Comeback pitch

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. – Dave Veres reached into his wallet and slipped out a rectangular piece of plastic. Below the bolded PATIENT IDENTIFICATION CARD indicator was a small picture of a socket with a bone protruding down, the perfect illustration for Veres to explain how his left hip became three pounds of titanium.

"Basically, it's like an Ace Hardware store," Veres began. "You've got your Skil saw, your drill, your hammer. Doctor goes in there, shaves off my femur …"

On and on Veres went, detailing the finer points of hip-replacement surgery generally performed on patients 60 and older, not 40-year-old former baseball players. He was genuinely excited. He stood up and paced like a show pony. He pulled down his shorts just enough to show off the 4½-inch scar. He stared at the card. Even more important than an American Express, he can't leave home without it.

"Gets me through the airport," Veres said. "I set off the security beepers."

His eyes tilted up. The rest of the Colorado Rockies pitching staff milled about to Veres' right and left. He chuckled. This whole thing – it was just so incredible. A comeback. Baseball's most implausible in years.

As a general rule, athletes don't return from hip-replacement surgery. Bo Jackson, no ordinary man, did in 1993, hit a home run in his first game back and then spent the next two years hobbling toward retirement. So did Jack Nicklaus, but he was 59, his heyday gone the way of the mastodon.

Veres' return is due to the wonderful confluence of two modern-day baseball themes: the magic of modern medicine and the dearth of decent relief pitching. For 10 seasons Veres was a solid reliever, his shot-put delivery rather unsightly yet his results admirable. He's convinced he can capture what his bum hip stole, and the Rockies are willing participants in the experiment.

"We didn't bring Dave in as a publicity stunt," Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "We think if he is healthy and can pitch, he can help this team. It would please everybody."

Amaze everybody, too. Less than a year ago, Veres couldn't run 20 feet. Pain sizzled from his ankle to the small of his back. When various treatments stopped working and his resolve softened like a sack of feathers, the only solution was the 90-minute operation on March 3, 2006.

"His hip couldn't move," said Dr. Peter Lammens, who performed the surgery in Golden, Colo., a Denver suburb. "His leg lengths were off a little bit, because when you do get a degenerative hip, that leg shortens. And he had pain. All he wanted was to play with his kids without having pain.

"And now he's going to play baseball."

Veres had spent half his life in professional baseball, drafted out of junior college at 19. For the final three years, his hip ached daily, the accumulated effect of daily 10-mile runs, pickup basketball games, the pressure of landing on his left leg with each pitch and accelerated arthritis.

All of the cartilage that cushioned the ball-and-socket joint of the hip had disintegrated, leaving the bones grinding against each other like a mortar and pestle. When Lammens opened Veres' hip – a surgery that necessitated the cutting of only one group of muscle, as opposed to operations 10 years ago that sliced three – he saw the wear of someone perhaps twice his age.

The socket, generally shaped like an egg, was more Humpty Dumpty, a mess of pieces. Lammens swapped it out for a titanium replacement coated with a liner made of polyethylene, a plastic pliable like cartilage and durable to boot. After sawing off part of Veres' femur, Lammens drilled a tapered hole into it and tapped down a stem topped with a ball made of oxidized zirconium, the newest replacement for the ceramic ball in Nicklaus' hip.

Veres eased back into athletic activity. First he would walk, then run. Baseball, always on his mind during the two years since the San Francisco Giants released him in July 2004, presented itself in the form most familiar to 40-year-olds: rec league.

Days after Veres threw 12 innings of a doubleheader in Castle Rock, Colo., he happened to run into St. Louis Cardinals traveling secretary C.J. Cherre, whom he knew from his two years closing there. Veres said he might try a comeback and to let Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty know. Cherre said he would. Veres was kidding, sort of, but remembered that his two youngest sons had never seen him pitch, and that he had succeeded in 2003 throwing only 82 mph, and that the rehabilitation had shaved off most of the post-retirement weight he had gained.

Following the season, Veres called O'Dowd and asked for a tryout. He wanted to stay in Colorado with his family. O'Dowd welcomed him to Coors Field around Christmas and liked enough of what he saw to offer a minor-league deal in January.

"If I didn't have any reference to what Dave was all about, I probably would've had a lot more skepticism," O'Dowd said. "I don't think he thought he was kidding himself, though."

Veres plowed into workouts. He discovered the motion that, for his final few seasons, had been lost because of compensating one way for a throwing-shoulder injury and another for the hip. Already manic enough that a former teammate once asked him what type of amphetamine he was using – none, for the record – Veres couldn't contain his excitement.

"When I was working out in the winter at Coors, (San Diego catcher) Josh Bard was one of the guys there," Veres said. "And he said, 'Dude, you're like a rookie all over again.' I had a new glove. I had new shoes. Oh, and a new hip.

"If I'm healthy, I think I have a good shot, I have to prove that, though. I can't afford to take days off. I've been throwing off the mound for two months now every other day. I'm not holding anything back. I'm not trying to gingerly feel for it. I'm giving it everything I have. I'd rather find out now that my hip's not going to hold up than in June."

He's almost at the hip's one-year anniversary, and the titanium has lived up to its reputation. Veres still has habits from before his surgery. He uses his hands to push himself up from chairs instead of his legs. He bends over at the waist instead of with his knees, which makes for some funny-looking pitchers' fielding practice.

"Even walking," Veres said. "Walking for me is like when you're in high school and you get drunk. I have to say, 'Act straight, act straight,' because I have that natural hitch in my step. Everyone will say, 'Your hip OK?' "

The answer is yes, and so is life. Veres became a new man by turning into his old self. He's wearing the same No. 43. He's meeting new teammates and reacquainting himself with old friends – some of whom are now on Colorado's coaching staff, which, far more than the hip replacement, makes Veres feel 40.

"You get a fake hip and that's when you sit down," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "You don't walk as much. You don't run. But science and technology has all changed. We've always tried to be creative and think outside the box here, and this is definitely something outside the box."

So far out that it just might work. The Rockies' bullpen is far from set. O'Dowd and Hurdle would love Veres' presence in the clubhouse, players always seconds away from one of his whip-crack barbs. Fans remember him as one of the few relievers in the franchise's history who for an entire season tamed Coors.

Over the next two weeks, leading up to the exhibition season, they'll know for certain whether his split-finger fastball still dives and his fastball has enough giddy-up to warrant a speeding ticket and he can actually complete his comeback or deign to send it back to Castle Rock with a modifier – attempted.

"There's nothing to lose," Veres said. "If it works out they get a 10-year veteran for nothing, and I get to pitch again. If it doesn't work, I get to go home, retire and head back to the city league.

"And they won't be able to touch me this time."

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