The left-shoulder surgery was tough on Rays reliever J.P. Howell. But, he said it was worse for Heather Hennessy Howell. She had to put up with him during the seven months he wasn't allowed to throw a baseball.
He had evolved into the Rays' unofficial closer in 2009 and figured he had just a strained shoulder during Spring Training in 2010. He was throwing to hitters in a simulated game in May before pain stopped him after 12 pitches. Three days later: surgery.
The operation to repair a torn labrum (cartilage surrounding the shoulder socket) wiped out that entire season and the first seven weeks of 2011. For one year, the excitement of pitching was replaced by the tedium of rehabilitation.
"I think the surgery was harder on Heather than on me," Howell said. "She was my rock through the whole ordeal. She had to kick me in the [butt three or four times a week, and she'll probably say I'm short-changing her."
His wife knew what he was going through. She had been on the track team as a freshman at Southern Cal "and I planned on running in the Olympics before I broke my back while training," she said.
"I went through difficult times trying to decide my self-worth beyond track. In some ways, that prepared me to handle J.P. I understood what it felt like to have something like that happen."
When Howell regained consciousness after his surgery he thought something had gone very wrong.
"I'd heard it was painful but this was something else. The pain was unbelievable," he said. "For the first two or three days, I was taking it like it was devastating. Then I realized, 'This isn't going to get me too far.' It was like, 'I don't have cancer. I'm not dying here.'"
Still, there were bouts of depression, brought on in part by not being allowed to throw a ball and exacerbated by painkillers.
"When I was starting to feel pretty sorry for myself, Heather would get me back into shape," Howell said. "She taught me a lot, like, 'Hey, take everything as a lesson,' I had to learn that there were going to be cycles of ups and downs. The downs didn't last long. The ups lasted longer."
He wanted to become the poster boy for rehab. "I want kids who get that surgery to look at me and say it's better to come back even better than before. It was something I had to commit to," he said.
Rehab began the morning after the operation. "For the first six weeks they do a lot of it for you," Howell said. "The first day they're helping you lift your arm like three inches. It's a slow process and it's as tedious as it gets."
He finally was permitted to pick up a ball in December. His first toss went 30 feet. He was limited to 10 throws and barely managed to get through that.
"You're out there thinking, 'I don't want to throw. I know it'll hurt.' And it does."
Day by day, the throws went farther. He began throwing off a mound. Then came simulated games and, eventually, pitching a few Minor League games before returning to the Majors with one scoreless inning May 20 against the Marlins.
"It feels great to be back. The joy is all there," Howell said. "Now, I've got to get some results and get this team moving in the right direction."
Is he ready to re-establish himself as the Rays' closer -- unofficial or otherwise -- the role Kyle Farnsworth has held this season?
"I don't really care," Howell said with a laugh. "I just want to have clean innings no matter what inning it is, whether it's the 20th inning or the first inning. I just want a 1-2-3 inning every time, whether it's closing or setting up or anything else."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.