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TOKYO — Scott Kazmir has to think for a moment. How many comebacks is this?
Well, there was the first one: He had been a top left-handed pitching prospect for the Mets and then a stud for the Rays before a series of shoulder injuries sapped him of his command and velocity. The Angels released him in 2011, and he spent ’12 rebuilding himself in independent ball before making 29 league-average starts for Cleveland in ’13, becoming an All-Star for the A’s in ’14 and pitching even better in ’15.
There was the second: He signed a three-year deal with the Dodgers in 2016, then pitched one mediocre season before hitting the injured list. L.A. traded him to the Braves, who released him. He took two years off, then spent another season in indy ball before signing a minor league deal with the Giants, who called him up in May and sent him down in June.
Now here he is, at the Olympics, trying to win a gold medal for the U.S., then go home and win another chance at the major leagues.
“I guess you can call it the third,” he says. “It depends on how you look at it.”
His wife, Kim Seitler, looks at it as “a comeback and closure all at the same time.” Kazmir is 37. He has made nearly $100 million. He has been an All-Star and he has pitched in a World Series. He does not need baseball. Maybe that’s why he is finally enjoying it.
“When I’m not pitching, I want to be the batboy,” he says. “I’m definitely not taking any moment for granted.”
For a while, he did take his success for granted: He led the league in strikeouts at 23, then he was out of the majors at 28. He had weathered small injuries and tried to compensate for them, and somewhere along the way, he had lost himself. He had relied so much on his physical ability that when it dimmed, he wasn’t sure what was left. Baseball felt like a job rather than a game.
But he began eating better and training smarter. And, at 29, he was back where he felt he belonged, in the majors. He made that All-Star team. He signed that $48 million deal. Then he started to get hurt again: his hips, his neck, his intercostal muscles.
His second comeback ended when he walked away during spring training with the Braves in 2018. He could not perform physically and he did not feel present mentally: His first child, Bodie, was six months old. “I just can’t do this anymore,” Scott told Kim. But he kept throwing. “Man, he was bored,” Kim says.
He picked up surfing. The paddling made his arm feel stronger. When his good friend Kendall Graveman, now of the Astros, came to visit during the 2019 All-Star break, they both noticed how well the ball was coming out of Kazmir’s hand. He realized he enjoyed the way it felt. The plan was to keep working out, then throw for scouts during spring training ’20.
The pandemic canceled that plan. But he has access to a batting cage and a pitching mound near his Houston home, so he kept training. He kept tracking his velocity and his spin rate. He kept tinkering. “It seemed like it was different this time,” Kim says. “Every time he was done throwing, he would come home and just be lit up. He’s like, ‘Babe, I’ve got it figured out.’ ”
While he waited for major league teams to agree, he started to think about what else he might do with his rejuvenated arm. He had played for the U.S. in the 2001 Pan American Junior Championships, in which the team finished second to Cuba, and he loved the experience. So he reached out to the people he had known then to let them know he was interested in participating. San Francisco signed him to a minor league deal and assigned him to Triple A Sacramento, which left him eligible for the Olympic roster. He hoped to be on the team that played in the qualifying tournament this spring, but nine days before it began, the Giants promoted him, giving him what he had really wanted: a chance for his sons, four-year-old Bodie and two-year-old Utah, to see him pitch in the big leagues in person.
San Francisco sent him back down after four appearances, his first in the majors since 2016. He was disappointed—but he was also eligible for the Olympics again. A month later, he learned he had made the team.
He pitched five scoreless innings in his Olympic debut Wednesday. The U.S. beat the Dominican Republic 3–1 to advance to Thursday’s semifinal against South Korea. The winner of that game will play Japan for gold Saturday; the loser will play the D.R. for bronze. The scoreboard at Yokohama Stadium had him sitting around 91 mph, but he says that he has flashed 96. He spent all of last winter just trying to get into shape; now he can build on that foundation. “I feel better than I ever have,” he says. “I feel like I could make big strides going into next season.”
And there will be a next season, he says. He can’t stop now. He’s having too much fun.
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