Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Chris Bassitt, a 2007 graduate of Genoa High School, warms up during spring baseball practice in Mesa, Ariz., at Hohokam Stadium. ASSOCIATED PRESS
MESA, Ariz. — There’s something about guys named Chris from Genoa that gets them to embark on epic voyages every 525 years or so.
Christopher Columbus, of Genoa, Italy, completed a rather successful mission against great odds back in 1492. You may have heard of it. It was in all the scrolls, though doubters may have labeled it fake news at the time.
Now, Chris Bassitt of Genoa High School, class of 2007, hopes to complete a formidable journey of his own — a successful comeback from Tommy John surgery to the Oakland Athletics’ pitching staff.
“I feel really good, it’s just that Tommy John rehab is a long, long process,” Bassitt said before a morning workout at Hohokam Stadium, spring home of the A’s.
“It gets really boring. You do the same thing over and over and over.”
The affable right-hander is discovering what all pitchers who have had the revolutionary elbow reconstructive procedure must deal with: learning patience, following orders by doctors and trainers, and trying not to rush back.
That’s particularly tough for a pro athlete, whose very nature is to go full bore. Bassitt has a unique way of handling it.
“I don’t want to know the timetable, the long-range plans,” he said. “I just want to know what’s in front of me today. That’s it. Just today. That keeps me from overdoing it, looking to the future, trying to get there ahead of schedule.”
Still, Bassitt does have a set goal: “The target is somewhere around June to be back in games in the big leagues.”
His 2016 season consisted of just 28 innings over five starts in April. He had his ulnar collateral ligament reconstructed last May 6 by Dr. Timothy Kremchek in Cincinnati.
Bassitt threw for the first time post-surgery on Feb. 14. That was only 20 pitches, but he has shown steady improvement in bullpen sessions. He threw curveballs for the first time in mid-March, and late in spring training, got “up and down” for the first time, throwing 15 pitches, sitting for a spell, then throwing 15 more.
“I think he’ll be back and pitching in the fashion he was before,” manager Bob Melvin said.
To Bassitt, that means before his final two starts of 2016, when he gave up a total of 19 hits and 13 runs in losses at Toronto and Detroit.
“What really stinks is that two starts I had last April were really strong [two earned runs allowed in 14 innings total in no-decisions to Seattle and Kansas City] and then two that were horrendous,” he said. “It was the injury on those last two. I know that now, but having those two so close to home with a lot of friends and family there, it was like,’What is going on?’
“They asked if I was OK and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ You want to do well in front of them and to just lay an egg is terrible. That’s what hurt.”
He’s not sure how or when he tore the ligament.
“That was the worst part,” he said. “There was no pain so it was like, well I just had an off day in Toronto. No pain in Detroit, either, but it was evident something was wrong.
“I kind of wish it had been one pitch, a definitive moment. But when I had the MRI and we saw what was wrong … for some that may have been a horrible moment. For me it was a sense of relief. Then I understood why things were happening.”
He still isn’t quite sure how he got to the major leagues anyway.
“Growing up in northwest Ohio, I didn’t know too many people who even played college sports, let alone professional,” said. “Looking back, it still hasn’t set in that I was drafted, as dumb as that sounds. Everything just kind of happened. It was, all right, next step ... ok, next step.
“As a kid my goal, everybody’s goal, was the big leagues, but I never actually thought that was real. No one does that from around my area. Getting drafted was a surreal moment.”
It was quite a long shot for the White Sox to pick him in the 16th round, No. 501 overall in 2011.
After all, Bassitt never started in college, working only 70 2-3 innings over 52 relief outings at the University of Akron, which has since discontinued its baseball program.
He had 84 strikeouts, 14 saves, and 2.30 ERA over three seasons for the Zips — good numbers, but hardly eye-popping. Chicago’s scouts forecast that the slender 6-foot-5 Bassitt’s raw athleticism could blossom.
It did, quickly. In his second year in the minors, Bassitt was converted to starting and thrived. On Aug. 30, 2014, he made his big-league debut against the Tigers at Comiskey Park. That Sept. 22, he worked 7 2-3 scoreless innings in Detroit for his first win, in front of dozens of family and friends from the Toledo area.
“Memorable for sure,” Bassitt said.
Almost before he knew it, he was off to Oakland in a six-player trade that December.
“I’m very close to my family and Chicago was close to home, plus we played the Tigers and Indians a lot in the division,” he said. “Now it was off to California. Oh, my gosh. I’ll never see people again. That was a shock.”
Yet it is perhaps a better career opportunity, especially playing home games in a ballpark considered among the most pitcher-friendly. He notes that being with the A’s has helped his rehab ordeal be less stressful.
“I’m very lucky to be surrounded by the people here,” he said. “A lot of good friends have either been through it or are willing to grab me on my down days and say, ‘Hey, you’re gonna be fine.’
“Felix Doubront had the surgery about when I did, so on the exact same day we go through the same things. He says, ‘I feel this, do you feel this? I feel bad today, are you OK?’
“Without him it would be really tough. Going back to last summer, I always had him there doing the same rehab. I can’t imagine being a guy who had Tommy John and had no one there to work with, to commiserate, to encourage. I think you’d lose your mind a little bit. We really help each other.”
Bassitt said the only time he felt apprehensive along the route was when he was cleared to throw curves.
“It was, whoa I don’t know if I am ready for this, but when they first told me to throw this winter I was thrilled. I was ready to go.”
The A’s play a four-game set in Cleveland, beginning May 29. That may be a tad too soon for Bassitt to rejoin the rotation — but it would be karma.
“I was a diehard Cleveland fan growing up,” he said. “My gramps was head of the Browns Backers and I was wrapped up in everything Cleveland. The ’90s Indians were awesome, my heroes. It wasn’t too hard to root for that team.”
Bassitt says he just wants to get back on any big-league mound, anytime, anywhere.
“Starting, in relief, whatever they want. I personally feel I could do either or,” he said. “I don’t care if they say the best chance of us winning is you be the batboy. By all means, I’ll be today’s batboy. I just want to win.”