ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – He didn’t pitch in a major league game for more than 5 ½ years, during which former Braves reliever Jonny Venters endured three elbow surgeries and untold thousands of hours of grueling rehabilitation.
At times he wondered if he’d make it back, if he should keep trying or just get on with whatever he was going to do after pitching, along with being a husband to the woman who stood by him throughout his saga and a father to their three children, two of whom were born during his rehab years.
If any other athlete comes up to Venters and says they know what it was like, they are almost certainly exaggerating. Because the number of pitchers who came back to pitch in the majors after three Tommy John surgeries can be counted on the fingers of one hand – with digits to spare.
But Venters, who many believe was the best left-handed reliever in baseball for a couple of years at the beginning of this decade, didn’t come back from just three TJ ligament-replacement surgeries, he came back from “3 ½.”
The “half-Tommy John” surgery, as it’s become known, was the last procedure he had Sept. 16, 2016, when Dr. Neal ElAttrache addressed another torn ulnar collateral ligament but did a procedure to…well, let’s let Venters explain.
“Dr. ElAttrache did not want to do another Tommy John, I guess because the bone had been drilled so many times previously that he felt doing another Tommy John would really compromise the bone and I guess be more susceptible for a break or something like that,” said Venters, who had Tommy John procedures performed by Dr. James Andrews in 2005 (when he was a Braves minor leaguer) and 2013 and by ElAttrache in 2014.
“So he really was adamant that he did not want to do that (fourth TJ surgery). And he presented me with this other idea. At that point I wasn’t sure if I was going to do anything (have another surgery),” Venters said. “As long as I could play catch with my kids at that point. And then he said that this procedure was a little less invasive, a little shorter rehab. It piqued my interest, I took some time, spoke to my family and my agent, the Rays, and decided to do it.”
His wife, Viviana, was all for it if that’s what Venters wanted. His agent, B.B. Abbott (a life-long friend of Chipper Jones and the Hall of Famer’s agent) talked it over with Venters.
Venters made the decision to have the procedure, and before much longer he decided he’d continue his epic journey
“I didn’t go at it full-bore at the beginning. I started playing catch at the house, I wanted to see how it felt before I made the decision,” Venters said. “The Rays were with me the whole time, we talked a whole lot and I decided to make another run at it.”
Venters, who turned 33 during spring training, had a good camp with the Rays and made five appearances at Triple-A Durham before getting the call he didn’t know if he’d ever get again. He was brought up by the Rays on April 25 at Baltimore and recorded an out that night in his first major league appearance in more than 2,000 days.
Entering Tuesday’s series opener against the Braves -- “It’s going to be emotional,” he said -- Venters had three appearances with one hit and one walk (intentional) in 2 1/3 scoreless innings. His stuff isn’t quite what it once was, but it’s still good enough – low-90s sinkers now, topping out at 94 and not as dramatically diving as the 97-mph “turbo sinkers” he threw back in his peak years with the Braves, which some hitters said was like trying to hit a bowling ball.
Venters pitched an efficient and perfect ninth inning with three ground-outs in Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to the Braves.
Before being called up April 25, his last major league appearance was Oct. 12, 2012, when he pitched two-thirds of a scoreless inning in the Braves’ Wild Card game loss to Cardinals.
He elbow had throbbed for much of that season, but Venters still managed to pitch effectively, posting a 3.22 ERA in 66 appearances with 69 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings despite a stint on the disabled list.
That’d be a really good season for more relievers, but few have experienced the dizzying heights that Venters reached in 2010 and 2011 when he was part of the “O’Ventbrel” relief trio – Venters and Eric O’Flaherty setting up Craig Kimbrel – that was as good as any the majors have seen in the past quarter-century.
In that two-year span Venters was astonishly good, posting a 1.89 ERA in a whopping 164 appearances – including a league-leading 85 appearances in 2011 -- while limiting batters to a .190 average and .530 OPS and recording 189 strikeouts in 171 innings.
“He was Andrew Miller before Andrew Miller,” said Braves reliever Peter Moylan, a teammate in those three seasons. “Him and Kimbrel and O’Flaherty, it was just lights-out. But he was absolutely Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman rolled into one guy.”
His second appearance with the Rays last week was at Boston, where Venters and Red Sox closer Kimbrel chatted during the game across a neck-high wall separating the bullpens. Neither one of them could stop smiling.
“It was a special group, all seven of us,” Venters said of that former Braves bullpen. “We had a pretty tight-knit group, we enjoyed ourselves, enjoyed being together, and fortunately we pitched pretty well together. It was a special run and I still talk to those guys…. I’ve heard from most of them. I got to see Craig in Boston and texted O’Flaherty and a couple of other guys.
“It’s been great to talk to them and I’m grateful for all the texts and responses I’ve gotten from guys that I played with or came across. I don’t know if I deserve all this attention and the kind words, but I’m grateful.”
After his ulnar collateral wore down in 2012 and popped the following spring, Venters had his second Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire 2013 season, signed with the Rays and missed the next two seasons after another TJ surgery in 2014. Three full seasons of no pitching whatsoever, not even in a minor league game.
“There was days where I wondered if I was wasting my time and if this was possible,” Venters said. “I tried to go in the training room and get my work done, try to put it out of my mind and just push through it every day, see what happens….
“I had an amazing support system. The Rays were always there with me, my family was always there, my agent. I had a wonderful support system that made those things easier on me. It was a crazy journey but so far, so good. It’s worked out.”
Ask anyone who played with Venters in the Braves’ organization and they will say he’s an even better person and teammate than he was a reliever. And was a damn good reliever.
“He was as good as it gets,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, a coach at that time. “I don’t know that there was a better left-handed guy out of the pen that was as good as him, that was as nasty as him. It was crazy, just crazy-good. And because of the person he is, his family and the whole thing, is why you really pull for that guy. There’s a lot of people who remember, who were his teammates, that feel real good about the fact that he’s here doing what he wants to do again….
“I saw him at breakfast this morning (at the Braves’ hotel in St. Petersburg). I said that was the happiest day of this summer for me when I heard that he got called up and saw that he pitched. I’m just so proud and happy for him, after everything that he went through. What he did for us when he was here, I mean, my God. It blows me away what he went through to get (back).”
Moylan said, “If there’s a person that I couldn’t be happier for, it’d be him and Med (Kris Medlen, another former Braves pitcher who overcame two Tommy John surgeries to make it back to the major leagues). The crew that we had back in the day, seeing these guys come back – Jonny, what he’s been through, that trumps all of them. It’s amazing.”