Brett Tomko enjoyed a long career in Major League Baseball that included pitching in big games and stops in the postseason. While some athletes in his position - accomplished professionally with a young family - would choose to relax and enjoy post-retirement life, the 40-year-old is enthusiastic about his bid to return to the bigs in 2014.
The veteran says he has every reason to be confident, because he's been counted out before and proved the naysayers wrong. In the midst of his 100th career win late in 2009, he suffered a pinched nerve that caused him to lose feeling from his elbow to the middle of his hand. When doctors jammed needles into Tomko's right arm as part of a nerve test to assess the damage, he didn't feel them. The next year, the veteran pitched in the lower levels of the A's minor league system and got shelled by "18 and 19 year olds" as he couldn't get his fastball above 83 mph.
He eventually got his velocity back, however, and hooked on with the Rangers in 2011 where he pitched in Triple-A after some time on the varsity squad. He spent the bulk of 2012 with the Reds' Triple-A affiliate, but during his final start of the year, he dislocated his right shoulder. Now, after a year of independent ball, Tomko says he's anxious to show MLB what he's capable of.
"I was basically told by a lot of doctors that I'd never pitch again and that kind of made me appreciate things more," Tomko said. "It gave me a new perspective on baseball and how great it was that I got to play for the last 18 years and how much I enjoyed playing. I enjoy everything about the process: traveling to new cities, the competition..there's nothing I really don't enjoy about it."
Tomko is offering clubs more than just a positive attitude, though that's probably also a selling point, as he says that he's willing to pitch in Triple-A and eager to help young pitchers improve. This offseason, the veteran has lost 20 to 25 pounds and has gotten his fastball up to the 90-93 mph range. By his account, Tomko, who turns 41 in April, says that he feels as good as he did when he was 25. He also played some winter ball for the first time in his professional career, spending a month in the Dominican Republic where he stifled big league hitters with regularity.
While in the Dominican, scouts from numerous teams - including the Mariners, Indians, Red Sox, Marlins, Nationals, Dodgers, and Mets - all spoke with Tomko and expressed varying degrees of interest. The veteran has also chatted with the Angels and Yankees and will be throwing for the Orioles on Friday. A few Asian clubs also approached him during his stint in the DR, and while he'll consider those opportunities, he says he would prefer a good Triple-A opportunity with a big league club. Tomko says that agent Larry O'Brien will set up a formal audition for multiple clubs at the end of January or in the first week of February if he hasn't signed with a club by that time.
Tomko is taking it all one step at a time, but he's more than open to pitching beyond 2014 if the opportunity presents itself.
"Physically, if I still feel as good as I did when I was younger, then I could see [pitching in 2015 and beyond]. I'll keep lacing it up until someone rips the uniform off of my back and says 'You're done.'" Tomko said. "I tell my family all the time, I'd never go out there and embarrass myself, and if my stuff suffers or isn't the same or if my pitches have gone to the dumps, I'm done. I feel like I can look in the mirror at any point and say it's been a good run, but I don't feel like I'm done. I'm not throwing 95 or 96 [mph] like when I was 25 or 26, but I'll take 93. If I was throwing 84, I'd say it's time to shut it down."
No matter what, Tomko says he wants to stay involved in baseball and would be open to different opportunities when he's done pitching, including coaching and serving as a TV analyst. However, he's not thinking about any of that right now.
"I'd definitely want to stay in the game in some avenue, whether it's being with an organization in a role where you still help the young kids...I'm game for anything. But, right now my focus is playing and pitching and working out. I have the same mindset every year. This February I'm going to be in camp somewhere and ready to pitch."