ST. PETERSBURG — One moment, Matt Moore was living the dream. A 24-year-old baseball star, a major-league pitcher — throwing flames, befuddling hitters and collecting victories. Can you think of anything better? Suddenly and without warning, it got a whole lot worse. He was in Kansas City, cruising along in another start, the 61st of his impressive big-league career. That was when it all came crashing down. He felt like something had tunneled inside his left elbow and bit him. What followed were the two most bone-chilling words a pitcher could ever hear: Tommy John.
Moore didn't want to believe it. In fact, he didn't believe it. He thought someone misread the test results.
Then reality set in. He needed surgery. Tommy John surgery. And that's when the real pain hits, something more torturous than the actual complicated surgery that slices into the damaged limb.
That's the recovery time. And, truth be known, that's the hardest part, just wrapping your brain around the inescapable fact that it will take at least one full year to return to normal, at least one full year to go back to doing what you love more than anything in this world.
"That's a tough thing to swallow," Moore said.
On Tuesday, in his first interview since Tommy John surgery on April 22, Moore looked and sounded like a man who has come to grips with what lies ahead — the good, the bad and the ugly.
"This is reality," Moore said. "I can't be out there. This is a new chapter for me. I think of it as a year. Just one year. Boom."
He went through some arm troubles with the Rays before this, but it didn't stop him from winning 17 games last season. It didn't stop him from becoming one of the most promising young left-handers in the game. He seemed on his way to being an eventual 20-game winner, maybe even a Cy Young candidate someday. Heck, maybe even this season.
That's why this stinks. It's not like there's ever a good time for Tommy John surgery, but this seems like just about the worst time. It's cutting into Moore's career just as it's really taking off. And just when the Rays, a contender in the American League, could use him the most.
Moore tries to see the upside. Better now than at, say, age 34 when it might have ended his career. That's why Moore still hasn't gotten angry or even sad. He never allowed himself to cry.
"I wasn't that emotional," Moore said. "I think if it was something more life and death, I would probably get to that place. … I don't think my emotions would go that far unless I thought it was career-ending. I never really got that scared because of all the success stories that you hear."
These days, Tommy John surgery almost seems to be a rite of passage for pitchers. It happens all the time and success is the norm, not the exception. Pitchers almost always come back as good, if not better, than before.
Moore's brother, Bobby, had the surgery seven years ago and came back to pitch at the University of New Mexico.
"To be honest, it can a positive thing and it will be a positive thing," Moore said. "If there are any kind of negative thoughts, and I'm sure that there are going to be, I'm going to just going to have to stick to the positive things."
Moore smiles, says all the right things, tries to remain upbeat. But he knows that his long road has just started.
"To not participate in your occupation for a year because of an injury … it's got to be difficult," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's a game and we love playing this game. And they're young and they see their buddies out there. … So there are all of these mind games, these mental gymnastics that you jump through during this whole period of time. … He's going to have his down days, no doubt."
At the moment, an elaborate brace with screws and numbers holds Moore's left arm in place, keeping it from making any moves that would send sharp pains vibrating through his body. At night, he takes it off, but still is leaving the teeth brushing and cereal scooping to his right arm.
Physical therapy, for the time being, is little more than long walks and lifting his arms. It will be at least four or five months before he can play a simple game of catch.
"I'm sure it will be a snail's pace for a pretty long time," Moore said.
With that, you can't help but look at Moore and feel just a little bit of pity.
"I'm fine with it," Moore assures you. "I'm cool with it."
With that, Moore smiles. A year is a long time.
But every day, he gets one day closer to getting back to his dream.