NEW YORK -- The second rehabilitation took four months longer than the first one, which of course felt longer still to Chris Capuano. Even in today's baseball landscape, in which Tommy John surgeries are about as common as complete games, few pitchers ever need two of them.
"There were definitely times when I thought, 'Am I just beating my head against the wall? Should I be going back to school? Should I be considering other options at this point?'" Capuano, the Mets' newest starting pitcher, said by phone this week from his home in Arizona. "But when those doubts come up, you have to do what you can to manage them and handle them. I was committed to exhausting every single avenue of hard work and getting this thing feeling better before I was going to give up on it."
Back in 2002, Capuano's original Tommy John operation followed the script: Pitcher tears elbow ligament. Pitcher undergoes surgery. Pitcher sits out a year. Pitcher comes back stronger.
So it went for the lefty, who underwent the first of his two surgeries, cracked the Major Leagues the following season, won a career-high 18 games in 2005 and made the National League All-Star team in 2006. At 28 years old, he was smack in the prime of a successful career, due perhaps for a healthy long-term contract in the coming years.
Then the replacement ligament snapped.
"I figured it was just bionic at that point, indestructible," Capuano said. "It was pretty disappointing."
Shortly thereafter, Dr. James Andrews removed the damaged ligament for a second time, this time replacing it with one from Capuano's right leg. And so the process of rest and rehabilitation began yet again -- a far more frustrating progression the second time around. There were moments when Capuano, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an economics degree from Duke University, believed his baseball career might have ended before his 30th birthday.
"All those thoughts go through your mind," he said, reflecting on how the second surgery changed his outlook on life. "When you're younger and you're coming out of college, you just feel bulletproof.
"I love playing baseball. I have a real passion for it -- but I would be OK without it. I have a degree. I have other things that I could pursue. And when you approach it that way, you say, 'Hey, if I make it back, that's great. It's what I want to do. But if not, the world's not going to come crashing down.'"
The world, in fact, stayed quite upright for Capuano, who 15 months later returned to the Minor Leagues, before finally making it back to the Brewers last June. Once again complementing his mid-to-high-80s fastball with a high-70s slider and changeup, Capuano hardly enjoyed instant success, instead watching it resurface bits at a time. Still, although his prospects for a long-term contract may have vanished, his baseball career had not.
All Capuano needed was a team. And the Mets, seeking cheap starting pitching options to satiate them on a limited budget, came calling. Though the Mets were not Capuano's only suitors, the allure of New York City and a pitcher-friendly ballpark proved enough for him to sign a heavily incentive-laden one-year, $1.5 million deal that could be worth as much as $4.5 million.
"There were a couple of nights when I was lying in bed just trying to imagine myself in different uniforms," Capuano said. "I just kept seeing myself as a Met, and I just had a really good gut feeling about it. The opportunity for me, and for the Mets, I think was just a really good fit right now."
Just the opportunity to pitch, for Capuano, is significant. He won't allow himself to overlook that much.
"It was quite a relief when I finally did get back out there in a big league uniform and started winning games again," Capuano said. "It was a validation for a couple years of really hard work and tough times."