The conversation that led Ryan Madson back to baseball, and the Royals’ bullpen

The lure of cameraderie on the diamond and the chance to give his kids a more comfortable future prompted Royals reliever Ryan Madson to give baseball another chance.
The lure of cameraderie on the diamond and the chance to give his kids a more comfortable future prompted Royals reliever Ryan Madson to give baseball another chance. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

His elbow aching and his will depleted, Ryan Madson turned his back on baseball in 2014. His career had collapsed when his ulnar collateral ligament tore two years prior, and the intervening months of fruitless rehab did little to raise his spirit. Baseball made him a millionaire, but when it destroyed his arm, he walked away.

Madson retired and became a full-time parent for his five children in Southern California, ferrying the older kids to school and playing with the younger ones. His sole connection with the sport was coaching his children and their pre-teen friends.

“I was working with 9-year-olds,” Madson said. “And that didn’t make me want to play again.”

A lifeline arrived one day last summer in the form of a call from Jim Fregosi Jr., the Royals executive who signed Madson with the Phillies in 1998. The call sparked a chain that rekindled Madson’s passion for the sport and stabilized the Royals’ bullpen heading into the American League Division Series.

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Fregosi had a simple request. He wanted Madson to tutor a high school prospect in their town named Johnny Morell. The two began to play catch, first a few times a week, and then every day. Reticent at first, Madson felt inspired to climb atop a mound for the first time in months. Watching Morell, who is now preparing for his senior season, reminded Madson not to ignore the chances in front of him.

During the winter, Madson reached out to Fregosi. He was willing to try out one more time.

“I totally had faith in Ryan,” Morell said. “I knew that if he put his mind to it, he could do it again.”

As the Royals attempt to return to the World Series, they will rely on their bullpen once more. That means they will rely upon Madson. With Greg Holland out for the season, a victim of the same Tommy John surgery that sent Madson into early retirement, Madson will form a late-game trio with Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera.

Despite all the accolades lauded upon their bullpen last October, Royals officials believe this current edition is an improvement. The group is deeper, with more credible mid-game options such as Danny Duffy, Luke Hochevar and Franklin Morales.

The presence of Madson mitigates the loss of Holland. Among Royals relievers, only Davis has a lower ERA than Madson’s 2.13. Madson led the team with a 4.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He gave up only two homers in the second half.

As the season progressed, Madson appeared to be growing stronger, according to rival scouts. His fastball was clocked at 93.68 mph in April and 96.25 mph in September, according to Brooks Baseball’s data. One scout rated the changeup Madson was throwing in the season’s final weeks as baseball’s best.

“This guy’s gotten better and better all year,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said.

Added general manager Dayton Moore, “He’s been special for us.”

At 34, Madson resembles the pitcher in his 20s who formed a vital cog in Philadelphia’s bullpen in the previous decade. He posted a 2.86 ERA on a quartet of playoff teams from 2008 to 2011. He saved 32 games for a 102-win club in 2011.

As a free agent that winter, Madson thought he had struck a four-year contract with Philadelphia. But the deal fell apart in what Madson has called “the worst day of my life.” He tore his ligament shortly after signing a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Reds. He missed the season, found a $3.5 million contract with the Angels and repeated the process.

He never threw a pitch for either club.

“It’s a difficult thing, because he has pride in himself,” Fregosi said. “And these guys are looking at you like, ‘Hey, you’re making money, and you’re not pitching.’ 

The frustration boiled over after Madson tried out for clubs heading into 2014. When no team offered him a major-league deal, “I just quit,” he said. “I was sick and tired of doing the whole thing.” He stayed away from the game until Fregosi called.

Fregosi’s son played with Morell at the local high school in Temecula, a city about 90 minutes southeast of Los Angeles. Madson jumped at the chance to work with the 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander, eager to reconnect with the game, even if he was still scarred by his experience.

During their first session together in June, Morell’s father suggested Madson throw off the mound. Madson declined. “Let’s just focus on your boy,” he told him.

For the first few outings, Madson charged Morell a fee for the lessons. When he noted Morell’s committment, the work became pro bono. Madson counseled his pupil on how to handle the pressure of high-leverage situations. He stressed removing clutter from the mind.

During one session, as Madson crouched behind the plate in catcher’s gear, he crossed an important threshold. Trying to make a point about mechanics, he flipped off his mask and returned to the mound. Still sheathed in the rest of the equipment, he started to pitch.

A spark lit inside Madson. He began to throw with Morell on a daily basis.

“We were throwing probably like 50-pitch bullpens like every day,” Morell said. “And our arms were getting stronger. His arm was starting to get the life back. He was getting that extra zip on the ball that he once had.”

Madson still wondered about the stress of big-league life. He was unsure if he wanted to spend that much time away from his family, or if he wanted to tax his body to rebuild his arm strength.

When summer turned to fall, Madson’s older sons turned on the television to watch the baseball playoffs. Madson noted the fun being had by the players. He still remembered facing many of them. As he pondered a comeback, he thought about his children.

“If there’s millions of dollars out there for me, I’m going to go get it,” Madson said. “And do whatever it takes to go get it. Because it’s for them. I’ve already taken care of myself and my wife. But this is for their future.”

So Madson called up Fregosi as 2015 approached. Fregosi watched Madson throw a 20-pitch bullpen session. His fastball showed signs of life. His changeup still darted with deception. Fregosi passed his report to Moore.

As he prepared for 2015, Moore understood a bomb ticked inside Holland’s elbow. The organization believed Holland damaged his ligament during the summer of 2014. Tommy John surgery loomed on the horizon.

“We knew last year the taxation of the bullpen, the high-leverage that they’d been through all October, that it wasn’t going to be as rosy, potentially, in 2015,” Moore said. “So you want to acquire as much depth as possible.”

So Moore took a flier on Madson, with the chance for Madson to earn $1 million if he reached the majors and hit his incentives. He soon became one of manager Ned Yost’s most reliable relievers. Madson survived a late-summer case of dead arm to regain strength for the stretch run. On the open market this coming winter, he could receive an opportunity to close with another team and earn millions more.

Madson still trades texts with Morell, who called him earlier this week to talk about the playoffs. Morell signed a letter of intent to play for Grand Canyon University next season. He may get drafted next June.

When pro scouts talk to him, he brings up his mentor.

“I really look up to Ryan,” Morell said. “He’s one of the biggest motivators in my life. He’s been a blessing for my life. I believe we’ve helped each other out a lot. Just having a friend who’s in the big leagues, who’s in the postseason right now, it’s incredible.”

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