“Everything is heavier. Everything is slower. And you try to tell yourself to [pitch] as though [nothing is wrong]. […] But there’s just no throttle.”
As far as careers are concerned, life as a relief pitcher is about as fickle as it gets in professional baseball.
Vic Black, a promising reliever whom the New York Mets acquired along with Dilson Herrera in exchange for Marlon Byrd in August 2013, has lived this nightmare. After tossing 47.2 innings of 2.83-ERA baseball in 2013 and ‘14, the 27-year-old was stymied by an extraordinary continuum of injuries in 2015.
“The last year — year-and-a-half — hasn’t gone according to plan,” said Black, who dealt with a herniated disc, shoulder tendonitis, nerve damage and then a Grade-2 groin tear dating to September 2014.
In terms of pure confluence of fortune, the timing of Black’s downward spiral was nothing if not poetically dark.
The Mets achieved what few thought possible heading into the 2015 season. Anchored by a trio of young aces and later bolstered by solid top-to-bottom hitting, the Mets went from eight-year-long punchline to National League champions — a staggering turnaround to rival the Boston Red Sox’s worst-to-World-Series rampage of 2013.
Sadly, Black was unable to contribute, left instead to absently witness his team’s thrilling rise through vexing rehab assignments and tedious minor-league shuttle buses.
The demise began with a herniated disc in the right-hander’s neck, prematurely ending what had otherwise been a fruitful 2014 season. And though Black arrived in Spring Training this year in relatively good health, he quickly experienced arm fatigue.
“The [medical staff] checked and they saw some extreme weakness in my shoulder,” Black told me over the phone from his home in Dallas. “When we would do the [strength] tests, I couldn’t resist a lot of them. The process from there was to just strengthen the shoulder.”
While Black was on a late-May rehab assignment in Double-A Binghamton, his usually high-90s fastball was only topping out at 88. After some research, Black determined his recurring symptoms were likely reflective of a more serious impediment: nerve damage.
“I’ve become a nerve and arm specialist in this past year,” he said, lightly chuckling through the receiver.
While Black focused foremost on pitching pain-free, his ultimate goal—however unlikely — remained to return to the Mets, to embrace the kind of camaraderie that only a major-league clubhouse could offer. As the weeks passed, however, his tenure at Triple-A Las Vegas began to affect his psyche.
“I felt like I was in limbo and I was just kind of avoiding facing reality,” said Black. “I would usually talk to my dad about everyday. My mom, usually two-to-three times a week. My three sisters, too. But I found myself not [talking to] any of [them]. Even if my dad would call after a game, I’d kind of just blow it off.”
Black sat idly by as new faces like Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Clippard and Juan Uribe each contributed to the Mets’ summer turnaround. After fellow Triple-A long reliever Logan Verrett got the call-up on Aug. 18, Black finally snapped.
“I was frustrated,” he said in a strained voice. “I was ready and I didn’t know what [the Mets were] doing. I couldn’t watch the games anymore. My goal — my understanding — was that it would be ‘New York next.’ And that didn’t happen.”
Heading into September, Black became a shell of his once steady self. In a span of three late-August outings, the reliever surrendered a total of nine earned-runs — a spectacular failure that, as Black pointed out, he’d never experienced “in half a season, much less in a span of three outings.”
The string of dismal performances prompted Triple-A manager Wally Backman to remove Black from his prided closer role. Even then, Black tried to stay focused on getting a call on Sept. 1, to join the first-place Mets and finally bring his long ordeal to full, fulfilling circle.
“I was at an all-time low at a moment that I felt like everything [physically] was on the rise,” Black confided. “I thought maybe if I got a few more good outings — correct myself — I could put some hope back in their eyes. I figured: Terry [Collins] has his guys that he likes. And if you can prove to him that you he can trust you, he’ll continue to use you.”
But when Backman called a team meeting to announce the roster expansions for September, Black’s name was surprisingly absent. However, the emotional bleeding didn’t stop there.
“On first of the month, I was apparently put on waivers. Which isn’t unheard of,” said Black, passively. “Then I got a phone call from my agent — about being pulled back and … outrighted off the roster.”
There was a lull on the phone as Black cleared his throat.
“Outrighted off the roster: I went from a hopeful September 1 call-up to — within five days — not even on the roster. This is supposed to happen when I’m 38 or 39. Not when I’m 27.”
Vic Black is now, officially, a minor-league free agent — a distressing reality he’s doing his best to take in stride.
“Having to speak reality rather than avoid it was a great place for me to start,” said Black, a bit more upbeat. “I’m not trying to bury [my feelings] anymore. When you’re able to step back from [the situation] and realize that baseball is not my identity — it’s just what I do and what I love — it kind of put it in that perspective, it allowed me to free up my mind.”
Before heading back to Texas to train for the off-season, Black returned to New York City in September to finish living out his apartment lease. After all, there is no guarantee the Mets will re-sign him.
“It’s my favorite city in the world,” said Black, glowing. “Once you weave around the tourists, you find people that care. They love their sports. They love the city. Love what it stands for. What it’s about. Love where they’re from. The heritage. I mean: it’s the best place.”
To say Black misses pitching in front of a New York crowd would do the feeling disservice. His sentiments are of a hardened native, one who understands the emotional give and take of performing — and excelling — on what can be, at worst, the world’s most withering stage.
“Citi Field is the best place ever. It really is,” said Black. “I got to be a part of some cool games as soon as I got up there. The day I got traded [from the Pittsburgh Pirates] — my first game in New York — was Mike Piazza’s induction day. I’ve never seen 44,000 people in a stadium before. Never. In my life. I’ve never seen applause for 15 minutes before a game. Everyone is yelling. And we got the cool badge on the side of our hat. It was awesome.”
Even as an outsider, Black couldn’t help but cheer on his former teammates.
“I watched [all] the playoff games. I rooted the guys on. And I’ve loved every bit of it,” said Black. “I was getting into fights with people about whether the Mets would win the World Series. And they think I’m bias because they thought I was still on the team.”
Now back in Dallas, Black is diligently working to prove to teams, and to himself, that his once tantalizing talents still have a place in The Show. It remains to be seen whether Black’s open-market foray can lead to a full-fledged second coming. Whatever the outcome, Black’s newfound perspective — arrived at by dint of factors far beyond his hand— is one he intends to control.
“I’ve been working out [and I’m signed] to play winter ball in the Dominican for the first time,” said Black. “I have no problems right now: physically, mentally — even spiritually. I’m in an awesome place right now. And it’s with complete uncertainty. I mean: I am surrounded by ‘I don’t know what’s coming next year’…which to me — a month-and-a-half ago — would have been pure terror.”
Then, in a kind of gallows-humorous nod to the hope beyond the hell, Black let loose a laugh, and moved on.