet you,” Madson said. “I really appreciate the opportunity.”