Even in retirement, Mark Mulder was a dutiful friend, toting his glove with him when meeting Kyle Lohse for rounds of golf so that they could play catch before or after their regular round of golf. Having Mulder nearby in the Scottsdale, Ariz., area and willing to throw despite the previously balky left shoulder that forced him to retire at age 30 was especially helpful to Lohse last offseason, when he didn't sign a free-agent contract with the Brewers until the final week of spring training.
There were days when Mulder, who won 103 games in the big leagues from 2000-08, would be throwing so poorly that Lohse would laugh and tease his buddy, saying, "I can't watch."
So one can only imagine Lohse's surprise last October when it was Mulder who reached out to suggest a throwing session the next time they saw each other. Their daughters were born a day apart and their wives had organized a joint birthday party. "Just humor me and bring your glove," Mulder told him.
After the party, the two retreated to a nearby park to throw, and Mulder knew he could count on his pal's honesty. Pretty soon, Mulder was returning Lohse's long-tosses on a line. Again, Lohse laughed at the sight, only this time it was accompanied with an incredulous, "What is going on?" Mulder, only 36 but five years removed from the game, was mulling an improbable comeback.
"I feel like when I was back in Oakland," he said, referring to his peak professional seasons with the A's, which ended in 2004 before he spent four injury-plagued seasons with the Cardinals. "The ball is coming out of my hand right now better than it did at any time in St. Louis."
"The life, movement -- all this stuff -- it's impressive to me," Lohse said. "I play catch with big league guys every day, and I know what that looks like."
Less than three months after that throwing session with Lohse, Mulder, who still had two years left on his contract as an analyst for ESPN, signed a minor league deal with the Angels that included an invitation to big league spring training and upwards of $6 million in incentives. Mulder and his wife, Lindsey, have three young children -- sons Xander, 6, and Dax, who'll be 2 next month, as well as a daughter, Tatym, 4 -- which prompted him to seek a team that had spring training near his Arizona home and that played most of its game out West. Mulder had some choice of suitors given the reports that he was hitting 92 miles per hour in bullpen sessions for scouts.
Mulder's notion of pitching again started with a fluke, when he sat at home watching last fall's NLCS on television. He noticed how Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez separated the ball from his glove head-high in making his delivery to the plate. Mulder stood up and mimicked the motion, which felt really good.
A few days passed, the World Series was on and Mulder pantomimed the motion again. This time he went out back to his basketball court where he threw a rubber ball against the wall over and over.
"My arm worked perfectly," he said. "I could feel it."
It was a far cry from how Mulder felt at the end of his career, when two shoulder surgeries and endless mechanical adjustments had left him unable to compete. He logged just 12⅔ innings for the Cardinals in 2007 and '08 after suffering a 7.14 ERA in 93⅓ innings in '06.
"To be honest with you, man, my last two years in St. Louis, I hated the game," he said. "I really did. For that last year or two, every day I went to the park, I knew I was going to work as hard as I could, and I was going to get nothing out of it. . . . I had so many bad habits. I had no chance of fixing it then."
Mulder said even his seemingly successful 2005 season -- in which he went 16-8 with a 3.64 ERA in 205 innings -- was a struggle.
"That '05 season, to be honest, was smoke and mirrors," he said. "If I located perfectly in '05, I won. If I didn't locate perfect, there was no margin for error. I couldn't get away with anything."
Mulder says now that he began feeling shoulder discomfort late in his final season in Oakland, back in 2004 when he shared a rotation with Tim Hudson and Barry Zito. Mulder had a 3.21 ERA at the All-Star break but a 6.13 ERA in the second half.
"I started feeling my shoulder a little bit, whether I knew it or not," Mulder said. "It was slowly changing my mechanics, changing my delivery, to alleviate that discomfort in some way. I did that all the way, basically for two years, had the first surgery, and I was never able to correct all those bad habits and all those bad things I was doing prior to my surgeries after them."
By the end of time in St. Louis, Mulder said the trainer could not find anything wrong with his shoulder. His range of motion and strength were both great. The past five years in which he wasn't pitching effectively purged his bad muscle memory, like a hard reboot of a computer. He has spoken with a physical therapist and personal trainer to ensure that his body could withstand a comeback and then to devise a program to get him back in playing shape.
His children are too young to remember having seen him pitch and, while Mulder said he wasn't coming back for that reason, he did note that his children were still a source of motivation.
"When I'm doing my leg workout and I don't want to do another set," he said, "all I have to do is think about, 'Do you want to shag with your son in [a big league] outfield or not?'"
Mulder said his location had been "terrible" until, coincidentally, the day after he signed with the Angels. All of a sudden, he found his release point again. He's giddy about the bite on his sinker. And he fared well enough in his first live batting practice on Jan. 5, in which he threw four 25-pitch innings.
"I always thought it was kind of a bum deal that he got where he had to get out of the game at such a young age when he was as good as he was, just because his shoulder wasn't sound enough even after having the surgeries," Lohse said. "It's been pretty exciting to see him find something that works."
Mulder's last big league win came on June 15, 2008 when he defeated a Pirates lineup that had Jose Bautista leading off and playing centerfield, Sean Casey at first base and Jason Bay in leftfield. Bautista has since become one of the game's premier middle-of-the-order power hitters, with 152 home runs since 2010, the second-most in the majors in that time; Casey last played in '08 and just fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in his first year of eligibility and Bay indicated this month that he plans to retire.
Mulder is old enough that he overlapped in the majors with his new general manager, Jerry Dipoto, whose final season as a pitcher (2000) was Mulder's first, but it's not that crazy to think he can successfully come back. He only turned 36 in August, and there were 38 pitchers that age or older who appeared in the big leagues last year. And it's a low-risk, high-reward contract for the pitching-starved Angels.
One of the few downsides of this endeavor, however, has been its effect on the golfing habits of Mulder, who has won multiple events on The Golf Channel Amateur Tour.
"It's kind of messed up our program a little bit, yeah," Lohse said with a laugh.
Previously it was Lohse who had the readymade excuse of recent workouts affecting his game, using such lines as "I wouldn't have hit that bad of a shot if my legs weren't killing me."
"Now he's going through it -- he's like, 'Dude, my body is a little sore. I feel a little off on it,'" Lohse said. "That's payback. Now he knows how it is."
Encouragement on the mound and payback on the links -- that's what old friends are for.