TORONTO – In the summer, long after the projected recovery period of 4-to-6 weeks from a minor knee surgery had stretched into months, Devon Travis found himself celebrating the simple act of walking without pain. Up to then, the rehab following the procedure to repair a meniscus tear had been gruelling, tedious and, for the most part, unsuccessful. Small gains were immediately followed by a setback, which made the pain-free strolls feel like progress.
"I finally came to my senses, that walking without pain isn’t something that someone in my field should really celebrate unless it’s right after surgery," says Travis. "(The surgery) was supposed to be something simple from the start. It was frustrating. Just had to keep pushing."
Continue to push is precisely what Travis did, and he’s now been jogging, even running, for roughly three weeks without issue, something he never managed to do during a lost 2019 that led to his recent parting with the Toronto Blue Jays. After five surgeries over the past four years, the 28-year-old knows better than to put a timeline on his recovery, but he hopes to progress onto a baseball field in the next month or so.
"I have a little bit of excitement and I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself," he says, trying to restrain his inherent optimism. "I’ve learned to never think you’ve got it until you’re actually back out there, have your uniform on and you’re back doing it again. I look forward to that and I can see that coming. That’s nice, because before, I’d never see the light."
What lies beyond that light is unclear.
For the first time since the Detroit Tigers selected him in the 13th round of the 2012 Draft, Travis is a free agent, having turned down an outright assignment to triple-A Buffalo by the Blue Jays. He had been on the 60-day injured list and the club declined to reinstate him to the 40-man roster ahead of a Nov. 4 deadline.
A handful of teams have expressed interest since, and he’s left the process entirely in the hands of his agent, J.D. Smart. "I’ve got to get healthy, and when I get healthy again, it’s going to make for a pretty cool comeback," says Travis. "Up until then, my knee is literally my only focus."
The determination and resilience he showed during his five years with the Blue Jays – including major surgeries to his right shoulder and right knee in which he "was given a 50/50 shot to ever play again" – should serve him well in that regard.
And his talent remains tantalizing, given that in the 316 big-league games he played from 2015-18, he produced 6.6 WAR as calculated by Baseball Reference, a painful reminder of what might have been had injury not struck him time and again.
Travis’ health woes first started during his impressive rookie season of 2015, when a groundball off his collarbone led to an exploratory September surgery that identified a condition called Os Acromiale, a lack of fusion of the acromion bone in the shoulder.
An October procedure repaired that and he returned to post a .785 OPS in 101 games during the 2016 season, before he suffered a bone bruise to his right knee during the American League Division Series, and then another knee injury during Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
Off-season surgery removed a flap of cartilage caught in the joint and he was limited to only 50 games in 2017 before landing back on the injured list with another bone bruise in his right knee. A June surgery cleaned up the cartilage in his knee and ended his season, which set him up for a 2018 when he appeared in a career-high 103 games, but posted only a .656 OPS and was demoted to Buffalo for a couple of weeks.
This spring, Travis appeared in two games before his left knee swelled up, eventually leading to the meniscus surgery from which he was supposed to return in four-to-six weeks. Instead, it began laying the groundwork for his eventual split with the Blue Jays.
The latest operation "was the hardest by far," says Travis. "I wish I could explain to you all the emotions but to keep it brief, it was the toughest one because it was supposed to be so straightforward and I couldn’t even jog or do anything athletically."
"I don’t really know the exact answer on why it’s taken so long," he adds. "The best way to say it is knees are tough. Knees and shoulders, most rehab people will tell you, are the two hardest things to rehab. They’re tricky."
Nearly as tricky was processing his emotions about leaving the Blue Jays, an eventuality Travis says he "was prepared for," even though he didn’t "want to truly believe it until it does happen."
He was reminded of asking former GM Alex Anthopoulos whether he needed a passport during their initial conversation after his Nov. 13, 2014 acquisition from the Tigers for outfielder Anthony Gose; of being told he’d made the team in the spring of 2015; of his opening day home run at Yankee Stadium that April 6. "When I hit that home run I ran the bases in 12 seconds or whatever, it wasn’t what I wanted to do," he says. "I was just so nervous, I was touching home plate before they could take that thing from me."
No one is taking that from him, nor his memories of helping the Blue Jays win the American League East in 2015 and the wild card game in ’16, helping reignite a long dormant fanbase waiting for a team worth rallying around, becoming a favourite with his energy, passion and positivity.
"I walked into Canada completely not knowing what to expect — I mean, at all — not realizing it was the coolest destination I could have ended up in," says Travis. "I’ll miss putting on that uniform, tying your cleats, making sure your knot is exactly how you want it, looking in that mirror at that ‘Blue Jays’ on the front of your jersey, realizing that you’re going out and living your dream. I’ll miss going out there with my buddies and getting after it.
"The fans, the thing I’m most upset about is that they never really got to see the best of me. That’s something I’ll always feel I missed out on, the opportunity to really show them what kind of player I am. I’m walking away feeling a little bit unfinished but that’s the business. I’m not the first person that’s had to leave a team they loved and a city they loved.
"Winning was the coolest part for sure, seeing the fanbase really fall in love with our team was special. That can never be taken away and is something that will always be dear to me."