MINNEAPOLIS — Scott Kazmir pauses at the question, flashes that familiar smile, then laughs. "I don't know," he replies. "How did I get here?"
Not just here specifically, to the downtown hotel conference room where the Oakland A's left-hander took his place among the other American League All-Stars for Monday's media session.
But here in the broader sense — back into baseball after being so far down and for a while actually out of the game, and back to being one of the game's elite pitchers as he was for the Rays in what seems so long ago.
"It's something that for a couple years I thought maybe it would never happen," Kazmir said. "But I'm proud of this moment. I'm proud to be here."
Kid K is 30 now, if that's possible, and, he tells you, wiser, more mature, better able to appreciate the journey. (He actually organized the chartered flight and ground transportation for the seven A's who made the All-Star team, joking, "How did I become the responsible one overnight?")
So even after struggling so badly he was released by the Angels in June 2011 less than two years after being acquired from the Rays, even after an aborted comeback in the Dominican Republic, even after spending a few months with nowhere to throw but his back yard, even after the apparent indignity of pitching independent league ball, he insists he never, ever gave up hope.
"It was tough," he said. "It was a frustrating time. I'm in my back yard throwing bullpens. I couldn't even watch major-league games. I'd see one on TV and I'd turn it real quick. It was tough. I knew that I still had it in me. I just had to keep working. It was definitely some trying times during all that."
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It took a while for Kazmir to identify the problem, a gradual loss of his mechanics that he now believes began as he compensated for arm and groin strains in the Rays' 2008 World Series season.
"Honestly, I think a lot of people thought it was mental when it had nothing to do with that," he said. "It was something where I just physically couldn't get there. I couldn't get to a point where I felt comfortable."
As a result it took longer — much longer than anyone could have expected — for him to figure out how to solve it. He was getting advice from all corners, making this change and that, working out on his own for a while at his Houston home, enlisting the help of Ron Wolforth who runs the somewhat unconventional Texas Baseball Ranch, accepting an invitation from former big-leaguer Gary Gaetti to join the nearby Sugarland Skeeters and pitch in the independent Atlantic League.
"I tried everything, that's for sure," Kazmir said.
At one point, late 2011 or early 2012, he thought he had made enough progress that after focusing for so long on the process he wanted to measure his performance and had someone hold a radar gun when he threw.
For the first time, he started to wonder if he really was done. If all that early success, leading the American League in strikeouts as a Devil Ray in 2007, winning 12 games as the Rays — fulfilling a prediction he made in spring training — burst into the playoffs in 2008, making two All-Star teams, was just history now.
"I was like, aaallllll right, let's take another step back and regroup," Kazmir said.
In the early years of his career, he had gotten batters out by throwing the ball past them at 90-plus mph rather than necessarily pitching. As his mechanics gradually slipped away, the velocity dwindled and results were no longer there.
The decline started in 2009 with the Rays, and they dealt him, and the more than $24 million remaining on his contract, in late August to the Angels. He dropped off worse the next season, going 9-15, 5.94, and made just one 2011 start before being let go, which he said was more a relief than anything.
"There was so much pressure I put on myself, so much stress where I was trying between every fifth day to figure it out," he said. "So when I got released it was like, okay, let's take a deep breath, now I don't have to worry about walking eight people and hitting a couple guys five days from now. I can just relax and concentrate on getting myself back."
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Joining the Skeeters was a bit of a bold move, and a brilliant one. Gaetti and then pitching coach Britt Burns, both friends of Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, offered him the chance to pitch in game conditions without any of that pressure.
"It wasn't easy," Burns said Monday. "It was 95 degrees every day, and he was struggling to get people out. He took his lumps. But he was very determined."
Still, it took time. With progress came setbacks, and skepticism.
"There'd be times when I'd throw 87-88 and I'm like, 'I just have to figure some things out. I know there's a lot more in there,' " Kazmir said. "And you'd get eyes rolled and people saying "Yea, sure, I bet.' "
Eventually, Kazmir didn't just find his old form, he found new ways to get hitters out. He added a curveball and a cutter, and made more use of his changeup, to go along with a hard slider and a fastball that crept back to 90 mph.
He had enough success to get a minor-league deal and a spring invite from the Indians last year, and it was immediately obvious that he had it together. "We saw him the first day of spring and we were blown away," manager Terry Francona recalled Monday. The 10-9 record, 4.04 ERA and average fastball velocity of 92.5 mph all proved that out.
And that led to a two-year, $22 million deal with the A's, which led to an 11-3, 2.38 first half, which led to him sitting in that hotel conference room Monday afternoon.
"If there's anyone I'm most happy for in the All-Star Game it's probably him," Rays All-Star David Price said. "He struggled for like three years. He was gone. He was pitching in Indy ball. But he never quit."
"There was a point where I didn't think he was ever going to come back, and I don't think anybody really did, to be honest with you," former Rays ace James Shields, now with the Royals, said. "It shows a lot of heart and determination on his part."
So how did Kazmir get here?
"Just a lot of hard work," he said. "I didn't think it was something that would happen that fast. But once stuff started to click, it just took off for me."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]tampabay.com.