This story originally published online at The 9th Street Journal.
Two months after being released by the Durham Bulls, Tyler Zombro is getting another chance to play baseball.
The 28-year-old pitcher has only played two games since getting hit in the head by a 104-mph line drive in 2021, ending his season and sending him into months of recovery. This weekend, he accepted a minor-league contract with the Texas Rangers organization and is expected to play for the AAA Round Rock Express. The news was first reported by ESPN.
He was joyful when I texted him Saturday afternoon, replying that he was “already at the park!”
The news came after an up-and-down couple of months. Before spring training, Zombro got a heads up from the Tampa Bay Rays organization, which owns the Bulls: Hey, we don’t think you’re gonna make the AAA roster coming out of spring training.
That was discouraging, because he felt he was pitching better than he had been in a while. His velocity was up, and he believed he was ready. But the Rays had already made up their mind. “You could see the writing on the walls… they wanted to move on from me as a player.”
Zombro was released on March 26.
Last week, during an interview in Charlotte before the Texas contract was signed, he revealed new details about his rehabilitation and his disappointment with getting released.
After his head injury in June 2021, Zombro went through months of rehabilitation before being cleared to play again in the 2022 season spring training. He wore a Kevlar implant in his hat to protect his head, and loved ones held their breath as he returned to the sport that almost took his life.
Understandably, he wasn’t back to where he’d been pre-injury—his pitches were down a couple of miles per hour. Instead of sending him back to Durham to play for the Bulls at the start of the season, the Rays kept him in Florida for an extra month and a half of training. This was miserable for Zombro, who was eager to get back to Durham and replace the last image everyone had of him face-down and seizing on the mound.
“I pushed so hard [to get back to playing], and then to be told that you’re just gonna hang out in Florida for a month and a half, you know, you’re not super thrilled about it,” he recalled.
But once he resumed pitching, Zombro realized quickly that something was wrong with his arm. His pitches were slowing down significantly, and he was in pain. But, afraid of being held back even further, he kept pitching without saying much.
“I wasn’t going to push back, you know, that far from the head injury and then say, ‘Well, my arm’s bugging me’ and then run the risk of never pitching again,” he said.
Once back in Durham, he made it through two season games with the Bulls before confessing his symptoms to the medical team. He knew it was time. “My feel for the ball [was] gone.”
The diagnosis was clear. He said he had thoracic outlet syndrome, a case of restricted blood flow and nerve sensation through his arm. The injury stemmed directly from his head injury the previous year, he said.
He got surgery in June, ending his 2022 season. His recovery took about five months, giving Zombro his second consecutive season of physical therapy and rehabilitation.
“I’m like a VIP member at Duke Health now,” he laughed.
Pitchers never stop thinking about baseball. After PT, Zombro worked as a pitching coach and even stuck around for Bulls games, giving advice to players in the dugout.
After being cleared to play once again, Zombro arrived at this year’s spring training with big hopes. He wanted to surpass his playing ability pre-injury.
“I certainly could have mailed it in after the head injury and been fine. Like, I don’t need baseball to be happy,” he said. But he had fought too hard to get back.
With another year passed since his head injury, people were finally asking fewer questions and flinching every time he pitched.
“I felt great about it, like finally breaking away from everybody just freaking out,” he recalled.
Despite the consistent warnings that he likely wouldn’t make the roster, Zombro still believed he might make it to Durham for the start of the season. “I hadn’t felt like myself pitching in a while,” he said, and for the first time since 2021, he seemed to be back to normal.
For the Rays, though, it was too late. They no longer had a place for him.
Zombro, who had been signed to the Rays as an undrafted free agent in 2017, felt that he’d always been overlooked.
“I never was a real priority,” he said. While his game smarts had always been valued, he believed his playing had been “written off pretty quickly.”
When the time came to sign his release papers, Zombro didn’t resist. “I’ve got nothing to lose,” he stated. “I’m essentially not being valued, it can’t go much lower than this.”
Last week, before he signed with the Rangers’ organization, he was still in limbo. He said his old teammates checked in on him daily. At least once a week, almost every member from the 2021 Durham team—the season Zombro got hit—would text him something like, “What’s up man? Any updates? What’s going on?”
Now, he has good news to tell them.
Zombro forgets about his head injury most days. For the first year after it happened, he felt that “nobody looked at me again as the same player.” Now, two years out, he’s starting to feel like they might.
“It’s not about the head injury anymore,” he said, “it’s about me moving on.”
This story was published through a partnership between the INDY and 9th Street Journal, which is produced by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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