© 2007 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
NASHVILLE -- Like any other pitcher, Adam Pettyjohn knows he is governed by a pitch count. His time on the mound is dictated by a tiny metallic device held in the palm of a coach's hand, and with every pitch, its clock-like turn brings him closer to a pre-determined destination. The fate of each start is often found in the numbers of this counter, and when it nears three digits, chances are that time is up. Pettyjohn smiles when you mention a pitch count. He, perhaps more than any other player in his position, remembers what it is like to almost be out of time.
Sitting in the empty dugout at Greer Stadium long before batting practice, Pettyjohn, now 30, is a veteran of 10 years of professional baseball that have taken him to the top and to the bottom, from the big leagues and to the brink of death. Now, for the first time since 2001, he believes he is almost all the way back to the Major Leagues. The smile is clear, the pitch count is a part of life, and as he likes to remind people, you have to work with what is given to you.
Pettyjohn first had his life, then his pitching career, nearly taken away from him in a two-year ordeal that began when he was a rookie pitcher in 2001 with the Tigers. He had a severe case of ulcerative colitis that resulted in three surgical procedures in 2002, including the removal of his colon. At the time, his surgeon told him his vital organs had been 48 hours from shutting down. Instead of pitching, Pettyjohn went back to lifting five-pound weights and rebuilding his body that had lost 65 pounds in three months, dragging him down to a 135-pound skeleton instead of a 200-pound pitcher throwing his slider for strikes.
That was one struggle to overcome. Pitching again in the Major Leagues is another. These are not the happiest memories, but they are the memories that Pettyjohn says comprise his identity. He tells his story in the same manner he pitches, with precision, tact and aggressiveness.
"You can't be afraid of time," he said.
This is not a comeback in the traditional sense. This is a convergence of life and career, a baseball story that is really a life journey, one that involves appreciation of where he is, where he's been, and where he's going. But, like any time he is the starting pitcher for Triple-A Nashville, this experience must be completed within a certain amount of time if it is to be completed at all.
"It's always about timing and opportunity," he said. "When you're on the mound, you know you only have so many pitches to work with. For me, a lot of what I'm trying to do doesn't have to do with baseball. It's about being able to show that what I had doesn't have to be a death sentence. I want to pitch in the big leagues again, and I know I can, or I wouldn't still he sitting here. But there are bigger things than baseball sometimes, and it's easy to lose sight of that in this business. You have to perform. But what can you use that performance for in addition to helping your club?"
In hindsight, Pettyjohn believes he didn't give the disease the respect it deserved. His 2001 numbers with the Tigers -- a 1-6 record and a 5.82 ERA -- were accomplished while he was on medication. He was afraid to say anything because he didn't want to go back to the Minors.
His illness persisted in the offseason, and its symptoms were so pervasive that Pettyjohn was scared that he wouldn't be able to get through his wedding. After the three procedures -- the second of which was the removal of his colon -- and a clean bill of health, he went back to Double-A in 2003. He couldn't pitch like the second-round pick he had once been. The Tigers released him at the end of the season, setting into motion a long journey that again brought him back to Triple-A this year, and with enough worrisome moments in between to tax the strongest individual.
After splitting the 2004 season between two Triple-A clubs, Pettyjohn was released and reached the bottom. He was pitching independent baseball and knew he wasn't getting closer. Late that summer, he contemplated quitting. He told his wife, Dee, that maybe it was time to move on. She told him to be patient.
"In essence," Pettyjohn said. "She told me I was worrying too much about my pitch count."
It still wasn't easy to accept her advice. "I just didn't feel like it was happening," he said. "I told my wife that maybe this should be it if I didn't get signed."
Dee told him not to quit.
"This is his dream," she said. "This is what he loves to do. For everything that he went through, he deserved the chance to give this everything he has. Sometimes I had to remind him, 'You fought through being sick, you can fight through this, too.'"
Pettyjohn admits he was losing his fight when he caught a lucky break. A bird dog scout, impressed with his slider and believing there was projection left in his arm, recommended him to former Rangers scouting director Lenny Strelitz, now an agent. Strelitz, a former pitcher, helped Pettyjohn reconstruct his mechanics. That helped Pettyjohn sign a Minor League contract with the Mariners prior to the start of the 2006 season.
"You can't be afraid of time."
-- Pettyjohn, on life and pitching
Nearly released in Spring Training, he instead pitched well in Double-A San Antonio until he was cut in June. He returned to his home in Visalia, Calif., throwing bullpen sessions with a high school catcher while he wondered if the count had expired.
Desperate to continue playing, Pettyjohn threw a pair of games in independent baseball and had agreed to pitch professionally in Taiwan. He was three hours away from leaving for the airport when the A's offered him a chance to pitch in Triple-A for the remainder of the season. He went to Sacramento and finished the year.
"If you say baseball is about timing," Pettyjohn said. "Then I'm not about to disagree with you."
There were more obstacles waiting. Released at the end of last season, Pettyjohn signed a Minor League contract in November with the Brewers. He committed himself to an extensive conditioning program in the winter, which paid off when Pettyjohn was assigned to Double-A Hunstville to begin the 2007 season. After pitching well for the first two months of the season, he was rewarded late last month with a promotion to Triple-A, where he waits and works, and tries to return to the Major Leagues before the last click.
There is performance and there is patience, but Pettyjohn also believes in perspective, and in what he simply calls, "the plan." It's not one that anyone in baseball gave him.
"This year, next year, five years, whatever it may be, I can handle it," he said. "All I've ever wanted is a solid, honest look and an opportunity to get back to the big leagues. The Brewers have been great in that regard. This is about a lot of things -- about proving I belong in the big leagues, about showing people that have the kind of bowel diseases that I had that, and it doesn't have to be the end."
Through it all, Dee has been at his side. She was his voice when he had none. She held him when he couldn't walk. She pushed him when he was almost ready to stop pushing himself. As Pettyjohn likes to say, she's always at his side and always waiting for him when the game is over.
"I tell people this whole ride has been a blessing," he said. "And sometimes people look at you like you're crazy. I always say, I didn't ask 'Why me?' when I was in the big leagues, so how can I ask 'Why me?' now? It represents what we can go through and what we can bounce back from."
Bouncing off the mound at the end of Spring Training, a pitching instructor privately pulled Pettyjohn aside and complimented his style of pitching. There's great pride when Pettyjohn tells this story. He was pleased, perhaps most of all, because there was no pitch counter in the coach's hand.