Call it the upside of rehab.
For the better part of the past six years, ever since he underwent the second of his 3½ Tommy John surgeries, Jonny Venters had the good fortune to spend an inordinate amount of time with his family. To have dinners together and handle carpool duty and scratch off items from a honey-do list. A couple of months ago, that upside subsided.
Just days after the birth of his baby girl in February, Venters -- a former All-Star pitcher with the Braves who was trying to make it back to the majors for the first time since 2012 -- kissed his wife and kids goodbye and, for the first time in forever, headed south to spring training. Two months later, there he was in Durham, home of the Tampa Bay Rays' Triple-A affiliate, dreaming of two things: a family reunion and a call-up (not necessarily in that order).
On Wednesday, April 25, Venters and the Durham Bulls were supposed to host a 10:35 a.m. getaway game. The Bulls were scheduled for a day off on Thursday, followed by a three-game weekend series in Gwinnett, Georgia. So right after the final out on Wednesday, Venters would make the six-hour drive from Durham to Suwanee, the Atlanta suburb where his wife and three young children lived. They would spend an entire day and a half together, pretending they were a normal family.
As fate would have it, that Wednesday morning getaway game started out in a rain delay that threatened to keep Venters in Durham longer than planned, threatened to keep him from his family. An hour or so into the delay, right around noon, Venters found himself in manager Jared Sandberg's office, hearing the words he thought he might never hear again.
You're headed to the big leagues.
Once the initial shock wore off, once it sank in that finally, at the age of 33, he had made it all the way back, Venters called his wife and gave her the news. He wasn't coming to Gwinnett. Instead, he was on his way to Baltimore, where later that night, the Rays would take on the Orioles at Camden Yards.
The family reunion would have to wait.
THE MEDICAL HISTORY of Jonny Venters reads like a children's folktale.
The first time his elbow went pop, in 2005, they took tissue from his left wrist and inserted it where the torn ulnar collateral ligament was. The second time his elbow went pop, in 2013, they took tissue from his left hamstring and inserted it where the torn left wrist tissue was. The third time his elbow went pop, in 2014, they took tissue from his right hamstring and inserted it where the torn left hamstring tissue was. The fourth time his elbow went pop, in July 2016, they took a timeout.
"That was a tough one to swallow," says Venters, who signed a minor league deal with the Rays in March 2015, six months after his third Tommy John. A nearly unprecedented number (former big leaguer Jason Isringhausen is the only other player to have had more than two Tommy John procedures), all three surgeries came standard with a notoriously grueling rehabilitation process that's more accurately measured in years than in months. After the third one, he told himself that if it didn't succeed, he would likely hang up his cleats. And now here he was, on the wrong side of 30 and four years removed from his last big league appearance, faced with the crushing reality that his left elbow had betrayed him yet again.
"Once it failed, it kind of sunk in that I'm probably done," Venters says. "It was tough. It was tough on everybody in my family."
It was toughest on his wife.
Viviana Venters was driving home when her husband called with the news. As she pulled up to their modest, four-bedroom house -- they had downsized after the third surgery, selling off an 8,000 square-foot mansion -- she couldn't believe her ears.
It's torn again, Jonny said. I'm coming home.
Unlike the last time, when Viviana lost it right there in Dr. James Andrews' office, there were no hysterics. No tears. Only numbness.
"I was just in shock," she says.
As Viviana sat there in her black GMC Denali, she thought about the labyrinthine path they had taken ever since they started dating back in high school. About how, for better or worse, baseball and family always seemed to be intertwined. She thought about watching Jonny play in his first and only All-Star Game, when she was pregnant with their oldest son, Wyatt. About how the joy of bearing a second child, a boy named Walker, was tinged with the bitterness of Jonny's withstanding a second Tommy John just five weeks later. About how they had closed on their dream home, only to get the nightmare news the very next month that Jonny would need surgery a third time. Now it was happening again, and it was more than Viviana could handle.
With her in-laws there for moral support, she sat in the deafening quiet of her husbandless home. They waited for Jonny to return. Eventually, shock turned into depression.
"I was heartbroken for him," says Viviana. "He'd been through so much. We were all just in tears because we were like, 'This is it. That's the end.'"
They spent the next couple of months discussing new beginnings. They talked about coaching but agreed that if Jonny was going to do something different, it didn't make any sense to pick a career that would have him on the road and away from his family. They talked about the possibility of Viviana, who had studied interior design at the University of Florida, putting her degree to use. Maybe Jonny, who was drafted out of high school and never attended college, would get his real estate license and together they could flip houses. But no matter which alternate reality they pondered, they kept coming back to pitching. In retrospect, the reason Jonny Venters didn't quit is because he couldn't quit.
"There was nothing to lose, except for maybe a little bit of time. I didn't want to be 40 years old and looking back and wishing I would've done something differently or worked harder or tried it again." Jonny Venters
"This is all I know," says Venters, tears welling up his eyes. Standing in front of his locker at Camden Yards the day after his improbable call-up, he's mostly matter-of-fact in recounting his epic journey. But when the conversation veers toward institutionalism, toward the gravitational pull of the only vocation he has ever known, he chokes up like a little leaguer using his big brother's bat. "It's not like I have a ... I didn't go to college and get a degree, so this is all I've done."
It's a common struggle for those who've been through what Venters has been through.
"It's definitely a shot of reality," says Royals lefty Danny Duffy, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012. "You've got to make sure you know who you are."
Adds Pirates hurler Jameson Taillon, another Tommy John survivor: "As a pitcher, your job is to go out and compete for your team. When you can't do that, you feel helpless. So when you're not pitching, you really have to find what your worth in life is off the baseball field."
Ultimately, Venters decided that his potential worth on the diamond, even after a fourth surgery, was greater than his value off it. The decision was aided by the fact that this injury was slightly different than the previous three. Instead of the ligament fraying in two and requiring a graft, it had detached from the bone. As such, Dr. Neal Elattrache, who had performed Venters' third Tommy John (Dr. Andrews did the first two), was offering a less invasive reattachment procedure that would result in a shorter rehab period. Not that time was of the utmost concern.
"There was nothing to lose, except for maybe a little bit of time," says Venters. "I didn't want to be 40 years old and looking back and wishing I would've done something differently or worked harder or tried it again. If it didn't work out, we weren't out anything."
Ironically, if it did work out, his family stood to lose more.
If the surgery, which Venters refers to as his third and a half Tommy John, was a success and he somehow managed to make it back to the big leagues, the family dynamic would change drastically. Instead of Venters staying at home as he had for the better part of his children's lives, he'd be living the life of a fully functioning pro athlete. His sons would be without a father, his wife without a husband, for months on end. It's a risk Viviana was willing to take -- not necessarily because of the money (at the league minimum of $545,000, Venters' salary would be a third of what it was the last time he was in the show), but because of a promise she made 10 years ago.
"My job as his wife and his partner in life is to support him no matter what," says Viviana, who married her high school sweetheart, the man she still calls Jonathan, back in 2008. "If he felt like he could come back, if that's he what he wanted to do, then I'll support him. I'll ride this thing to the end."
The end. For Viviana, that has been the hardest part of the past year and a half. Ever since TJ No. 3.5, she has been waiting for the other shoe to drop, afraid to answer the phone or check her texts for fear that the end has finally come. Every checkpoint, from the first long toss to the first bullpen session to the first time throwing live batting practice, brought with it a new level of angst. If she didn't hear from her husband for too long afterward, her wheels would invariably start turning.
"It's sad that you get to that point," says Viviana. "I was just kind of preparing myself."
But through it all, that fateful call never came. Through every milestone and every minor league level -- Venters returned to action last June and, pitching competitively for the first time in five years, ascended all the way to Triple-A by September -- the news was good. Through spring training this year and the first two weeks of the minor league season, the news was good. Then, on Wednesday, April 25, right around noon, Viviana's phone rang. On the other end was her husband, and the news was once again good. Like, really good.
"The Rays wanna call me up," Jonny told her.
Viviana screamed. She cried. She paced back and forth, trying not to drop Evie, the baby girl she held in her arms, the one who had been born just seven days before Jonny left for his first spring training in forever.
Then she started packing.
THE FAMILY REUNION didn't have to wait long.
Just like it would've been easy enough for Viviana Venters to put the kibosh on her husband's cockamamie comeback at any number of stops along the way, it would've been easy enough for her to not make the trip to Baltimore. Easy enough to say, "I love you so much honey, but it's such short notice and I'm knee-deep in diapers, and last I checked, we don't have a private jet or a nanny, so good luck and we'll all be watching from home." But that's not what happened.
Instead, what happened is this: Viviana hung up with her husband, called her mother-in-law, went online and purchased six plane tickets, threw a bunch of stuff in suitcases, squeezed all three kids in the car with her father-in-law driving faster than Georgia state law allows, boarded a 5 p.m. flight that landed at 7:50 and hopped a ride to Camden Yards, where she and her kids and their grandparents arrived in the fourth inning, just in the nick of time.
The whole thing happened so fast that when Venters came on to pitch in the bottom of the sixth inning of a game that he says "felt like making my debut again," he wasn't even sure his family was there to witness it. His family, on the other hand, knew exactly where he was.
Even though Viviana was seated behind home plate, more than 500 feet away from the bullpen in left-center field, even though it had been over 2,000 days since Venters had last pitched in a major league game, she recognized the shape of her husband from the moment he started warming up. He wasn't the only lefty in the Rays' pen, but he was the only one with the black glove and the high socks. Moments later, after retiring Orioles slugger Chris Davis on a groundout to shortstop, Venters became the only one -- on the Rays or any other MLB team, this year or ever -- to make it all the way back after 3½ Tommy John surgeries.
It was such an emotional moment that the mother of Tampa Bay second baseman Joey Wendle, who was sitting in front of the Venters family, was moved to tears.
"He's not even my son and I'm crying," said Wendle's mom, craning her neck around toward the gaggle of Jonny Venters fans seated behind her. "I'm so happy for your family."
After Venters' game, 700 miles from its originally scheduled location, the family reunion finally became official.
"You did it," Viviana told her husband as he emerged with from the visiting clubhouse flashing a gargantuan grin. "Even if that was your last chance, you still did it."
FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, that four-pitch outing in Baltimore wasn't Venters' last chance.
Since then, he has made four more appearances. Of the 16 batters he has faced in all, only two reached base without his consent (he issued one intentional walk). While the Rays seem understandably hesitant to lean too heavily on Venters -- he has worked just five times in 18 days since being called up -- they haven't shied away from using him in high-leverage situations: Against the hard-hitting Red Sox at Fenway Park, the veteran lefty came on with two on and one out and promptly retired both Mitch Moreland and Rafael Devers to extinguish the rally. Despite the initial success, he's well aware that he's not the same pitcher he once was.
"My stuff's not as good. I don't throw as hard," says Venters, whose fastball used to sit in the mid-90s but now checks in a few ticks slower. A strikeout machine in his previous incarnation, he has yet to record a single whiff. Not that he cares -- the 2018 Venters vintage is less worried about miles per hour and more concerned with guiles per hour. "I'm older, maybe a little bit smarter. I'm still learning how to pitch with the stuff that I have now. Hopefully, I just continue to learn and get better."
As for the elbow, no news is good news.
"I feel fine physically," he says. "Right now, I'm just taking it day by day, and if it happens, it happens."
And what if it does happen? What if Venters' bionic elbow goes pop one more time? Surely, another Tommy John surgery would be out of the question. Or would it?
"I don't see myself trying to do it again," says Venters, his voice trailing off. He takes a long pause and looks off into the distance, while simultaneously looking inward.
"But I've said that before."