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Odds Against, or the Ballad of Ricky Romero

Ricky Romero was a Major League team's ace just a few years ago. Then came The Thing, the mysterious, much-feared disorder that makes pitchers unable to throw strikes.
Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It didn't have to go this way, at least until it did. This was, for Ricky Romero as for the vast majority of people who ever seriously endeavor to play a sport professionally, the statistically likely outcome: the Toronto Blue Jays released the lefthander on Saturday, bringing their 10-year relationship to a close. A tenure with the team that began with Romero being selected sixth overall in the 2005 draft after leading Cal State-Fullerton to a College World Series win ended with Romero injured and to all appearances broken for good by The Thing, the unnameable affliction that causes some pitchers to forget how to throw strikes.


All fanbases are tempted into games of "What If: Draft Edition," but none with the relish of frustrated ones. In Blue Jays lore, the legacy of ex-GM JP Ricciardi can be summed up by restating the fact that Romero was taken one pick ahead of Troy Tulowitzki, and one behind Ryan Braun. Also on the board that June, for another few picks: Andrew McCutchen.

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The odds are always long: of the first 100 picks in that draft, only 23 are currently on a big league roster. Romero's 30 years old now, and from here on out nothing gets easier, nothing is certain, but he at least made it before he was unmade. That's not nothing. But while Romero did indeed flash some promise—by Wins Above Replacement, Romero is still the third most valuable pitcher picked in that first round—he was never a MVP, like Braun and McCutchen, nor a perennial All-Star, like Tulo.

The unravelling was long and gradual and came very quickly to seem final. But when he was on, Romero was something: a four-seamer that could touch 95, and a changeup that worked when the fastball was sharp, making hitters look off-balance and goofy. Twice, during the Blue Jays' depressingly barren black-capped years, he was the Opening Day starter, and in 2011 he was an All-Star. From 2009 through 2011 he won 13, 14, and 15 games, respectively, and remained mostly on the good side of the delicate control/wildness balance.


Then it all came unhinged, as mysteriously as these things ever do, during the second half of 2012. By Opening Day, 2013, he was in A ball; Romero made what are presently his last four Major League appearances that year, getting 22 outs and allowing 20 baserunners, 11 of them by walk. Most of the next couple of seasons found him in Triple-A Buffalo. There were surgeries, then recoveries, throwing sessions, and assessments. It was a bewilderingly Sisyphean process, and rarely did the reports augur well. And, now there is this: as matter-of-fact and unsurprising as can be, but also a kind of hollow shock.

In happier times. Which is to say not nearly as long ago as it seems. — Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In announcing the move, Toronto GM Alex Anthopolous employed the bland and toothless corporate-speak that characterizes modern baseball communication: "We made the determination we just didn't think by the end of the year he was going to be able to factor for us up here. Knowing this was the last year of his contract, we felt it was best to just give him the opportunity to get a head start somewhere else." It was a business decision.

There is no solid moral purchase to find on the matter of how athletes are disposed of once they're no longer needed—anybody care to discuss Josh Hamilton's role as the pariah in Arte Moreno's morality tale? But the hard fact of it, under the specific little tragedies, is that there's nothing particularly notable about Romero's story. Athletes are paid to win, goes the argument. But also: this is an actual human who was paid to do a thing until it seemed like he wasn't very good at doing that thing anymore, at which point the employer said, publicly, "We don't think you're worth our money anymore, and we can't use you, but maybe somebody else will?"

So it goes, and not just for Ricky Romero. Regarding the human aspect, Romero always seemed like a decent guy, genuinely happy to be doing what he was doing, if also possessed of an intensity that read like anger on the mound. As such, his thanks-and-goodbye Tweet to the people of Toronto feels like it came from an authentic place.

And maybe somebody else will find a way to fix and use Ricky Romero. Who knows? Those odds are glaringly pessimistic, but comebacks have been made of far more unlikely stuff; Scott Kazmir was 27 when he lost the plate utterly, and 29 when he found it again. But while the romantics among us are hoping for that final plot point in his redemption story, I'll hold fondly the memory of Romero's big league debut, in case we don't get any new memories.

The Jays hosted the Tigers that early April afternoon, Romero matched up against fellow first-rounder and Great Hope for the Future Rick Porcello. It was the first time two first-rounders had made their debuts against one another. Romero out-pitched Porcello that day, earning a 6-2 win on the strength of homers by Marco Scutaro, Aaron Hill, and Adam Lind. That was what the future looked like, then. But that's the thing about futures: odds are they'll look different than you'd hoped.