Jeff Heaverlo: Twice Bitten, Now Driven

TACOMA, Wash. - Just about everyone knows about the negative history of injuries the Seattle Mariners have endured to their top young pitchers over the years. Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche, Rafael Soriano, Matt Thornton and Travis Blackley headline the list of highly ranked twenty-somethings that went under the knife over the past half-dozen years.

Anderson, the once touted clone of former Mariners ace Randy Johnson is no longer a member of the organization after being released this spring - but not before the Mariners spent parts of five years working the tall left-hander through three major shoulder surgeries.

Blackley, the club's 2003 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, is two months into his summer-long rehabilitation in Peoria.

With Meche (labrum) and Thornton (Tommy John) having returned from surgeries to find themselves capable of reaching upwards of 95 mph with their fastballs again, and Soriano (Tommy John) exceeding all expectations with his possible early return, there is but one more minor league pitcher that seems to get lost in the shuffle these days.

He's been through two serious injuries - surgery to repair a torn labrum and a season-ending injury to a muscle under his throwing arm.

Right-hander Jeff Heaverlo was the M's first-round draft choice in 1999, the 33rd pick overall, out of the University of Washington. Heaverlo began his pro career later that summer and was on the fast track to the big leagues, when all of a sudden the injury bug that had already bitten the likes of Anderson, Thornton and Meche, chewed on the shoulder of the Ephrata, Wash. native.

Heaverlo was coming off his best season as a pro in 2001 in Double-A San Antonio when he found out he was going miss the entire 2002 season with a torn labrum.

So off he went to Peoria, Ariz. to the Mariners' spring training facilities to rehab the shoulder in preparation for the 2003 season.

After just 5.2 innings on the mound for the Tacoma Rainiers the following April, Heaverlo felt a painful twinge under his throwing arm that sidelined him indefinitely.

The injury kept the slider specialist out for the remainder of the year, but served a different taste into the mouth of Heaverlo than the surgery had the year before.

"It was very frustating," said Heaverlo. "I've had surgeries before and it's a set time - your going to be out for the year. That's easier to grasp than, ‘ok we don't know how long your going to be out. It's all going to be a feel thing. If you can play catch and work your way back to a certain distance, you can be back.' At least with a surgery they give you a set time saying ‘this is how long it should take - as long as things go right.'"

Heaverlo had a torn subscapularis, a tendon that sits between the shoulder blade and the rib cage and connects right behind the pit of the arm.

The tendon is responsible for the final thrust of strength into a the pitching motion, creating most of the velocity behind any pitched ball.

The injury is rare and among the small group of baseball players that have experienced such an injury is former Mariner John Mabry. Mabry was back in four weeks.

Heaverlo missed 46 weeks.

Being a pitcher, and primarily a starter, Heaverlo knew it was going to take him longer than a month to get back on the mound. But not knowing exactly how long was the toughest part of the ordeal – even after enduring a full season of rehab following the labrum surgery.

"That was the frustrating part, not knowing," said Heaverlo. "The uncertainty of when I was going to be back on the field, when am I going to be able to join my team, how long am I going to be in Arizona. You tell yourself that it is what it is, and that is the tough part - telling yourself that because you try so hard to get healthy.

"There were times where I wanted to tell my trainer ‘yeah I feel great, I want to go back to the team,' but then we go and play catch and I can't throw the ball 90 feet in the air without stiffness or pain in the back of my shoulder."

Heaverlo took every day as a chance to get one step closer to returning to where he so badly wanted to be. This past winter, the 27-year-old took advantage of the big-league facilities that some call the $517 million Cash Cow, and credits the work with the Mariners staff for much of his road to recovery.

"Being a resident of Washington I'd work out at Safeco Field this winter," said Heaverlo. "With being able to go in there with that staff they have there and that facility that they have, I knew that everything was there for me to get myself healthy and be ready to break camp and not spend any extra time in Arizona.

"I really took that as ‘you better get out there now (and get healthy,'" he said. "I'm getting up in my years now where I don't have all the time in the world. When I had my (labrum) surgery I was 23 years old – there was still a lot of time left.

"Now that I'm 27, I've got to do whatever I can. Too bad it took me this long to realize that, but better late then never. It's better than getting released and being out of baseball and asking myself ‘what could I have done?' When you're part of a team you feel bulletproof, you feel invincible and when you get shipped out to Arizona, you start questioning ‘where am I in my career, where am I in my life?'"

What Heaverlo did do was get healthy during the winter months, show up to spring training with a sound right arm, a confidence that he had before getting injured the first time, and the excitement that any kid gets when he picks up a baseball and runs out onto the field.

The Rainiers reliever is now just happy to be back on a team as a part of something he has missed for the better part of two seasons.

"It's a big step just to be able to be out here," said Heaverlo. "I'm just happy to be feeling as good as I am now and being able to rebound like I have."

Heaverlo's role, for the time being, will be as a short reliever and has been used as the closer a few times already this season by manager Dan Rohn. As far as what his ultimate role might be, the former University of Washington starting pitcher doesn't have a preference – as long as it's as a healthy pitcher in a baseball uniform.

"I've been told that I'm best suited for the bullpen with how I pitch," said Heaverlo, whose father Dave was a major league reliever for seven seasons, including the 1980 season he spent as a Seattle Mariners' middle-man.

"Start, relieve, close, mop-up, set-up, I don't care," Heaverlo said. "If I'm on the mound, I'm happy. It doesn't matter what role I'm in."

The future for Heaverlo could prove to be very bright – and sooner, rather than later. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder has the stuff to open some eyes on 1st Avenue and Royal Brougham Way, and if the need arises for an arm this summer, Heaverlo could get a phone call. A phone call that he admits is something he thinks about, using the possibility as a driving force.

When asked if playing at Safeco Field is in the back of his mind as a bit of a motivation factor, Heaverlo's response did nothing less than prove his only goal for waking up in the morning and busting his tail every day of his life was to make it to the bigs.

"No, it's in the front of my mind," said Heaverlo. "That's what drives me every day that I come to the ballpark."

Heaverlo's desire to make it to the big leagues may be bested, but only by his effortless love for pitching.

"There's nowhere else I'd rather be than the mound," he said. "I'm ready to rock n' roll, man."
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