There was always something too good to be true about Detroit Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya(notes). He threw impossibly hard. He was impossibly charismatic, with his tattoos and his grin and his glare. His story was impossibly up-from-nowhere, as his family was without a home at one point and he figured on the day of his draft that he would be a hitter. The best thing about Zumaya the person – rather than the action figure – was that he always sensed how lucky he was. He couldn't believe his good fortune any more than fans could. He worried, just like fans did, that at some point, his hard-earned good fortune would run out.
Monday night's gruesome injury at Target Field was sadly appropriate. Zumaya was, of course, throwing ridiculously hard. He was revved up. (He's been known to chug Red Bulls in the bullpen.) He surely felt the weight of the chance to push the Tigers past the Twins into first place. These are his Clark Kent moments – the moments when he gets so amped that teammates who visit him at the mound wonder if he can hear a word they say. He's transformed, maybe transcended. But in the process of delivering a 99 mph heater, the freak of nature endured a freak injury: Zumaya basically snapped his arm in half. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, a broken elbow can take more than a year to heal. And that's for a normal human – one who doesn't throw a ball 100 mph for a living. It's difficult to imagine when or even how Joel Zumaya will throw another major league pitch. He sent a text message to a friend Tuesday, obviously typed with his left hand: "I'm hurtin' "
It's always been this way for Zumaya: breathtaking highs giving way to shattering lows. The most notable moment of his career came at the top of the baseball world – in Yankee Stadium during Game 2 of the 2006 American League Divisional Series. The Tigers, down a game, needed a spark against a ferocious Bombers lineup that manager Jim Leyland called "Murderer's Row and Cano." Zumaya, then a rookie and virtual unknown, stomped in from the bullpen with bloodshot eyes and gassed Jason Giambi(notes) and Alex Rodriguez(notes), who confessed he never saw strike three. Zumaya exited the game, shouted some gleeful obscenities in the dugout, and then stormed into the clubhouse to have some beers and watch Todd Jones(notes) close it out. It was the behavior of someone who couldn't quite believe what just happened.
Zumaya had become a bizarro-Stephen Strasburg(notes). He filled the seats just the same, and for the same reason, but Strasburg is predestined as a rookie while Zumaya was a man working on borrowed time and cheated fate. (When asked if he took steroids, he grabbed his then-plump belly and said all his power came from his mom's Mexican cooking.) Zumaya fit Detroit perfectly – almost a WWE star in cleats – and he celebrated the dismissal of the Yankees that year in the ALDS by spraying champagne on hometown fans at Comerica Park. Zumaya was so everyman that when he got shelled in Game 5 of the World Series, he walked back to the hotel through mobs of Cardinals fans instead of taking the bus. Once there, he broke down and cried, wondering if he was simply unable to live up to his own hype.
Zumaya's falls were just as epic as his rise. Everyone remembers the Guitar Hero injury (arm soreness from playing the video game too much), and the falling boxes injury (when he all but ruined his shoulder trying to help his family prepare for San Diego wildfires), but there was also the time in Kansas City when he ripped off his fingernail from gripping the ball too tight while delivering a bullpen throw. Not even Zumaya thought he'd return to 100 (percent and mph), but he did. More than once. He was impossibly lucky, then impossibly unlucky, then impossibly lucky again. He threw the fastest pitch ever recorded on a radar gun: 104 mph to strike out Milton Bradley(notes) a year ago.
And now this.
Of course there was always something other than luck directing his life. Zumaya was cartoonish to the general public, but he was blood, sweat and tears to those who knew him. He is easily bruised – physically and emotionally – but he was resilient. In fact, he met his best friend, David Belleperche, after a ball hit him in the eye in seventh grade. "He has a go-get-it personality," says Belleperche, who pitched at the University of Texas at Brownsville. "That's how he made it to the big leagues so quick. He knew he wanted it. He put all his effort into becoming a major leaguer."
So although a catastrophic injury was all but predicted – see the last line of Jeff Passan's story from two years ago – an impossible comeback would fit Zumaya's impossible tale. After all, he has already beaten a severe injury to an even more crucial body part – his throwing shoulder. After the falling-box injury, Joel's dad called Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski and made him a promise: "He's gonna shock the world." Then he guaranteed the GM his son would be back ahead of schedule. Joel Sr. was right.
Yes, there was always something too good to be true about Joel Zumaya. And yes, that gave fans and teammates a sense of doom.
But now that Zumaya's back at the bottom of his roller-coaster career, the "too good to be true" pattern might give everyone in his life at least a shred of hope.
- Joel Zumaya