FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Ryan Kalish has spent enough time here to qualify to vote in the Florida primary, learn the correct way to spell the Caloosahatchee River, and discover the hidden spots to hook a great bass.
Needless to say, Kalish would have preferred to be patrolling right field in Fenway Park, especially when J.D. Drew was hurt, the Red Sox were scrambling for outfielders and Kalish had already shown he was on the cusp of making it to the big leagues. Kalish knew he would miss time after injuring his left (throwing) shoulder last April making a diving catch at Triple-A Pawtucket, but he never imagined that it would be almost a year later and no end yet to the road to recovery.
Shoot, it was only five weeks after he hurt his shoulder that he was back playing in a game here in extended spring training, thinking it would only be a matter of time before he'd be returning to Pawtucket -- until his neck went haywire, too.
"The way it worked out was just crazy," Kalish said. "First pitch, I hit a ground ball to shortstop, I run down the line, and I'm like, 'What's wrong with my neck?' That's when it happened. I felt my neck go out.
"It was weird because I've had these stiff necks before in years past where it was like three days and gone. I'm assuming three days later I'm going to be all right. Three days, we just chill. It didn't feel better when I went in the cage. Then 10 days, three weeks, the next thing you know it's months later, and I'm like, 'This is something serious. We've got to figure out what's going on.'"
Even then, Kalish didn't give up on trying to lend a hand last season. He reported to Lowell in August on a rehab assignment for a couple of games, then was back in Pawtucket.
"I was just wearing everything, all the pain, but I wanted to help the big club if I could," he said. "Even if I wasn't hitting, maybe with defense."
But after just eight games with Pawtucket, in which he had just five hits in 31 at-bats, Kalish was forced to shut it down. "We decided for my career, man, we've got to take care of this," he said.
Last Sept. 14, Kalish underwent surgery performed by Dr. Joseph Maroon in Pittsburgh to repair a bulging disc in his neck. The former high school football quarterback and strong safety at Red Bank (N.J.) High thought about all the hits he had taken and dished out, and wondered if there was a connection.
"I think about all the times I hit somebody with my head first or even playing baseball -- you dive or something -- and you get whiplash," he said. "Over the years, this might have been what happened. And obviously that dive maybe had a little bit to do with it."
But even after the neck surgery, the doctors weren't through with him. The Red Sox had hoped that the shoulder would respond to rest and rehabilitation, but on Nov. 8, Dr. Lewis Yocum in Los Angeles performed surgery to repair a partially torn labrum.
"If it was up to me, I would have liked to have done things sooner," he said, "but they've got to go the conservative route first. Nobody wants to chop up a neck and a shoulder. I think they did all they could do. They were working so hard for me. I can't fault them. Other doctors tried a rehab program too. I can't blame anybody."
The master plan had looked so clean and promising for Kalish. Drew came to the end of his five-year, $70 million deal with the Sox last fall. Kalish had made a terrific first impression in a big-league callup in 2010, playing all three outfield positions over 53 games, stealing 10 bases in 11 tries, whacking 11 doubles and 4 home runs while batting .252, and looking not the least bit intimidated by his surroundings.
Everything was in place for an orderly succession, until last April's dive. Now the timetable remains uncertain.
Kalish is not yet close to playing in a game. He has been playing catch three times a week from 60 feet. On Monday, he took his first swings in the cage, hitting from a tee. Minor-league rehab coordinator Chip Simpson, working with Mike Reinold on the big-league staff, has an entire progression mapped out for Kalish, but with the proviso that if he feels the need to take it down a notch, to let them know. They're not going to push.
Kalish has been hurt before. In 2007, he was tearing it up for short-season Class-A Lowell until he was hit by a pitch that fractured the hamate bone in his right wrist in mid-July, and he underwent offseason surgery. But he has never gone through such a prolonged period of rehab as he has here.
"It's been tough, man," he said. "It's not just the baseball. I've spent a lot of hours working on my head too, and I've got more months coming up. This has been the biggest challenge of my life."
Kalish says he has started to read a lot more. The bass fishing helps, and he's made some friends. "I've met some cool people who want to hang out and chill," he said. "That's cool."
But Kalish, who turns 24 in six days, remains focused on a bigger picture. A best-case scenario would be to be back playing sometime in June.
"I'm a little nervous to come back," he said. "It's been so long. It's going be about 15 months when all is said and done.
"June would be really good. I'd like that. But I'm also at the point now where I'm almost at the other end of the spectrum, that I want to make sure I'm back in top form.
"I'm sure it'll take a little adjustment. Who knows, maybe I'll come right out of the gate fine. But I want to play this game for a long time. If it takes a few more months now, then whatever."
Kalish has a couple of screws in his shoulder and several sutures. "I don't know the terms for everything that's in there," he said, "but biologically my shoulder is different now. It's crazy, man. It's tighter, it feels more together, it feels stronger."
But he also knows that not everything will feel perfect.
"Obviously, I'm not the first guy who got hurt and will do something after he gets hurt, and I wouldn't be the first guy who gets hurt and never does anything," he said.
"This is just life. These are just the cards I've been dealt. Now let's see what I do with it. It remains to be seen."