Of all the places where Neal Cotts stands today, few people--if any--thought it would be back on a major league pitching mound.
There were setbacks and surgery. Followed by more setbacks. More surgeries.
While the game of baseball was speeding along the highway, Cotts was stuck in a ditch on the side of the road, watching the career he had hoped for pass him by.
“Discussions between myself and my agent were almost at the point where he didn’t think it was possible for me to even find a job,” says Cotts, the Belleville, Ill., native who won a World Series with the White Sox in 2005. He went 4-0 that season with a 1.94 ERA in 60.1 innings.
That was the peak of his baseball career. After what followed, most players would have quit climbing long ago.
“I had such a hard time getting a job, just finding a place to give me another shot,” Cotts says. “If it didn’t work, I’d much rather go out in the field trying to pitch than to sit at home and never know what could have happened. I’d rather end it on the field than have numerous surgeries and just call it a day.”
Traded from the White Sox to the Cubs in 2007, Cotts went 0-5 over three challenging seasons on the North Side, going back and forth to the minor leagues. He blew a save against the Pirates at Wrigley Field on May 25, 2009. A month later, he was in the operating room needing Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left elbow.
For the next four years, he was a forgotten man.
There were quiet thoughts of a comeback, but after his elbow healed he ran into problems with his hip. Cotts needed surgery in 2010 to fix a lateral tear, but it got infected, which required three more surgeries.
His career seemed over at the age of 30.
“I couldn’t pass any physicals. I think when they cured the infection, they had to go in there and cut some stuff out that was infected and things of that nature. Physically I felt okay, but in terms of me trying to pass physicals, it didn’t go very smoothly.”
In February 2011, he signed a minor league contract with the New York Yankees, who invited him to spring training.
He lasted one day.
Team officials had a look at the MRI of his hip and were scared away. Cotts was released immediately.
“Then a month later I thought I had a decent shot of going with the Phillies,” he recalls. “They flew me into Philly and I thought it was promising, but after the medical stuff they said no also.”
Out of baseball, Cotts eventually found himself giving pitching lessons to high schoolers at Slammers Training Academy in Lake Forest. He’d work there from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.
“Then at 9, a high school kid would stick around or somebody there, and I would throw a bullpen session until 9:30 at night,” Cotts explained. “I’d work on a few things and then drive home.”
He also went back to school at Illinois State, where he pitched in college.
“Just to keep busy. I’ve got 30 hours left to finish a finance degree.”
Cotts says he barely watched baseball during this time.
“It wasn’t painful. It just didn’t interest me,” he said.
But deep inside him, there was still the burning itch to get back to the majors. Why else would he be throwing to random high school players at a training academy? The desire kept gnawing at him. It wouldn’t go away.
“I always felt like if I had the opportunity to get back out on the field, I could get back. What I didn't know was if I’d ever get that opportunity.”
It finally came in February 2012, after more than two years out of baseball.
Cotts’ agent, Joe Bick, called Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels to ask if he needed left-handed pitching.
“Of course,” Daniels said.
Bick mentioned Cotts.
“His medical file is pretty deep,” Bick explained to Daniels. “I’m not sure if you do the MRIs and the other stuff if he’s going to be able to pass your doctor’s standards.”
According to Cotts, Daniels then said, “If he can pitch and if he can work through it and stay healthy, then we can work with it.”
Neal spent the entire 2012 season pitching for the Rangers Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock, Texas. After finishing the year 2-1 with a 4.55 ERA, he signed another minor league deal with the Rangers for this season.
Would he get back to the major leagues? He wasn’t sure. But after working on his arm angle this spring with Triple-A coach Brad Holman, something clicked.
I mean, really clicked.
In 23 innings at Round Rock, he gave up two earned runs with 42 strikeouts and five walks. He did not allow a single hit to a left-handed batter.
Then on May 21, almost four years to the day of his last game in the major leagues, Cotts was called up by the Rangers. He even pitched that night against the Oakland A’s.
Who was his catcher?
None other than his former White Sox backstop, A.J. Pierzynski.
“I thought it was pretty neat throwing to him again,” said Cotts, who entered the game in the 9th inning with the Rangers down 1-0. “My mind was racing a million miles an hour. I think I got a first or second pitch ground ball out and that kind of eased everything. That made it slow down just a tad bit for me. It was a quick inning.”
Quick? Try six pitches. Three of them were used to strike out A’s slugger Yoenis Cespedes to end the inning.
Cotts walked off the field and into the dugout, where Pierzynski threw him the baseball and said, “Welcome back.”
But believe it or not, Pierzynski is not the only catcher on the Rangers who has a Chicago history with Cotts. Their back-up is former Cub Geovany Soto.
“It’s great. I really like playing with Soto,” says Cotts, who has been having quite a Chicago reunion lately. He saw Ryan Dempster in Boston earlier this week, and is now in Toronto where Mark Buehrle and Mark DeRosa play for the Blue Jays.
“It’s neat being back in the swing of things just seeing guys you played with that you’ve know through the years after not doing anything for two years. Just sitting at home.”
In nine appearances with the Rangers, Cotts has a 0.82 ERA with 11 strikeouts in 11.0 innings.
Last Wednesday, he pitched a third of an inning in relief against the Red Sox and earned the victory.
It was his first major league win in seven years. Sunday he pitched another scoreless inning against the Blue Jays and won that game too.
Safe to say that Cotts is appreciating the game a little more this time around?
“No doubt," he said. "After you've gone through some ups and downs and get back here, you really take every moment, every day at a time. I’m not going to lie, when I was younger I was looking ahead, ahead and ahead. It probably got me into trouble performance-wise. So I’m just taking it a day at a time and appreciating what’s going on, and go forward from there.”