Royals reliever Madson takes long road back to big leagues
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — One or 2 percent. That was it.
That was the chance that Ryan Madson gave himself of ever pitching again in the big leagues.
Once a dominant closer with the Philadelphia Phillies, a telltale twinge in the right elbow that resulted in Tommy John surgery had ushered Madson toward a premature retirement. He was content with what he had accomplished in baseball, even if he was frustrated by the finish.
“I thought I would bounce right back. I did everything everybody wanted me to do,” Madson said this week. “I did everything under the sun trying to get back, and it took me getting released for the first time in my career, not being in the major leagues since being called up in 2003, to really feel that punch. And it knocked me down. It almost knocked me out.”
It didn’t do that, though. Not by a longshot.
After signing with the American League champion Kansas City Royals in the offseason, Madson arrived in spring training with no guarantees. Somehow, he earned a spot in their vaunted bullpen, and then validated his spring performances with a dynamic start to the regular season.
Madson has appeared in 17 games and has a 1.83 ERA, the best of the 34-year-old reliever’s 10-year career. He has struck out 20 with just four walks, every bit as dominant as he was in Philly.
“It really is remarkable what he’s doing right now,” said fellow Royals pitcher Chris Young, the AL’s reigning comeback player of the year. “Granted, I never played with him, but I’ve played against him, and his stuff is as good as I’ve ever seen.”
Madson spent most of his career in Philadelphia, even auditioning for a season as a starter, before heading to the bullpen full-time. His best year came in 2011, when he took over the closer role following injuries to Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras, and finished with 32 saves.
He parlayed those numbers into a deal with Cincinnati for 2012, and that’s when the elbow injuries began. Madson had surgery that spring and never pitched for the Reds. He never pitched for the Los Angeles Angels, either. He signed with them the following year but spent the entire season on the disabled list, never getting in a game before getting released.
Madson came to grips with the end of his career, happily retreating into family life. He has five children, ages 1 to 9, and the life of a doting father appealed to him. He enjoyed being able to welcome them home from school, being home for dinner every night.
For some reason, though, he never formally retired.
There was always that 1 or 2 percent.
“There was always a small buzz that I could come back,” Madson said, “but I knew it was so far away. So much work had to be done. Even guys that do retire and stay retired, they have that 1 or 2 percent that they want to go back and play, for years. I don’t know how many years that lasts. But I think I was in that category. I thought I was truly done.”
That is where his story begins to mirror the “The Rookie,” that Disney film based on the real-life comeback of Jim Morris, who went from teaching science to pitching in the big leagues.
Madson started working with children of his friends, teaching proper fundamentals. Then he started working with a standout high school prospect near his home in California, and that led to a serendipitous meeting with Jim Fregosi Jr., who had once scouted Madson in high school.
“He works for the Royals now,” Madson said, “and that’s how I got in.”
Madson had decided to give it one more shot. The Royals had provided the opportunity.
There was no assurance he would have a job, especially considering Kansas City was already armed with baseball’s best bullpen. But it didn’t take long for Madson to begin raising eyebrows.
“My first thought was, ‘OK, why did we sign this guy?’ Guy hasn’t pitched in three years and last time he tried, he wasn’t very successful at it,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “So then I went out the first day of live batting practice and watched him throw BP and it knocked my eyes out.
“From that point on,” Yost said, “every time he threw, I made sure I was there to watch.”
During his retirement, Madson explained, he had grown steadfast in his Christianity. So he took it as a sign that he was getting baptized the same day the Royals called to offer him a job.
Madson is the first to admit the season is still young, the sample size small. But with the Royals leading the AL Central heading into an off day Thursday, the veteran right-hander is just happy to be pitching in the big leagues again, in games that really matter.
“Everybody in this bullpen has good stuff. They pitch lights-out,” he said. “You have to keep up. But it’s a good thing. It’s a very good thing.”