Anderson trying to change ending

With TV cameras watching, the jovial lefty abandons retirement to try to make the Rays.

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 18, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - Brian Anderson isn't the only pitcher in the Rays clubhouse who considered himself retired Troy Percival. He's not the only one who has had two Tommy John elbow surgeries (Al Reyes). He might not be the only one who shaves his arms and legs(hmm ... ).

But he's definitely the only one who spent last season doing big-league games on TV and whose improbable comeback has been featured on a reality show.

Three segments of Back to the Bigs have already aired on the SportsTime Ohio cable network (and are available on Yahoo video), and a full series would have to be on order if Anderson, 35, makes it back for what would be his first big-league game in nearly three full years.

"If anybody can do this kind of thing," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "he can."

Simply put, Anderson's career, which started in 1993 and includes an 82-83 record, looked to be over. He'd had surgery after his left elbow gave out pitching for the Royals in May 2005, had to have another when he blew it out again the next summer, then got a real job last season while plotting to finish a college business degree then go to law school.

"I thought I'd take 2007 to figure out what I'm going to do," he said.

But hard work, starting from the August 2007 afternoon on the lawn between his parents' Geneva, Ohio, home and their tire shop when he played catch pain-free for the first time in two years ("This is crazy," he thought), gave him another opportunity.

And serendipity took over.

Still unsure if he'd come back, Anderson was doing TV work for the Indians' network at the Nashville winter meetings when he had a chance encounter with Maddon, whom he knew from the Angels. After a lengthy chat at the hotel bar, Anderson was excited and the Rays interested.

And after an unimpressive mid January tryout when he clocked only in the low 80s, Anderson was one night's sleep from giving up. He made a last-ditch call to his surgeon, and Dr. Tim Kremchek told him he'd be "a fool" to quit because his velocity would return to the uppers 80s.

"If I don't run into Joe, this doesn't happen," Anderson said Sunday. "If Dr. Kremchek doesn't answer his phone that night, I'm retired. I'd be doing TV today in Winter Haven."

Even from here, the comeback is going to take a lot of work. Anderson is still throwing in the low 80s - "I'd have a hard time making the Geneva High team" - but the Rays are willing to be patient, at least into mid summer, as he builds arm strength, knowing the value of his experience, presence and personality.

"It's always fun to have guys in the clubhouse who know how to laugh at themselves," said Percival, "and he definitely can do that."

How so? In a half-hour chat, he compared his comeback to the rock band KISS' makeup tour ("but hopefully better" than Guns N' Roses' long-delayed return), joked about the volume of text messages from old teammates ("They're like, 'What are you doing'"), and responded to extended teasing from former teammate Percival by saying, "I haven't been interviewed in 2 1/2 years, trust me, there's a lot here."

As good as Anderson feels, he figures he has nothing to lose.

"Those other things will be there," he said. "TV will be there (he has an open offer to return to the booth), school's not going anywhere, law school I'm pretty sure they'll be open."

And just think of the ratings if he does make it Back to the Bigs.

"We might even register," he said. "Maybe we'd get a point."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.