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Back in the game

Tony Saunders returns to competitive pitching tonight in the minors. He'll be happy, he says, when he's back with the Rays.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 1, 2000


One pitch.

One pitch in the third inning of an otherwise uneventful May 26, 1999, game against Texas.

One pitch that seemed no different than the thousands he'd thrown.

"One pitch," Tony Saunders said, "and it should have been over."

* * *

For anyone who saw it, and there is no way you'd forget if you had, you certainly would have thought it was over. Saunders collapsing in numbing pain on the Tropicana Field mound, having fractured the humerus bone in his left arm. The arm that he used to pitch. The arm that is his livelihood.

Skepticism was easy to find, certainly more than case studies of success. History wasn't kind, with none of three similarly injured recent big-leaguers making it back to pitch effectively, if at all.

But Saunders insisted. And persisted.

Tonight he'll pitch.

It's not that big a deal. That's what Saunders says anyway. He's thrown in the outfield. The bullpen. Batting practice. Simulated games. Tonight is just the next step. Two innings in a low-level minor-league game, pitching for the Charleston RiverDogs against the Augusta (what else?) Greenjackets.

Actually, it's a monumental accomplishment. "A pretty amazing story," Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild said. So amazing, the Rays considered keeping Saunders' return date a secret, figuring he didn't need the media attention.

He has been working out since February, started throwing in earnest in April, advanced to facing hitters in May and simulated games in June.

Tonight, a batter in a different uniform. An umpire. Fans.

"It's going to be great," Saunders said. "The emotional part, that's all over with. I've been doing that all year. Emotionally, it's not going to be an issue. Relief, that's probably a better word. The simple fact that all the work I've done, all the time that I put in, all the days that I've struggled are starting to pay off."

Four hundred and thirty one if you're counting, and Saunders, 26, says the arm is as good as new. Better, actually, since the doctors joke that he'll never break it in that spot again, no matter what. "It's not even an issue with me right now," he said. "I know it's healthy, I know it's healed and I know nothing's going to happen to it."

He snaps off curveballs, mixes in changeups, lets it all go on fastballs. The command isn't always all there and he may not throw quite as hard, at least not yet anyway, but there's no trepidation.

"I think my velocity is pretty close to what I used to throw, but I'm not too worried about my velocity," he said. "If I'm out there pitching a game and I'm getting guys out throwing 82 (mph), then my ass is throwing 82 all game. It's not going to be a big ego thing anymore, going out there and trying to throw 95 even though I can't."

Saunders has learned a lot from watching for 14 months. Maybe even matured.

"I'm a lot better pitcher now, for the simple fact that I'm not hanging on every pitch anymore," he said. "If I throw a pitch and a guy hits it 500 feet, so what? My life ain't over. Go get the ball and go after the next guy."

Stubborn and competitive have been two of the more polite words to describe Saunders. That's a big reason his rehabilitation was such a tremendous success.

The Rays shackled him with an ultra-conservative approach, testing his arm and his resolve. He'd fight the medical staff, fight Rothschild and fight himself. But he was always fighting.

"The first sign when someone gives up is doubt," he said. "You can hear doubt in their voice. You can't let that enter your mind. No matter what situation occurs, you've got to think positively. You've got to think that no matter what happens, you can overcome it.

"That's basically what I did from Day 1. I didn't feel sorry for myself. I didn't get down on myself. I just tried to stay positive."

His pitching style isn't all that changed. "I think what this whole ordeal has taught me is to appreciate what I have and be thankful for what I have," Saunders said. "When you're young and doing what you want to do for a living, you think it's going to last forever. I feel very blessed to be able to still be doing this and I appreciate every single day I get to put a uniform on, plain and simple."

As important as getting through tonight healthy is, as important as the next five minor-league starts will be, Saunders has a grander stage in mind.

He plans, well, actually he is positive, that he will pitch in the majors in September. Then, and only then, will his comeback be complete.

"That's what counts," Saunders said. "Being the first guy to step out between the lines for the first time, that's going to be the event. What I'm doing now is still preparing for that, physically and mentally."

He starts at 7 tonight in Augusta, Ga.

And he'll start with one pitch.

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