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Tampa Bay Rays reliever Joe Nelson has a tale that is all twists

PORT CHARLOTTE — If the four arm surgeries Joe Nelson has endured aren't the most interesting part of the backstory that led him to the Rays bullpen, maybe it's that he married the radiologist who told him his elbow was shot.

If it wasn't the four times he was released and this winter's odd nontender by the Marlins, maybe it's that he's about to make his first big-league opening day roster in 14 pro seasons at age 34.

And if it isn't his determination to reach out and thank every coach who helped him along the way, or the creativity and doggedness he showed to extend his career when others would have given up, or the steady contact he vigilantly maintains with his buddies and former teammates, maybe it's simply the way he shows up at 6 each morning to maximize the preciousness of each day he gets to spend in a major-league uniform.

"I definitely realize how I got here," Nelson said. "It's been a long and winding road, with a few flat tires along the way. And it's been humbling. …

"We'd all like to be like Evan (Longoria) and B.J. (Upton) and get to the majors very quick and stay, but my road didn't really take that route. But I don't think I'd trade my journey for anything. I really wouldn't."

There are reasons, starting with Teresa Cortinas, the Cuban-born, USF-trained radiologist who on an August 1999 morning in Richmond, Va., gave him the bad news that at 24, in his fourth minor-league season with the Braves, he'd need career-threatening Tommy John surgery.

Nelson's response? "Well, you want to go to dinner tonight?"

They met that night at the ballpark, were married 2½ years later and now have three other reasons for Nelson to keep playing: Sofia, Olivia and Lex.

"Best injury I ever had," Nelson said. "I have three beautiful kids to show for it. If that would have been the end of my career, I would have been fine with it."

He made it back and to the big leagues by June 2001, pitched in two games and tore the labrum in his right shoulder. He joined the Boston organization late in 2002, pitched four games at Double A and tore it again.

Three surgeons told him to "find a new career"; the fourth, (ironically) Rays orthopedic doctor Koco Eaton, said, "I'll do it."

Nelson came back again, got briefly to the big leagues again, pitching three games for the '04 Sox (and getting a World Series ring), then started bouncing around, including a short 2005 stint with Triple-A Durham, before being released again.

After 10 pro seasons, he'd pitched 42/3 major-league innings and had a 25.07 ERA. "That's not the back of the card you want to show your kids one day," he said.

In 2006, something really good happened. He got a chance with the Royals and, despite being sent down and up four times, by season's end earned the closer's job.

In spring 2007, something (else) really bad happened. He blew out his shoulder again, had surgery again, missed a full season again. "After finally getting my foot in the door and it slamming again," he said, "that was tough."

As many times as he thought about quitting, and there had been plenty, this might have been the closest he came: "?'07 was a very, very challenging year."

But he couldn't walk away. Not with all he did to get teams to give him a chance, like when he drove four hours and sat in the Red Sox minor-league office until someone would watch him throw.

He signed with the Marlins (who trained near his West Palm Beach home) and ended up in the minors after losing the final bullpen spot to ex-Ray Doug Waechter before getting what might have been his final chance with a late May callup. He never let go, working in 59 of their final 113 games and ranking third among NL relievers with a 2.00 ERA, with 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

Florida let him walk for its own (financial) reasons, and he, finally, cashed in. Nearly 20 teams were interested, and the $1.3 million he got from the Rays was not only by far his largest salary but the first time he has had a guaranteed major-league contract, the second time he has been on a 40-man roster and just the fifth time he has been in major-league camp. All at age 34.

His sincere gratitude goes back to his mom, the childhood friends who call to talk smack after games, the youth league coaches he has been e-mailing, his junior college coach who used him as an infielder but trained him as a pitcher and drove him to develop the changeup that is now his specialty, the team officials who gave him (or whom he goaded into) more chances, Teresa for her support during each setback.

"Sometimes, we lose perspective about how great of a job we have," Nelson said. "I don't ever want to lose that."

That's unlikely to ever be part of his story.

Tampa Bay Rays reliever Joe Nelson has a tale that is all twists 02/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 10:17am]
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