First day of camp brings fresh start
Rockies open Spring Training with Veres seeking comeback
TUCSON, Ariz. -- This is the time of year that baseball romanticists break out the analogies that explain how Spring Training is a time of renewal. But a two-inch scar on Dave Veres' left hip speaks more forcefully than all the words of tongue and pen.
Two years of excruciating pain forced Veres out of the Majors after the 2003 season, and out of pro ball after a painful three months in the Minors in 2004. He couldn't bear to watch baseball on TV. Even worse, his hip couldn't stand sitting in a car for more than 15 minutes, or sleeping for more than two hours at a time.
He also had four children that needed their dad to play soccer or baseball or wrestle with them.
"My 7-year-old son, we'd take the trash out and we'd race home," Veres recalled. "He had to stop and wait for me. I could not run 20 feet. It was killing me."
In what could be the ultimate example of rebirth through baseball, Veres, 40, has gone from not being able to play with his kids to reporting to Rockies Spring Training with some teammates almost young enough to be his children.
Slightly more than 11 months after hip replacement surgery, Veres was among the pitchers and catchers that officially began to check in at Hi Corbett Field on Thursday and will begin Spring Training on Friday.
The history of players with prosthetic hips begins and ends with Bo Jackson, who managed 29 homers in 1993 and 1994. Now Veres has a second chance at a career and a shot at serving as an inspiration to those in pain.
"This is not why I'm doing this, to say, 'Hey, look at me. I'm coming back,'" Veres said. "But I could mean wonders for people that are even thinking about a surgery, a hip replacement or knee. If I can pull this off, it's not only for me."
Veres, who pitched for the Rockies from 1998-99 and was the club's bullpen closer for part of that period, is vying for a job helping to set up closer Brian Fuentes.
During the offseason, the Rockies signed veteran LaTroy Hawkins to a one-year contract to serve as one of the setup men, but they wanted at least one more experienced pitcher for the late innings. Veres, former Reds closer Danny Graves and Matt Herges are in camp under Minor League contracts competing not only with one another but with a crew of fresh, young relievers.
"I know he was very tough to hit," said Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca, who said he does not know if Veres will be ready for game action when the season starts, but is interested in finding the answer. "He was always a late guy, whether it was the eighth or ninth inning, and he was one of those late-game pitchers that had that pitch -- with him it was the split-finger [fastball]."
Veres' last Major League appearance was Oct. 15, 2003, when he gave up a two-run double to the Marlins' Alex Gonzalez in the Cubs' 9-6 loss in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. By then he was unable to follow through on his pitches because of the hip.
In 2004, he underwent surgery to shave down a bone spur. Still fighting the hip condition, he made 29 relief appearances for Triple-A Fresno before accepting his release on July 1.
In retirement, he just wanted pain relief.
In December 2005, Veres turned to Dr. Peter Lammens, an orthopedic surgeon who is an expert in trauma and total joint replacement at Golden, Colo.-based Panorama Orthopedics and Spine Center, which gears its practice to helping patients return to active lifestyles.
Veres was shocked at the activity Lammens had in mind.
"He said, 'There's a chance you could pitch again,'" Veres said.
Lammens performed the surgery last March 3.
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Veres used to show up at Spring Training an hour before his teammates would arrive, spend the pre-workout time running, then join the regular workout. After the surgery, Veres understood he couldn't run like he once did, but wanted to return to fitness. A neighbor in Castle Rock, Colo., gave him the perfect avenue.
"My neighbor played on a city league team," Veres said. "He said, 'Hey, come play with us.' I could just stand there and throw hard enough. Location has always been my strongpoint, anyway.
"After a couple of weeks, competition takes over. I'd give up a couple of hits and start getting mad, start bearing down and brush a guy back or something. Then I was watching a couple of games on TV. One game, a Boston-Yankees game, had like 14 walks. They were throwing 92 mph and I can throw 88 and throw strikes."
In talks with old teammates, Veres joked of making a Major League comeback. Late last season, he received a phone call from Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, whose team lost closer Jason Isringhausen to a hip injury, asking if he was serious.
Veres was not ready for action then, but the idea was planted. The Cardinals won the World Series with young relievers and went in another direction, but Veres thought about the Rockies.
Jose Mesa, who was 40, pitched well early last season, but had a whopping 46 appearances at the All-Star break. He made it for 76 appearances, but the wear showed. Setup was one of several problems the Rockies encountered en route to finishing in a last-place tie with the Diamondbacks in the NL West.
"If they had one more guy to help [Mesa] out, they would have won the West," Veres said. "That's my role. That's my specialty, coming in for an inning or two.
"It gave me a little more incentive, something to shoot for, give it one last shot. That's the competitive nature of me. We'll see."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.