David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
FORT MYERS, Fla.
Before Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, there was Mike Pelfrey. First-round draft pick, top-rated pitching prospect. Big, strong, equipped with the sturdy frame to carry a franchise's weighty expectations.
Drafted ninth overall by the Mets in 2005, Pelfrey looked strange yesterday playing catch in a Twins uniform, shoulder to shoulder with a group of relative unknowns. As the warm-up tosses began winding down, Pelfrey flicked a few knuckleballs, smiling as they dived.
"Pretty good, huh?" Pelfrey said. "Hey, if you can get by on one pitch . . . "
It was a nod to his former life as a clubhouse neighbor to R.A. Dickey, and Pelfrey talked fondly of the Mets, the only team he had known before a few weeks ago. That chapter abruptly ended for him April 21 when he felt a "grab" in his right elbow during a superb eight-inning performance against the Giants. One MRI exam later, Pelfrey was scheduled for Tommy John surgery, and everything changed.
"I thought I was about to take off," Pelfrey said.
If Pelfrey had been able to put together the kind of year the Mets always hoped for but never really got, maybe he would be on a different career vector in Port St. Lucie right now. Instead, his only visit was last week, when he drove across the state to play golf with David Wright and have dinner with his former teammates.
"I went down there to take Wright's money in golf," Pelfrey said. "He ended up taking mine."
Pelfrey appreciated that Sandy Alderson called him personally in November to say he was being non-tendered after his $5.7-million salary last season (it was no surprise). But the Mets did leave the door open a crack by later asking him if he'd be interested in coming back -- on a lesser deal, of course, and with the possibility of being used as a reliever. Pelfrey declined, saying he wanted to start, and signed a one-year, $4-million deal with the Twins.
In some ways, it was a relief. Despite still having great affection for the Mets, Pelfrey knows he had a turbulent relationship with the team's frustrated fan base. Of all the ups and downs during his six years, one thing stuck in his head more than the others, and it tested his easygoing nature toward the end.
"It wasn't necessarily hard for me," Pelfrey said of his inconsistent tenure in Flushing. "I think it was maybe harder for the fans, and I had to hear it. I'll never forget last year when I got booed on Opening Day. Jason Bay and I got booed on Opening Day, and I'm thinking, 'Man, this is what it's come to, I guess.' You're not human if it doesn't bother you."
Pelfrey made only three starts, two at home, and his parting gift was that night against the Giants. What followed was some initial anxiety about the surgery, which was performed by Dr. James Andrews himself -- not one of his associates -- and that soon was replaced by post-op enthusiasm.
As Andrews explained it to Pelfrey, a hamstring tendon was taken from below his left knee as the replacement. Holes were drilled into the bones of the elbow and the ligament was entwined in a figure-eight to tighten the joint together. It's usually entwined twice, but Andrews told Pelfrey he did it three times, for extra strength and durability.
The elbow was wound so tightly that in the early stages, Pelfrey found himself trying to extend it by leaning against door frames or hanging from an exercise rack. "I feel strong, really strong," he said.
The typical rehab for Tommy John surgery makes it possible to return in 12 months. In mid-December, after only 7 1/2 months, Pelfrey said he threw 120 pitches off a mound at Wichita State. His offseason throwing program already was finished.
Though his rehab schedule called for him to work out every other day -- taking weekends off -- Pelfrey chose to stay on alternate days through the weekend, which he estimated shaved a whole month off the program. Pelfrey said Andrews was fine with it as long as Pelfrey was OK. But the accelerated pace made some prospective clubs a little nervous once they heard what he was doing in December.
"I think it might have scared some teams off," Pelfrey said.
The noticeably thinner Pelfrey -- he's at 240 pounds, down from 270 -- is under no restrictions after getting checked out by the Twins' staff upon his arrival at spring training. With a new elbow and a new uniform, it's a new start for Pelfrey, who is hoping for the chance to face his former team when the Mets visit Target Field this season (April 12-14).
If so, his career will have come full circle. Does Pelfrey have any advice to those following in his footsteps, such as Harvey and Wheeler?
"I look back, and maybe when I came up in 2006, it was a little early," Pelfrey said. "I had a sinker and I didn't have anything else. I had to learn on the job, and in that aspect, it was tough, and it gets blown up in New York even more.
"I could tell them all these things or whatever, but you really have to experience it. You have to see it all for yourself. I understand that now."