Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Difficult times have made Rays' Alex Cobb stronger

PORT CHARLOTTE

Alex Cobb was sitting for nearly an hour, sharing the good times and the bad moments and the cruelly horrible things he has lived through, when he came to an interesting conclusion.

"Right now, talking to you," Cobb said, "I feel like I'm an 80-year-old telling my life story."

That's an odd thing for Cobb to say, given where he is — a talented 26-year-old still on the upside of what projects to be a stellar career as one of the Rays' top starting pitchers, recently engaged to be married, a season away from making millions.

But not when you consider where he has been.

Cobb was driving home from an offseason weightlifting session at Vero Beach High in December 2005 when he got the news from his older brother, R.J.: Their mother had suffered a stroke.

"He's like, 'Mom had a stroke, she's okay,' blah blah," Cobb recalled. "I was like, 'Phew, thank God.' I didn't think it was a big deal at all."

Even after going to the hospital, seeing his 49-year-old previously healthy mother, a nurse practitioner, laying unconscious, Cobb still didn't fully grasp the seriousness of the situation, figuring at worst she faced a long rehab.

Balancing school and visits for the next couple of days, Cobb was taking an exam when a student aide walked into the classroom — he still remembers her looking him right in the eye — and handed a note to his teacher. He was instructed to call his dad, who told him things weren't going well and to get to the hospital.

Cobb raced over, but one of his mother's aunts met him in the hallway, and the look on her face was more telling than her words: Lindsay Miller-Cobb had had another stroke, her brain activity was gone, she was on life support.

"I lost it," Cobb said. "I was punching walls, crying. I couldn't believe that was happening."

She was taken off life support and died on Dec. 23. Cobb never got the chance to talk to her again.

• • •

Cobb was cruising an aisle at a Vero Beach Albertsons in September 2008 when he got word, from his father, Rick: R.J., a U.S. Army Airborne commander, was riding in a Humvee in Kirkuk, Iraq, that was blown up.

"That was it, that was all I heard," Cobb said. "And then it felt like 10 minutes went by. All these things, all these thoughts were going through my mind. I was like, 'No way this is happening.'

"He said he's okay. I've heard that before. He's at the hospital. Heard that before. He's just staying overnight for observation. That doesn't mean anything to me anymore after everything I went through with my mom. So I was panicked then, too."

R.J., who is 4 years older, was relatively okay, escaping more serious injury by a matter of seconds. He ended up with shrapnel lodged in his hands but made a full recovery and is now stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., and attends Alex's games when he can.

• • •

Cobb was watching TV in his room at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky., in April 2011 when he got a frantic phone from girlfriend (and now fiancee) Kelly Reynolds. A tornado was headed right at her apartment near the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she was finishing up her Master's in accounting.

Reynolds had been texting him about the storms for several days. So when his phone rang later, Cobb, then pitching for Triple-A Durham, was planning to tease her about being too worried — until he heard the fear in his voice.

"She's bawling, crying," he said. "She's like, 'I'm looking out the window, the tornado is coming right at us.' "

Hearing Reynolds' roommate screaming in the background, Cobb realized the threat was legit. He remembered the emergency drills you learn in school and told Reynolds — who had been huddled in a closet — to lie in bathtub with her mattress on top of her.

"I was listening to her doing that, and the phone went dead," Cobb said. "Cut off. I'm like, 'Kelly? Kelly?' And nothing. I called back, straight to voice mail. Called back again, straight to voice mail. Text messages, nothing. That went on for four hours. I turn on the news and see it was an F4, F5 tornado," the most powerful categories on the Fujita scale. "There's nonstop reports from Alabama.

"I'm like, 'Oh, my God, it hit her.' She told me it was coming right at her. I'm just sitting there waiting. I was like, there's no way that happened."

Finally, his phone beeped. Reynolds was able to send a text that she was okay. She called later and told him that, somehow, the tornado turned at the last second, sparing her building but flattening others a block or two away. Two days later, Cobb called her with big news — he was being called up to the majors for the first time. She rushed through her CPA exam (she passed) and to the airport and made it to his debut.

• • •

Cobb was waking up at teammate Brandon Gomes' St. Pete Beach rental house in August 2011 when he realized something was really wrong with his arm, more than just the feeling of not getting loose he had the night before in his ninth big-league start.

"It was like twice the size it normally is," Cobb said. "And kind of purple, too."

He asked Kelly what she thought, then Gomes. "He's like, 'Dude, you need to go to the field right now and see Ron' " Porterfield, the Rays' head athletic trainer, Cobb said. " 'That is not right.' "

Porterfield knew pretty much right away it was thoracic outlet syndrome, and less than a week later, Cobb was in Dallas for surgery to remove a blood clot and part of his top right rib (which he has in a display box at his home).

As if that weren't a disappointing enough end to his rookie season, it became more painful — the surgery had to be delayed a week as Cobb had a reaction to the dye used in one of the tests, and developed pancreatitis.

"Ten times more painful than anything I've experienced," he said.

The recovery went slowly, but Cobb was throwing next spring and made it back to the majors by mid May 2012 to stay.

• • •

Cobb was on the mound at Tropicana Field in June 2013 when he got hit on the side of the head by a line drive screaming off the bat of Kansas City's Eric Hosmer at 102 mph, ended up hospitalized and missed two months.

Cobb's recall of the scary moment remains remarkably vivid, from seeing the ball coming back at him to turning his head just enough so it hit his ear, to lying on the Trop mound waiting for it to hurt.

"I was like, 'Did I really just get hit with the ball?' " Cobb said. "I can't believe that just happened."

He was thinking that somehow he actually was okay, until he was on the stretcher and opened his eyes and the Trop was spinning like a top. Someone suggested he flash the fans a thumbs-up sign, but he was too scared to let go of the handrails.

Riding to the hospital in the ambulance with Kelly and Rick, he actually got worried, thinking of former minor-league teammate Darin Downs, who was similarly struck in 2009, had a fractured skull and internal bleeding and temporarily lost the ability to speak.

"Darin crept back into my head," Cobb said. "My brain felt like it was growing inside my head. I was like, 'Oh crap.' I'm telling the (paramedic) my head's feeling a lot of pressure. All I wanted to do was get to that MRI and make sure there was no internal bleeding. Other than that, I couldn't care less."

The tests were negative, the damage relatively minor (concussion, cut ear), the prognosis encouraging, the recovery — despite some frustrating bouts with vertigo — fairly quick as he returned to the mound Aug. 15 and went 5-1, 2.41 in nine starts, and won the AL wild-card game.

• • •

Cobb was sitting in the media room at the Charlotte Sports Park last week, reflecting on all these events, plus lesser injuries, the passing of his grandparents, the challenges he overcame as an unheralded prospect to get to the big leagues, then to succeed.

He is certain everything that has happened has made him who he is.

His father, Rick, said there's "no question" the experiences have made his son tougher. Kelly said in their four years together "there's never been anything that's knocked him down. He's very strong."

Cobb said he gained appreciation for all that his mother and everyone else did for him growing up to put him in this position.

Also perspective, which he takes to the mound each inning.

"Just learning that everything is going to be okay. That it's not the worst thing. You've been through worse. The worst thing in life that could happen has probably happened to you, knock on wood," he said. "So I think perspective is the biggest thing I've learned from certain tragedies in my life."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]abay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays

   
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