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Rays reliever Ryan Sherriff, somehow, is close to returning to majors

Returning from Tommy John surgery is just the latest obstacle on Sherriff’s path filled with adversity.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Ryan Sherriff during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, February 13, 2020.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Ryan Sherriff during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, February 13, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Feb. 29, 2020
Updated Mar. 3, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE — So how, you ask, does Ryan Sherriff view the twisted path that has now taken him to the Rays spring clubhouse and the cusp of a return to a major-league mound for the first since May 2018?

The part about growing up in a gang-ridden neighborhood? Having a father he says abused drugs, alcohol and family members, then died young? Being so poor that a Cardinals teammate once took pity on him, and that he still lives at home with his mom? Giving serious thought to quitting when he blew out his elbow?

“How don’t I view my path?’’ Sherriff, 29, replies. “It’s crazy. My path has been adversity. Obstacle after obstacle. The underdog, always.

“I’ve just had to overcome more than the average person, I guess you could say.’’

Yes, you could.

So, about his childhood …

Sherriff still lives in the Culver City area near Los Angeles, which now has been gentrified. But at the time he was growing up the neighborhood left him terrified.

“It was always the Bloods and the Crips,’’ he said. “I had shootings in my alleyway. I’ve seen people taken down right in front of my house by undercover cops. … I lived two-three blocks from the projects, Mar Vista Gardens. I remember a couple executions, where they’d line people up and shoot them in the back of the head at the park. A couple high school teammates got involved with the gangs. One kid got burned alive in a car. Another kid got shot. It was crazy. It was nuts.’’

So, about his family …

Sheriff didn’t know why his father was hardly around at nights or weekends, or why his mom would take him to a nearby motel so he could visit his dad. “I was so young, I just thought that was normal.’’

It was only a couple years ago that he learned what he says now is the truth, that Larry was addicted to cocaine, alcohol and gambling, had drained the family bank accounts, had been kicked out of the house several times, was verbally and slightly physically abusive.

And it was just this past offseason, Sherriff said, when he was able to process it all. And to be able to speak publicly about his “mess of a story,’’ first in January on The Injured to Elite podcast, run by close friend and former Cardinals minor-league medical/rehab coordinator Dr. David Meyer.

“It was like, wow, this is what I actually had to go through,’’ Sherriff said last week. “And it was not normal.’’

Larry Sherriff died in January 2012 as a result of blood cancer at age 57. Despite all the past pain he caused, Ryan was hurting. The lefty had played one year in the low minors with the Cardinals after being a 28th round pick, and he wanted to quit.

“It was still tough,’’ he said. “Losing a parent at 21 is so hard.’’

His mother, Renee, to whom he gives immense credit, convinced him to keep pitching. When he made his major-league debut Aug. 25, 2017, against the Rays, Sherriff walked off the mound pointing to the sky. “I couldn’t stop thinking about my dad,’’ he said that night.

There is another family influence. Sherriff’s maternal grandparents, Helen and Seymour Wildfeuer, were Holocaust concentration camp survivors, which he learned after seeing the number tattooed on Helen’s arm. When Team Israel invited him to pitch in the 2017 World Baseball Classic qualifier, Sherriff quickly said yes in their honor. “It was intense,’’ he said. “I don’t even know how to describe it into words.’’

So, about his finances …

Sherriff is heading into his 10th season in pro ball but he has yet to strike it rich. Far from it, after too many years in the minors, making “between $600-$800 every two weeks.’’

So, he still lives at his mom’s house in the offseason. He sold his truck over the winter. Rather than pay for a rental this spring, he is living in Venice with a host family, parents of a friend he made locally, who also let him use their car.

“It’s been a grind,’’ Sherriff said. “It’s so tough.’’

Teammates have noticed, and pitched in. In spring 2017, before he made it to the majors, Sherriff got a condo near the Cardinals complex in Jupiter but had no car so he walked a mile or so to the field, and everywhere else.

Veteran Adam Wainwright offered to get him a bike or a car. Sherriff, battling to make the team, said no. Wainwright saw him on the streets again, and stepped in, renting a car for the rest of the spring, and having the clubhouse staff surprise him with it. Sherriff was overwhelmed. “It was a no-brainer for me,’’ Wainwright said Friday. “He’s a teammate who needs your help.”

So, about his future …

Sherriff had considered quitting when his dad died in 2012, and again when a stellar 2016 Triple-A season didn’t lead to a call-up. He was pretty much resigned to it after blowing out his elbow in May 2018, since Tommy John surgery would keep him out more than a year, and, in a point of contention with the Cardinals, being on the minor-league injured list.

“I knew I was going to get (designated for assignment) at some point,’’ he said. “I was like, 'It’s over. What am I doing to do for the rest of my life?’ I had no idea.’’

It didn’t help that he had past significant anxiety issues: “I used to think about failure all the time, and being judged — If I don’t perform, what does this person think of me, what does that person think? … I was a 28th round draft pick and I didn’t sign for any money, so my career could end in a split-second.’’

But the Rays called in October 2018 with an unusual opportunity for which he says, “I owe them everything” — a three-year minor-league contract to get healthy at his own pace, and to have a home through 2021.

Sherriff rehabbed well and made it back to pitch in six minor-league games last August. This spring he has impressed the coaches with his inquisitiveness and relentless desire to improve, pitching coach Kyle Snyder noting, "He’s a different guy.'' Better, he has shown flashes of the groundball-inducing sinker/slider combination that got him to the majors.

“I’m just going to try my heart out,'' Sherriff said. "No regrets.’’

Sherriff’s life experiences to this point have calmed him, matured him, shaped him. And left him ready for whatever obstacles are next.

“I was having a deep conversation the other day with my host dad, and he goes, 'You’re so mature, way beyond your years,’ ‘’ Sherriff said. “And I said, 'I’ve just been through a lot in my 29 years of existence.’ ’’

Yes, you could say that.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.