BUFFALO — Ricky Romero has a demon named Chucky. For a while it was ruining his life and threatening his career. Chucky might win out, but things are turning. Chucky is on the run.
Thanks in part to his girlfriend named Kara and a minor league manager named Marty, Romero is going Dexter on Chucky.
Far from the spotlight, living out of suitcase in a Buffalo hotel, he’s putting a pillow over that thing; choking it out.
Chucky will die. It will be murder, but there will be no crime scene to decipher.
Run from it? Hell, Romero will be standing over the corpse, blood on his hands, and the struggling left-hander will be on his way back to the big-leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays, his girlfriend, and all the rest that he’s left behind.
”I have the confidence that I am going to be the last one laughing in the end,” Romero says. “All the people that counted me out and that talked all that crap about me, they’re going to be eating their words.
“I have the confidence that I can do that. I’ll overcome it.”
He took another big step forward Sunday afternoon in what has become an increasingly steady march back to the majors.
Romero was masterful for the Buffalo Bisons against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders as he pitched eight innings while allowing one run on four hits, striking out four and walking one. He needed just 93 pitches and threw 62 of them for strikes.
It’s the sixth time in his last seven starts he’s made it into the sixth inning, indicating he’s found his footing in triple-A after a 12-month freefall.
He’s not letting Chucky run his life on the mound.
"This is who I am and this is the kind of pitcher that I am,” Romero, who has a 2-1 record in July with a 2.57 ERA and 14 strikeouts and five walks in 21 innings pitched, told reporters after his start. “And I've always been like this and showing that mentality where I'm going to attack you whether you hit me or not.”
How do you land safely when your baseball career has jumped out of an airplane and the parachute isn’t working?
It turns out a big step is to stop caring so much.
For Romero, that required listening to the right people. Among those Romero credits for helping him keep his mind straight while going through baseball hell is Kara Lang, the former Canadian soccer star.
The pair have been dating for a year and Romero has found her to be an invaluable resource as he’s struggled to find a way out of his career-threatening skid.
Lang is in the midst of her own difficult comeback. Forced into retirement at just 24 due to complications from a pair of ACL surgeries on her right knee, she’s in the midst of a painstaking rehabilitation with an eye toward competing for Canada again at the 2015 World Cup.
Romero has been encouraging her along the road back and in return Lang, 26, has been a sounding board for the pitcher as he tries to piece his career together.
“Her being an athlete she’s been able to understand what it’s like, it’s made a difference,” says Romero. “Early on when she was contemplating making a comeback I told her: ‘you should do it, you’re young and you have a lot left’ -- you could tell she missed it. In the end we’re going to learn a lot from each other. She’s pushed me a lot and helped me learn a lot about myself, and vice versa.
“Having her in my corner and a good family and stuff like that – that’s all that matters.”
Lang says that Romero has been an inspiration to her. She views his determination to fight through the confusion and the adversity as a worthy measure of the man.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who works harder or cares more about the game than he does,” says Lang. “What I’ve learned is there can be such a thing as caring too much and being too hard on yourself and not being able to let go of things. That’s something that I’ve struggled with; both of us have to be reminded to let go of things. Both of us can be our own worst critics and talking about it helps to put things in perspective once in a while."
And as for Romero crediting her for his own growth?
“It’s really nice to hear that he said that,” says Lang. “I think it’s just more about being there for him and him feeling like he can trust (me) and opening up to each other and maybe admitting things that we haven’t been able to admit because we see them in each other. It’s a lot easier to see your own weaknesses when you see them in front of you, and we provide that for each other sometimes.”
On the mound Romero’s problems haven’t been as much with the hitter standing in front of him than as with the doubt that would creep into his head when he missed his spot with a few fastballs.
Even a solid outing seemed to fall apart in an instant, leaving him unable to recover.
Before he could cut down batters he needed to slay his inner demon, and before that could happen he needed to acknowledge its existence.
That happened when then-Bisons catcher Josh Thole and manager Marty Brown sat with Romero in the training room after one of his early starts with Buffalo, trying to figure out why a perfectly decent few innings was unravelling at the first sign of adversity.
“When he was starting to lose it, it was like he had this demon,” says Brown. “So we decided to give it a name. Thole came up with Chucky and we’d come right out and say ‘you gotta battle Chucky’ or ‘what inning is Chucky going to show up tonight?’”
It was a direct approach that Romero has come to appreciate.
“We’re having fun with it,” he says. “It’s more just joking around with Marty.”
By giving it a name they could talk about Romero’s issues plainly, even if it sounds a bit goofy.
“We basically put it all out there and then for him it wasn’t: ‘Am I going to fail?' It was ‘did Chucky show up or not?'" says Brown. “Now it’s ‘I guess Chucky didn’t show up tonight.'
“Before when he lost his command or his confidence he was worried about what other people were thinking and it added pressure. Now everyone in the room knows who Chucky is and he’s got a way to deal with it, mentally. It’s been refreshing to see him figure it out.”
Romero’s dealt with it all head-on. He follows the Blue Jays on the highlights, but hardly sounds like he’s living and dying with them.
He’s on another team for now. He texts a few Blue Jays teammates here and there, but his focus is on his life in Buffalo; not on the Yorkville condo that’s sitting empty; not on why he’s in the minor leagues when he should be in the middle of another double-digit win season in The Show.
“The biggest change I’ve made is that I’ve stopped asking those questions,” he says. “Early on I would be asking ‘why is this happening?’ But ever since I stopped asking that question it’s been more: ‘you know what? I’m blessed. A lot of people would do nearly anything to be in these shoes and have the kind of life that I have and when I put it into that kind of perspective it’s not bad after all.'
“And by doing that I’ve been able to embrace the challenge.”
It’s been two years since Romero was getting ready to make his appearance at the MLB all-star game as the Blue Jays staff ace.
It’s been 13 months since he was 8-1 for Toronto, a mirage that was hiding a rupturing confidence and an eroding ability to throw a fastball for strikes as Chucky pulled up a chair inside his head.
No one can say for sure when this will be over and Romero will resume the career that was so rudely interrupted. Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has said he’s looking for a stretch of dominance in Buffalo before bringing Romero back up. But starts like the one he had Sunday coupled with the consistency he’s found the last six weeks has Romero sure it will soon all be over, the demon dead at his feet -- and so are those close to him.
“The way that he’s handled this, there’s not a better pro out there,” says Lang. “He’s never made excuses and he’s incredibly strong-willed and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never doubted that he’d make it out of this; not once have I questioned if things would turn around for him.”
They’re turning. Chucky better watch his back.