NASHVILLE — Chris Bassitt has been playing professional baseball since 2011, and he is only 29 years old.
But the Genoa High School graduate understands a pro career can be fleeting after missing more than a full season because of Tommy John surgery.
“I kind of feel as if I’m playing on borrowed time,” Bassitt said in a recent phone interview. “That may be wrong because of how prevalent Tommy John surgery is in this day and age, and how talented the doctors and trainers are.
“But I feel all of those folks gave me a brand new career. I think about all of them every day. I’m thankful for everyone and what they’ve done.”
Bassitt first pitched in the majors for the Chicago White Sox in 2014, then was traded to Oakland in that offseason. In 2015 he had a misleading 3-15 record pitching for the Athletics and with Triple-A Nashville; he posted a 3.65 ERA with the Sounds and had a 3.56 ERA in 18 appearances with Oakland.
But the 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander made just five starts for Oakland in 2015 before he was shut down because of arm trouble. Curiously, Bassitt said the diagnosis of Tommy John surgery — the replacement of the ulnar collateral ligament in the pitching elbow — was not as troubling as it might sound.
“It was almost a sense of relief at the beginning because I knew something wasn’t right,” he said. “That sounds weird because I knew what was coming terms of the surgery and rehab. But I knew something wasn’t right with my arm; something wasn’t adding up.
“Just figuring out what was wrong, that was a relief. Now I knew what was wrong and knew what we needed to do to fix it.”
Dr. Timothy Kremchek successfully performed the surgery in August, 2016. While Bassitt knew how difficult the post-surgery rehab was, he still was not fully prepared for the road ahead.
“I just didn’t know how hard it would be to get through everything,” he said. “I have been around the game long enough to know the steps: surgery, rehab for a year, then hopefully you’re back fully healthy.
“But as for how hard that process is, you don’t know until you go through it.”
Dr. Kremchek said he admires the perseverance athletes show to return to the sport after he completes the surgery.
“This surgery has been done so many times that, I don’t want to say the rehab is ‘cookbook,’ but it’s pretty close,” he said. “There’s a pretty clear understanding of how long to stay in the brace, when you can start exercising, when you can exercise your shoulder, when you can start throwing.
“But it takes a lot of mental tenacity. And it takes a lot of teamwork with the trainers and therapists to keep an athlete motivated.”
Bassitt admitted the rehab was grueling but felt the hardest part of his journey came after the rehab was finished and he returned to action.
“You don’t feel quite right at first because there are all these different feelings and aches in your arm that you have to work through,” he said. “I never felt good at the beginning.
“Last year was supposed to be my ‘year back,’ but I never felt good, never felt right. Mentally, that was tough because you start to wonder if you ever will be fully back. It was tough physically and mentally, and that wears on you.”
Bassitt said he did not feel he was himself until spring training leading into this season.
“I took a good month-and-a-half off during the offseason, and I think that re-set my body,” he explained. “When I started throwing and working out, I felt good.
“I hoped the aches and pains I was feeling last year wouldn’t come back, and they didn’t.”
While Bassitt began this season in Nashville, he twice was teased by a promotion to the big leagues. Why was it a tease? Simple: While he was on the Oakland roster, he never pitched in a game.
“To me, I didn’t really get back because I didn’t throw,” Bassitt said. “It was hard because I felt really good, but I wasn’t able to get this monkey off my back.
“Getting sent down after that was exhausting mentally. So finally getting to pitch was a relief.”
That opportunity came when he was promoted to Oakland to make a start June 9 against Kansas City.
“It felt good because I knew I was starting — that time I knew I would get to throw,” he explained. “Then it was just a whirlwind, thinking about all the people who helped me get back to that spot.
“Honestly, I’m not sure that emotional aspect will ever go away.”
While Bassitt pitched well against the Royals, allowing just three hits, one walk, and one run while fanning six in seven innings, he was saddled with a loss in a game where the Athletics were shut out.
After losing his next two starts, Bassitt claimed his first major-league victory since Aug. 4, 2015, in a special circumstance. He surrendered just two hits in six shutout innings June 27 at Detroit, earning the win in front of about 50 to 75 people who drove up to Comerica Park to cheer him on.
“Family, friends, high school coaches — Detroit being so close helped to make it a friendly atmosphere,” Bassitt said. “You definitely want to do well when you have that many people there watching you and cheering you on.”
Bassitt is 2-3 with a 3.38 ERA in six starts for the Athletics this season. While he currently is back in the rotation in Nashville, where he is 5-4 with a 4.48 ERA in 15 appearances through Saturday, his successful return to the majors is rewarding to Dr. Kremchek.
“The greatest satisfaction I get is to go back and watch these guys compete at the highest level again — there is nothing better than that,” Dr. Kremchek said. “When I got the call that the Oakland Athletics had called Chris back up to the major leagues, I got chills.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world. That is why you do this. … The guys who don’t make it back, I will admit it is disappointing. But it’s gratifying to everyone who is involved with his rehab to see him make it back.”
Bassitt said he too is grateful for everyone who helped him return to the mound.
“Realistically, my body said, ‘Your career is over,’ and the doctors said, ‘No, it’s not,’” Bassitt said. “My appreciation for the doctors and the trainers and everyone who was involved in getting me back on the mound is hard to put into words.”
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.