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Pitching for a story about nothing

Todd Ritchie hopes that's the outcome today when he throws for the Rays for the first time in 10 months after rotator cuff surgery.

TOM JONES
Published March 2, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - This morning Todd Ritchie will dip his fingers into his well-traveled glove and wrap them around a shiny white new baseball.

He will step back with his left foot, raise his arms over his head, pivot his right foot, then fire - no, wait, he wants to be careful - toss the ball to a catcher squatting a little more than 60 feet away.

Then he will hold his breath and wait for what he hopes is ... nothing.

No pain, no ache, no twinge, not even a tingle.

Ten months after throwing his last baseball from a pitcher's mound and eight months after surgery on his right rotator cuff, Ritchie wants to feel good again. This morning at Devil Rays camp, feeling nothing will be good enough.

Ritchie has had surgeries before, but is there anything scarier than a pitcher testing his arm for the first time after surgery, whether it's his first, second or 10th?

"It's scarier if it's your first time doing it or you're a young guy," Ritchie, 32, said. "I think then it's a lot scarier. You don't know what to expect. But everybody comes back from surgeries these days. Most of them are not career-threatening injuries."

For Ritchie, though, this one might be. If the zip never returns to his fastball, if the snap from his curve disappears, if his slider no longer slides, his career might be out of second chances.

If this is it, if Ritchie's career fades into the sunset, it will be a quick and a strange fall from one-time staff ace to journeyman pitcher. It was only three years ago that the Pirates, supposedly up and coming, picked Ritchie to pitch the first game in PNC Park. He was coming off a 15-victory season and was presumed to be the team stopper, another big, hard-throwing Texan just like Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

But his plans and dreams came and went.

"A lot of things don't work out the way you plan them in this game," Ritchie said. "You got to roll with the punches. I can't say I'm disappointed about it. Everything changes and you can't spend the rest of your life being disappointed. So you got to roll with the flow."

He still is rolling, even after the Pirates traded him to the White Sox before the 2002 season. His first season in Chicago looked like the last one in Pittsburgh. He lost 15 games and his ERA (6.06) would have been the highest in the American League if he had pitched enough innings to qualify.

A trade to Milwaukee before last season was going to be a new start. That's when he developed shoulder problems. He wanted to put surgery off until the offseason, but the shoulder, wearing down a little more after every pitch, would not let him.

"Anybody who knows they are going to have to have surgery, it's a letdown," Ritchie said. "You do all the work leading up to spring training and go through spring training and start the season and it's all lost. All the effort is lost. So it's a little disheartening."

The toughest part in coming back was sitting around while the months on the calendar rolled over. He could not do a thing for five months even though the arm felt fine after two.

The Devil Rays, always looking for a hidden gem, called Ritchie as soon as he became a free agent in the offseason. The seven-year major-leaguer listened to the Rays' plan to bring him along slowly. He was sold.

"We think he's a good gamble when he gets healthy," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "And right now he's ahead of schedule. ... We're not going to rush him ... because this could be his last shot because of the injuries that he has had."

Ritchie's goals are, in order, throw without pain, get stronger, pitch in the majors, win in the majors. If it takes a month, fine. If it takes longer, that's fine, too.

"Best-case scenario would be to be healthy and make the team," he said. "That's what I'm going to hope for. And if it doesn't work out, I'm going to get my work in and get up here as soon as I can. I think every player has to be optimistic about their situation and that's the way I'm going to be. And if things don't work out, I'll keep working until they do."

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