MINNEAPOLIS — Scott Kazmir pauses at the question, flashes that familiar smile, then laughs. “I don’t know,” he replies. “How did I get here?”
Not just here specifically, to the downtown hotel conference room where the Oakland A’s left-hander took his place among the other American League All-Stars for Monday’s media session.
But here in the broader sense — back into baseball after being so far down and for a while actually out of the game, and back to being one of the game’s elite pitchers as he was for the Rays in what seems so long ago. “It’s something that for a couple years I thought maybe it would never happen,” Kazmir said. “But I’m proud of this moment. I’m proud to be here.”
Kid K is 30 now, if that’s possible, and, he tells you, wiser, more mature, better able to appreciate the journey. (He actually organized the chartered flight and ground transportation for the seven A’s who made the All-Star team, joking, “How did I become the responsible one overnight?”)
So even after struggling so badly he was released by the Angels in June 2011 less than two years after being acquired from the Rays, even after an aborted comeback in the Dominican Republic, even after spending a few months with nowhere to throw but his back yard, even after the apparent indignity of pitching independent league ball, he insists he never, ever gave up hope.
“It was tough,” he said. “It was a frustrating time. I’m in my backyard throwing bullpens. I couldn’t even watch major-league games. I’d see one on TV and I’d turn it real quick. It was tough. I knew that I still had it in me. I just had to keep working. It was definitely some trying times during all that.”
Mechanical breakdown in delivery hurt velocity
It took a while for Kazmir to identify the problem, a gradual loss of his mechanics that he now believes began as he compensated for arm and groin strains in the Rays’ 2008 World Series season.
“Honestly, I think a lot of people thought it was mental when it had nothing to do with that,” he said. “It was something where I just physically couldn’t get there. I couldn’t get to a point where I felt comfortable.”
As a result it took longer — much longer than anyone could have expected — for him to figure out how to solve it. He was getting advice from all corners, making this change and that, working out on his own for a while at his Houston home, enlisting the help of Ron Wolforth who runs the somewhat unconventional Texas Baseball Ranch, accepting an invitation from former big-leaguer Gary Gaetti to join the nearby Sugarland Skeeters and pitch in the independent Atlantic League.
“I tried everything, that’s for sure,” Kazmir said.
At one point, late 2011 or early 2012, he thought he had made enough progress that after focusing for so long on the process he wanted to measure his performance and had someone hold a radar gun when he threw.
For the first time, he started to wonder if he really was done.
“I was like, aaallllll right, let’s take another step back and regroup,” Kazmir said.
In the early years of his career, he had gotten batters out by throwing the ball past them at 90-plus mph rather than necessarily pitching. As his mechanics gradually slipped away, the velocity dwindled and results were no longer there.