Kyle Drabek’s exit plan from baseball is very specific, though perhaps not so realistic.
“I’ll keep pitching as long as I can, until my arm falls off,” he said.
Drabek is only 27, with six seasons of Major League Baseball experience under his belt and, he believes, a long future still ahead of him in baseball.
But Drabek also has had Tommy John surgery twice on his right pitching elbow, already has been the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade for two-time Cy Young Award-winner Roy Halladay, and has experienced much of the roller-coaster ride that comes with being a professional baseball player.
So, he’s a seasoned 27 years old, and he’s back in the minors, pitching for the Triple-A Charlotte Knights after the Chicago White Sox picked him up off waivers this spring.
A few seats down the bench in Charlotte sits Matt Lindstrom, a 35-year-old former flame-thrower whose 100-mph fastballs have slowed a bit through his stops with six different clubs over the last eight seasons. Lindstrom is back in Triple-A, too, signing with the White Sox’s minor-league organization after he was released by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim earlier this spring.
What Drabek and Lindstrom have in common — along with 37-year-old right-hander Brad Penny, who was the Knights’ opening day starter — is not only that they’re pitchers who have been to the summit of professional baseball it’s that they believe there’s still room for them in the big leagues, and they’re confident their time in the minors this season is merely a stepping-stone to a long-term return to Major League Baseball.
That’s their hope, at least.
“These guys have a goal in mind, and that’s to come here, regardless of their age or where they are in their career, to try to get better and find an edge,” Charlotte Knights manager Joel Skinner said. “That’s what athletes are trying to do: they’re all trying to find that edge that gets them to the next level or makes them that much better. They’re never satisfied. That never goes away for the whole career.”
Drabek knows all about the baseball lifestyle — and the passion for the game — from his family. His father is Doug Drabek, the 1990 Cy Young winner with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a 13-year pro, All-Star, and the one who was with him when he underwent the elbow ligament replacement surgery for the second time in 2012 — when he admitted he was frightened.
“I knew if I don’t come back from it, baseball would be done,” Drabek said, “And that’s been my whole life since I can remember.”
The second surgery forced him to refocus on mechanics so that he uses his legs more in his delivery rather than relying solely on the strength of his arm.
“In high school and growing up, it was pretty much just using all arm,” he said. “I want to say that’s probably the reason I’ve had it (surgery).”
He also was reassigned to a reliever role in 2013, and it’s a place he’s said he's never felt comfortable. Since arriving in Charlotte, Drabek has returned to a starter's role, and is 4-5 with a 2.64 ERA in 14 starts.
“Growing up, I was always a starter, I always had a routine,” he said. “Then, when I went to the bullpen, I didn’t really know how to do it. ... Being a starter, you know when you’re pitching, you have those days off to recover. For me, it’s my own game. You kind of control the tempo of the game. I was always scared of coming in and giving up someone else’s runs, or ruining a starter’s winning chance.”
Said Skinner: “It gives him a chance the four days in between where he works his butt off and prepares himself, and goes through what he has to go through to get ready for that day. It’s something he takes to, and he’s a pro.”
Lindstrom, meanwhile, has thrived in his role as a closer in the past — he had 23 saves for Houston in 2010 — but who has had to adapt to a middle-reliever role in recent years as he’s lost some velocity.
“I’m kind of like the hybrid club in your golf bag,” Lindstrom said. “I try to get you out of trouble in a situation later in the game, coming in with guys on base. I’ve had some success closing games, and I just consider myself an option late in the game, to come in and hopefully get outs.”
An ankle injury last year required surgery and meant three months of recovery. Now, he’s simply trying to prove he’s healthy and capable of giving quality outings to the White Sox, again. In 18 games with the Knights this season, he’s 2-1 with a 5.56 ERA and two saves.
“I’d like to get back to the big leagues and just prove to the White Sox that I’m healthy,” Lindstrom said. “But as far as setting goals, I try to just take it one day at a time and try to keep my body on track with what I’m trying to do. I’ve set some for myself, but the main one right now is just trying to get back to the League, and I think I’m on track.”
They have faced setbacks in their careers, but both Drabek and Lindstrom believe they still have much to offer baseball.
Besides, they still love the sport too much to envision doing anything else.
“I just love playing baseball,” Lindstrom said. “Baseball’s been good to me and I feel like I still am competitive and I still have that edge. I think every player knows that when you don’t have that edge anymore, it’s time to hang it up. But I still feel like I have that.”
As they work to try to return, they’re able to provide valuable insight to a Knights roster with an average age of 28.2.
“Been there, done that helps, it really does,” Skinner said. “When your teammates are helping you and they’ve been there and gone through the rigors of the Major League season and understand it, it really does help.”
Drabek has the added knowledge from a lifetime of listening to advice from his father, someone who is “like having a pitching coach at home,” someone he’s strived his whole life to not only be like, but to better.
“I always wanted to pitch more ears than he did, try to win a Cy Young, since he did,” Drabek said. “So, I kind of wanted to compare myself to him. I’m still shooting for that.”
And that’s why Drabek’s baseball goal is to keep pitching for as long as his arm is still attached.
Video produced by Don Schick, a Charlotte, N.C., freelance producer