Boating, chess, a contract extension: Inside Tyler Glasnow's long road back from Tommy John surgery

Recently, Tyler Glasnow — who bypassed his obvious physical destiny as a runway model or an understudy for a classical Greek statue to instead become a 6-foot-8 right-handed pitcher — got his boating license.

“You don't really need a boating license to boat in Florida,” he said last month when the Tampa Bay Rays passed through New York. “But I've just been doing that.”

While the Rays took two of three from the Yankees, Glasnow threw bullpens and lost chess games in Washington Square Park to the expert locals.

“I almost won,” he said of his most recent match. “But the guy ended up beating me.”

Losing at chess, though, was a welcome change of pace compared to the previous 14 months.

“It's nice to be on the road because it changes my routine every single day. I think the hardest part of rehab is the monotony of just like: rehab, and then you go home there's nothing else to do,” Glasnow said. “Like I can’t go get a job, you know what I mean?”

On Wednesday — one week before the 2022 regular season ends — Glasnow will finally return to his day job as a top-of-the-rotation starter for the Rays. As they fight to hang onto their American League wild-card berth and perhaps steal home-field advantage in the first round from the Toronto Blue Jays (the Jays are currently the fourth seed in the AL, the Rays are the fifth), he’ll return to the mound for his first major league appearance since June 14, 2021.

‘Something's different here’

Injuries push pitchers from the center of the sport to the sidelines, if not out of sight entirely, for up to entire seasons, putting careers on ice while the expectations linger — and that’s only if you’re lucky. Elbow injuries in particular, like the kind that necessitate Tommy John surgery, seem to loom like landmines, even while the relationship between durability and intensity remains murky.

In 2018, the Rays acquired Glasnow from the Pittsburgh Pirates and quickly turned the fifth-round draft pick with a then-5.79 career ERA who had bounced between the bullpen, the rotation and Triple-A into a budding ace.

“We identified certain traits about him that we liked very much, but it's not like we were out on a limb, right?” said Peter Bendix, who was the Rays director of baseball development at the time and was promoted to general manager this past offseason. “He's throwing 98 miles-per-hour with a hammer.”

But that was the last season he threw over 100 innings, plagued with injuries and injury-related inconsistency ever since. Glasnow said he first realized something was wrong “in 2019, against the Orioles.” Three years ago.

“I think I threw a changeup and it was a double play, it was like a 95-mph changeup, and I remember just throwing it really wrong,” he said. “That felt weird, not really pain, but I couldn’t get my mind off it.”

After his next start, he was diagnosed with a right arm strain. "I was optimistic, like, 'Oh, OK, it's not torn.' I could rehab back. And I think it just took a lot longer than expected."

Glasnow missed most of that season, returning in September. He made it through the postseason and a shortened 2020 managing the occasional discomfort with longer warmups and the confidence to get guys out with whatever he had. That worked until a game against the Chicago White Sox last season.

“The MRI was still kind of the same as it was before, and I was like ‘Something's different here,’” he said.

He had a 2.66 ERA with 123 strikeouts in 88 innings for the reigning American League champions and, just one start before, had been feeling better than ever.

"The weirdest thing was, right before I got hurt was the first time in my career I was like, 'Oh, I feel really good on the mound,'" Glasnow said. "It's not one game is really really good, one game is really bad. I almost feel like my proprioception — I know myself well enough mechanically now — is to where it's not this roller coaster of trying to reinvent myself. This was the first time in my career I was like, I know what I'm doing. Like, no matter how I feel, I know that I can get back to my staples that made me good."

At first, they tried to forgo surgery. But in August, Glasnow had Tommy John to repair his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). Dr. Keith Meister performed a newer hybrid version of the surgery that involves reconstruction along with a brace. For Glasnow, it was like the other shoe had finally dropped.

“Being this tall and throwing this hard, it was just kind of inevitable I guess,” Glasnow said. “When it finally went, it wasn't like a relief, but it was like at least I’ll be able to pitch pain free.”

He went into the process clear-eyed about the mental grind of a year-long rehab. He’d heard guys talk about it before, and was ready to weather the ups and downs of incremental progress and inevitable setbacks. The boredom, though, that was the worst part.

“You have to show up every day for 14 months, doing the same thing and not really having any reward for it,” Bendix said. “Fourteen months, even 12 months, is a really long time. And you don't get to exercise your competitive juices. You don't get any kind of payoff at the end of the day. You don't get to be with your teammates. You don't get to travel on the road. You don't get to do any of the perks that make this lifestyle more fun.”

"I just think after like two hours, I was like, I gotta go do something else besides watch TV," Glasnow said.

Hence, the boating license.

Rays make commitment

Maybe it’s all that salt air and sea breeze that comes from being out on the ocean or maybe it’s some sort of innate California chill that the Santa Clarita native brought east with him, but Glasnow seems remarkably unstressed about rehab or returning after over a year away. Other pitchers have said that the TJ process involved tears and self doubt and dark days. And then, even when you’ve finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel, there’s one last hurdle to clear: Can you convince your arm to go full force again? And if it does, will the stuff be the same?

Glasnow has no fear of getting back on the mound, but he resists the implication that he simply exists without anxiety.

“I think if this happened to me like four years ago,” he said, “I would have handled it not well at all.”

That was his last season with the Pirates. And compared to his time there, Tommy John recovery has been smooth sailing.

“I think because of what happened in Pittsburgh, how s***ty mentally it was for me, I always compare it to the worst feelings,” he said. “And the rehab process was nothing compared to ‘16 and ‘17 for me in Pittsburgh.”

What was so awful about that?

“Just being bad at pitching, I guess,” Glasnow said. “That type of anxiety is way worse than anything I felt here.”

Especially because he feels like he’s pitched his way into some career security. The Rays gave Glasnow a chance to become his best self. Early in the recovery process, the team promised that, as eager as they were to have him back on the mound, they wouldn’t do anything short-sighted. The priority was to protect Glasnow’s career beyond a single postseason push.

Shortly after their trip to New York, the Rays threw some money behind that sentiment, signing Glasnow to a two-year extension — paying him $5.35 million for his final year of arbitration eligibility and buying out his first year of free agency at $25 million, with Cy Young bonuses built in.

It's a gamble for a guy who will throw his first meaningful pitch in 472 days on Wednesday. The Rays are careful with their cash, to put it nicely, often trading players who have been contributing before they get too expensive. But the past year of grueling rehab has only solidified what they see in Glasnow.

“We have tremendous confidence in who Tyler is as a person,” Bendix said. “He's an incredible athlete, a freak athlete, the type of athlete that you want to see out there on the mound in an important game. But the person that he is, the work ethic, the way he takes care of his body, the way he takes care of his mind — if anybody is going to get the most out of his physical gifts, it's Tyler. When you're looking to make a commitment like that, you are committing to the person, even more so than the pitcher, and that's really what gave us the confidence to go out there and do that.”