They came to Lakeland six Februarys ago—two restless kid pitchers already fed up with the bus rides and playing in leagues referenced by the frequency of the letter “A.” One was 21 years old, the other 23.

The Tigers were still not over the nightmare of 2003, when they lost 119 games. Management had canned sacrificial lamb manager Alan Trammell, giving Tram the ziggy once their use for him dissipated.

Trammell was the transitional manager and Tigers hero, used by the team to navigate through treacherous waters until an infusion of genuine big league talent arrived. Then Trammell, never given a chance of winning, would be cashiered and another, more experienced manager could be brought in.

Jim Leyland was that new manager in 2006. Older, more experienced, grizzled—that cliche word.

The grizzled (ah!) Leyland was effusive in his praise of his two young guns—the 21-year-old Joel Zumaya and the 23-year-old Justin Verlander, two right-handed fireballers.

But would the praise be enough to keep them on the 25-man roster that would be heading north in April? One was a reliever. The other, a starter. Would they stay, or would they play for Toledo?

Leyland, with a wink to the media, held off on telling Zumaya and Verlander whether they had made the club until the last minute before the 25-man list had to be submitted. In a devilishly sadistic way, Leyland enjoyed watching his kid pitchers squirm. It was all in good fun—for the skipper.

Then the news came. Zumaya and Verlander would both be breaking camp with the big league team. No more bus rides, lousy food and bumpy infields for them.

Neither pitcher made Leyland’s decision look foolish. Zumaya made the seventh inning—the seventh inning—fun again, blazing 100 mph fastballs past big league hitters. Verlander showed amazing composure as a starter, also with a blazing fastball among his repertoire.

The two young guns helped lead the Tigers to the 2006 World Series. Verlander was the official AL Rookie of the Year. Zumaya was probably someone’s ROY, somewhere. He might have been the fans’, for sure, who were enamored with his triple digits on the radar gun at Comerica Park, even if it was trumped up on occasion (shhh).

Now it’s 2012 and Verlander has continued on the path to greatness, entering his seventh season as a big league starter. His accomplishments by age 29 are mind-boggling.

And Zumaya?

The words screamed at me as I read my Sunday paper.

“Zumaya lost for season,” was included in the headline.

It was another slug in the gut, even though Zumaya was no longer a Tiger and instead a member of the rival Minnesota Twins, who signed him to an incentive-filled, one-year deal this winter.

I still felt sick for him, even if he was in an enemy camp.

More elbow trouble for Zumaya—after just 13 pitches during a workout over the weekend.

The prognosis is of the bottom line variety: Tommy John surgery; no ifs, ands or buts about it.

It’s either that, or retirement. The options have boiled down to those for the 27-year-old Zumaya.


Who retires at age 27? Not even a punch drunk boxer does that.

Zumaya, reports say, will take a day or two to discuss his future with his family, which is the only faction of people he ought to discuss it with.

The options are simple, but also incredibly difficult to wrestle with.

Do the surgery and put himself through another exhaustive, long rehab, or hang up his mitt.

That’s it.

Zumaya, it is said, is intrigued by those pitchers who have found success after Tommy John surgery—and older pitchers at that. But he’s also unsure whether he has another long rehab left in him, both physically and mentally.

Well, of course he’s unsure.

Joel Zumaya has been coming back from one thing or another since 2007.

His last big league pitch came, ironically, in Minnesota in the summer of 2010, when he broke his elbow in a frightening and sickening scene.

On pitch number 13—yeah, 13 (how appropriate)—in his first official throwing session of spring training for the Twins, Zumaya felt pain. He walked off the mound, maybe for good.

Afterward, Twins GM Terry Ryan said of signing Zumaya, “It was a risk. It didn’t work out.”

Note that Ryan spoke in past tense, and in certainty—that Zumaya was through, done.

We’ll see in a couple days whether Ryan was premature in his comments, or dead on.

What different paths that were taken by the two young kids who showed up to Tigers camp in 2006, eh?