BUFFALO, NY — Ricky Romero comes jogging out of the Buffalo Bisons clubhouse, bounding up the dugout steps and onto the grass at Coca-Cola Field where he’s greeted by a frigid gust of a nor’easter wind blowing cold rain right into his face. He wipes his eyes, adjusts his tuque and hops in place three times, raising his shoulders and tensing every muscle in his body as he bounces, communicating plainly to the empty 18,000-seat stadium that it’s far too cold for baseball today.
An unwelcome blast of winter in mid-April can be no deterrent for Romero, though, as there is important work to be done. So he grimaces through the storm and jogs out to right field where he’s soon joined by Bisons pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who takes up position about 50 feet away, holding his glove at his chest as a target. Romero turns sideways, looking at St. Claire over his right shoulder before beginning his windup and throwing a baseball across his body in St. Claire’s direction. He’ll spend the next 20 minutes repeating this over and over again.
It’s the same pitching motion Romero used for 28 years until last season when Blue Jays management, in yet another attempt to find a solution to Romero’s baffling control issues, altered his mechanics. Romero committed to the new delivery as best he could. He tried to make the adjustments work. They didn’t. So now, as sheets of cold rain whip around him, Romero is trying to relearn his old delivery. He’s trying to remember how to ride a bike.
This is what it’s come to. After two consecutive seasons of bewildering struggles that have seen Romero tumble from Blue Jays staff ace and AL all-star in 2011 to minor league pitcher without a 40-man roster spot in 2014, Romero is trying to go back to what worked so well for him in the past. “When you’re searching for answers you’ll try anything. I’ve tried so many different deliveries. And throughout all that I think I’ve developed some bad habits,” Romero says. “I’ve got to go back to something that I feel comfortable with. And that’s throwing the baseball how I’ve always thrown it.”
When Romero arrived in Buffalo earlier this month he sat down with St. Claire, who asked him how he felt about the changes to his delivery over the past year. Romero was honest. He didn't like them. He didn't feel comfortable. He wanted to go back to something familiar.
Much of what has frustrated Romero about his delivery over the past year has been how it finishes. Instead of following through with his arm in full extension, he's been cutting the ball off, and stopping his arm swing short after releasing the ball. "When he gets short like that, he doesn't get that arm extension out front. We think it's affecting his location," St. Claire says. "Then his hands get messed up—they get very choppy." The two also found that over the past year that Romero has been delivering pitches with the thumb of his throwing hand up instead of down, a subtle factor that could be affecting his location. For what it's worth, Romero's thumb was always down when he was having his most successful years.
St. Claire spent time watching old film from when Romero was one of the best left-handers in the game and figured transitioning back to his old delivery might not be such a crazy idea. He called Dane Johnson, the Blue Jays pitching coordinator, and got approval to start the process. And then Romero got to work. "It's been difficult. It can be frustrating at times. You haven't done something in such a long time and have to re-teach your body to do what it once did," Romero says. "But Randy's made me a believer again. He has been so supportive, dedicating a ton of time to working with me. And we're seeing progress."
Romero has just one start so far with the reclaimed delivery, a four-inning outing where he allowed three earned runs on four hits, striking out four and walking four. Both pitcher and pitching coach said they were pleased with the results.
Of course, Romero had already been showing flashes of his old self during spring training last month in Dunedin, where he experienced the kind of success he hasn't seen in years. He was throwing his fastball for strikes, mixing in his changeup with great movement and working his way out of jams. Through his first seven innings of camp—all out of the bullpen—he allowed just one run on three hits.
That performance earned him a start against the Detroit Tigers—a "show me" start if there ever was one—late in camp, but that's when everything fell apart. He struggled with his control, walking four batters in a row at one point, and allowing three runs over 2.2 innings. He threw two wild pitches, hit a batter and threw just 23 of his 57 pitches for strikes.
Shortly after that outing, Romero was sent to minor league camp and assigned to the Bisons for the start of the regular season. Up until that point, Romero had been pitching so well that he believed he had an opportunity to break camp with the major league club. "I might have got my hopes up a little too high," Romero says. "Looking back at it I probably didn't even have a chance."
That sounds a lot like a man who's been through professional athletic hell and back being very hard on himself. To be fair, Romero was given the start against the Tigers because of how well he was pitching and leading up to it Blue Jays manager, John Gibbons, had proudly stated that "the big talk of camp right now is Ricky Romero." Gibbons hedged his statement after Romero's poor outing against Detroit but also suggested there were members of the Blue Jays brain trust who were pushing for Romero to make the team. "Regardless of the camp he had, I thought it would do him some good to start down in the minor leagues in real competition, where things are different—just to make sure he's back to where he needs to be," Gibbons said after Romero was sent down. "That was my thinking. But it wasn't everybody's opinion. If he proved that he was ready in spring training, he might have been the guy."
Either way, Romero is in Buffalo today, which is not where he wants to be but where he needs to be as he works to relearn the delivery that brought him so much success just a few years ago. The rain soaks through his shirt and the trucks rumble along I-190 in the distance as he repeats the delivery over and over, St. Claire shouting instructions at him through the wind in right field.
"It's just a matter of getting my confidence back, getting my pitches in the strike zone and being consistent with it," Romero says. "I just have to work. I can't worry about when I'm going to get called up. I just need to do everything right every day. And we'll see where it takes me."