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Cotts' long road back to big leagues was worth the trip

Cotts' long road back to big leagues was worth the trip

Cotts' long road back to big leagues was worth the trip

As he peered out the row of windows and gazed at the East River, at Roosevelt Island, at the cars stalled on The FDR, Neal Cotts had one thought.

This is not where I should be.

The breathtaking views from Cotts' hospital room -- a cushy little suite with a wall full of transparent glass -- offered a brief reprieve. The reality, however, was that this onetime pitcher had to endure three hip surgeries in one week, a month after a first operation on that region and a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

So the southpaw voiced only one concern as he remained holed up at the Hospital for Special Surgery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

"I wanted to get back on the field," Cotts said.

Cotts is no stranger to a view from the top. He won a World Series ring as a steady figure in the White Sox bullpen in 2005.

To A.J. Pierzynski, his catcher on that team and his backstop now with the Rangers, that triumph "seems like forever ago."

What, then, is longer than forever? That is how it feels to the guy who, because of injuries, missed nearly three years of baseball and went four years between Major League appearances.

"Long and removed," Cotts said. "Just a tad bit."

The Cubs demoted a scuffling Cotts to Triple-A in May 2009. Less than two months later, he underwent the elbow operation. Just as Cotts rounded back into pitching shape, he had surgery to repair a tear in his hip. An infection invaded the area and required Cotts to bear three additional surgeries over the course of one week in June 2010.

The Pirates, who had signed Cotts the previous winter, released him before the conclusion of the 2010 campaign. Cotts' agent, Joe Bick, shopped the reliever's credentials around the league, but to no avail. Teams were skeptical that the lefty could pass a physical.

"I didn't hear a lot of the 'No's," Cotts said. "I just know they never called back."

The hesitance initially proved justifiable.

Cotts signed with the Yankees in November 2010, but the club released him when it ultimately reviewed his medical situation the following February. Interest from the Phillies a few months later also dissipated after more careful consideration of the reliever's health.

"It does put a little fire in you that you want to get back there and prove that you can do it," Cotts said.

Cotts yearned for one more chance to grasp the rosin bag, one last swipe at the dirt with his cleats, one final opportunity to stand atop the mound and tuck his long, brown locks into his cap before delivering one of his trademark cutters. Whether it came at the Major League level or before a handful of onlookers in the doldrums of an organization's farm system was irrelevant.

Cotts simply wanted to be where he thought he should be, to go out on his own terms.

"If I pitched three innings and it was really bad or my body was just done, at least I can walk away and say I tried to get back out there and it didn't work," Cotts said. "If it was going to end, I wanted it to end where I actually pitched a game and tried it out."

Cotts had planned for the alternative. He returned to Illinois State University and inched to within 30 hours of a degree in finance. Cotts examined potential careers in money management, with a focus on fixed income. When he wasn't providing pitching lessons or assisting with baseball camps at his friend's facility in Lake Forest, Ill., his children, now ages 4 and 2, kept him occupied.

"I know how tough it was to come back from being out for a year," said Rangers closer Joe Nathan, who had Tommy John surgery in March 2010. "I can't even imagine having to [be out] as long as he had to. There had to be a lot of battles in his own mind, a lot of just grinding through days and wondering if it's ever going to come back."

Cotts is mellow, reserved and quick to identify people who have suffered worse fates. His wife, Jaime, complements him well. She urged him to keep throwing, to stay in shape and to be persistent in his pursuit of a team's attention. Cotts said he can still hear Jaime saying, "You heard anything? You heard anything?"

Eventually, Cotts heard from the Rangers.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux watched Cotts during Spring Training last year and "fell in love with him."

"When the odds are stacked against you," Maddux said, "and you have the fortitude to come through because you want it, you're easy to root for."

Cotts knocked the rust off at Triple-A Round Rock in 2012, when he posted a 4.55 ERA in 25 appearances. He worked with pitching coach Terry Clark there to improve the timing of his delivery, which in turn bettered his command.

"He learned how to trust himself again," said Rangers manager Ron Washington.

Cotts arrived at spring camp this year eager to compete for the big league squad. He opened the season at Round Rock, but after compiling a 0.78 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 23 innings, Texas promoted him.

When Cotts toed the rubber for the Rangers on May 21, it marked his first Major League appearance in 1,458 days.

"It was awesome," said Pierzynski, who was behind the plate.

Cotts retired the heart of the Athletics' order in succession on only six pitches, and he capped the flawless frame with a three-pitch punchout of slugger Yoenis Cespedes.

Cotts admitted he was nervous, and compared his temperament to how he felt during his big league debut, when he felt overmatched and out of place after issuing six walked in 2 1/3 innings.

This time, Cotts said, he felt he was where he was supposed to be. His performance has backed up that assertion. Through 33 big league outings, Cotts has logged a 0.76 ERA.

"It comes to a point sometimes where you think, 'Is it worth it?'" Pierzynski said. "But apparently he thought so. And it was."

Zack Meisel is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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