Ricky Romero wakes up to the same message every morning.
"I will pitch in the big leagues in 2018," says an audio recording of himself that serves as his phone's alarm clock.
It's a stretch goal, to be sure. Once the No. 6 overall pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2005 draft, Romero last pitched in the majors in 2013. Last season, he was released from a minor-league contract by the San Francisco Giants and later, at his request, by the Tijuana Toros of the independent Mexican League. Still, Romero has found his way back to a headspace where he's waking up with a positive mantra each morning, and more importantly, to where he's enjoying pitching again.
Getting there has not been easy.
For so long, a long-term major league future seemed a certainty. Romero debuted with the Blue Jays in 2009, throwing 178 innings and looking every bit the promising rookie his draft pedigree suggested he could be. A strong 2010 followed, with Romero establishing himself as something of a workhorse, and 2011 saw him earn his first All-Star nod, an American League Pitcher of the Month award, and two down-ballot votes for the Cy Young. Armed with a changeup that often baffled hitters, the southpaw fashioned a 2.92 ERA over 225 innings, and even if some over-performance relative to peripherals could be priced in, it seemed the Jays had a rotation anchor for years to come.
That job title may, in retrospect, have been Romero's undoing. He began pitching through soreness, and then pain in 2012, not wanting to hit the disabled list because an uncompetitive Jays team had already been ravaged by injuries to its starting rotation. The pain in his knees would bleed into his delivery, zapping his effectiveness. He'd lead the majors in walks, posting an unsightly 5.77 ERA and looking nothing like the pitcher from a year ago.
"I felt like I was letting them down if I went on the shelf, too," Romero told VICE Sports. "As time has gone on and the more I think about it, it probably wasn't one of the smartest things to do. I should have probably taken a little bit more caution with it, and I didn't. It's not like the team was battling for a playoff spot or anything like that, so I should have been smarter. A little bit of stubbornness and knowing how mentally tough I was, and I am, I wanted to just fight through the season.
"I'm a gamer. I'm paid to go out there every fifth day and pitch, and that's the way I looked at it at the time. It probably wasn't the smartest decision for myself and my career, and here we are."
Romero fought through, making every one of his scheduled starts and entering the offseason with an eye on being more effective for 2013, when he'd presumably be healthier. He was not. Pain in his left side forced him to alter his delivery, which put undue pressure on his front side and led to pain in his right leg, too. He never felt normal, and spring training ineffectiveness saw him optioned to the minors before the season, a striking come-down for a player who was viewed as the team's ace just two years prior. He would eventually be recalled, struggle, be outrighted off the 40-man roster, and then make a brief September cameo.
The process took a major toll on him mentally. Romero spent the bulk of 2012 and 2013 in the trainer's room, or talking to coaches, or watching video, trying to figure out how to get back to where he was. His delivery became mechanical, as he tried to focus on too many elements at once while pushing the pain out of his mind.
"It was mentally draining," says Romero, who is loath to blame things on injury. "People saw the frustration, people started to see somebody that wanted to do so good. I could tell a lot of people were rooting for me, and at the same time there was this, 'How can I get out of this?' There were a lot of sleepless nights. I'd go home and I'd just sit there in bed and in my apartment, wherever I was, and just think about, what can I do better?"
Get healthy, foremost. It wasn't until after a frustrating 2014 spring training showing that Romero finally conceded injury.
"By the end of that year, I sat back, and I was like, 'What just happened?' At one point, I just had enough," he says. "I was like, 'Alright, it's not feeling better.' I pitched the rest of 2013, and 2014, [and] decided to have surgery. Sure enough, I go see Dr. [Neal] ElAttrache, and after the surgery, he's like, 'I don’t even know how you were walking.'"
Romero had torn quad tendons in both legs, setting up a grueling rehabilitation process. He had surgery on one, went through an eight-week recovery, and then had to do it all over again for the other. Romero remembers being taken aback by the amount of pain he was in after the procedures, when medication would wear off. The idea of starting all over after one rehab process was daunting. His success had been so short-lived, and the road back looked arduous.
It was the one time Romero nearly tapped out.
"I remember I started crying," he says. "And I was like, 'I just don't know if I can do this anymore. I'm in too much pain. Why did this have to happen to me? I've worked hard my whole career, I've never taken a day for granted, I've been humble through it all. Why did this happen to me?' I just broke down."
He would eventually find his way back to the mound, spending parts of three seasons, from 2015-2017, in the Giants' minor league system (totaling 30.2 innings with a 5.87 ERA) around surgery to repair a torn left flexor tendon in his elbow. Romero speaks fondly of the organization for giving him a chance and handling everything exactly as he would have wanted, to the point that he apologized to them that he didn't work out as a flier.
A conversation with former teammate JoJo Reyes and some family roots in Tijuana encouraged him to try the Mexican League, but an unexpected move to the bullpen and sporadic usage led Romero to once again question things. Still feeling off physically, not getting the workload he needed to improve, and with a wife and young child at home, Romero ultimately decided Mexico wasn't for him.
"I didn't come here to win a championship, to be a champion in the Mexican League. No offense to anybody there or anyone in that league, but my vision was higher than that," Romero says. "My vision was to prove that I'm healthy and come back to the U.S. and hopefully get another chance at the big leagues.
"I came home and I told [my wife] what happened and I was like, 'You know what, I don't know if this is the end.' I wasn't having fun there."
After taking a week to soul-search, Romero went out to casually play catch. He excitedly returned home saying he couldn't retire—the feeling of the ball coming out of his hand was too exhilarating to walk away from at age 33.
Romero called his good friend Rafael Arroyo, a former minor leaguer and bullpen catcher in the New York Mets organization. Arroyo had previously worked with Oliver Perez, who struggled after inking a big contract and was out of the majors for a while before resurfacing as a high-strikeout, left-handed relief specialist. Arroyo immediately started working on fixing Romero's physical conditioning, as well as his entire mental approach, too.
For Romero, it was a stark change. He's positive by nature, but years of battling injuries and poor performance and the mental exhaustion that come with both had worn him down. The recent passing of Roy Halladay, a mentor of his, served an important reminder, and in Arroyo he has a constant presence reminding him what he was working toward and refusing to let him get down on himself.
"I think the biggest thing he brings to the table is positivity and setting your vibes," Romero says. "I never realized what that was all about until I kinda sat down and listened to myself, and accepted a lot of things that in the past I probably wouldn't accept. 'OK, this is who I am right now, this is where I want to go. It's time to start seeing this clear picture.' It's not just talking about it and hoping it's gonna happen, it's knowing it's gonna happen, that you are gonna pitch in the big leagues."
Romero also looped in Ted Silva, his pitching coach from Cal State Fullerton (now at Nebraska), who happened to be in the Los Angeles area. Silva knew Romero at his absolute best, and so the thinking went, he'd recognize what was off. Silva immediately told Romero things weren't right, pointing to a robotic approach that was negating the liveliness of his arm, and began running him through drills to get the fluidity in his delivery back.
Now, with Silva's continued guidance via text and video exchanges, Arroyo working as a catcher, trainer and mental coach all in one, and his wife, Kara Lang Romero—a holistic nutritionist in training—helping him fine-tune his diet, Romero is getting back to where he wants to be. His body is "as healthy as it's gonna be," he's had a Eureka moment making small tweaks to his delivery (the change-up is still his No. 1 weapon, by the way), and he has a built-in positivity reinforcement system in the form of his two-year-old son, Sebastian. The reminder on his alarm clock is followed closely by an exuberant positivity that serves as a reminder of why he's working toward a comeback in the first place.
"I think just seeing my son, man. That's the biggest thing. Just seeing how when he wakes up, the smile that he has to see me. He wakes up and he's so happy instantly," Romero says. "That's what gets my day going—watching him get up and be in such a good mood, when I put him in the car and it's time to go to school, him being in a good mood, him giving me a kiss. I think that's the biggest thing. You're like, 'How do you beat this?'
"He makes me wanna work hard, because the biggest motivation that I have is, I always said when I have a little son, hopefully he's old enough to get to watch his daddy on TV. Well, I have that opportunity now."
The goal is lofty, and Romero is realistic about his chances. No team is going to jump based on his self-reporting, and even a showcase may leave room for skepticism given the results of the last few years and the injury red-tape. The aim is the major leagues, and failing that, the hope is to earn a place somewhere in affiliated ball to continue working his way back. Independent ball is a possibility, too. Romero's willing to pitch where he needs to in order to get back.
More importantly than where he's pitching will simply be that he's enjoying doing so again.
"I'm excited. At one point, playing catch wasn't as exciting as it once was, just because it got so mentally draining, mechanically this, mechanically that. And right now I'm in a good place," he says. "I can't wait to feel that baseball in my hand. It should be exciting. Whether it works from here or it doesn't, at least I know that I've worked hard. The biggest thing I can say is that I haven't given up, and I didn't give up when I could have.
"All you need is one team, and there's 30 out there. Hopefully somebody takes a chance."