Embree confident in comeback
Left-hander's no-fear attitude drives his return to Sox bullpen
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- So, what do you do when you're 40 years old, your right leg has been shattered by a line drive, and you have a titanium rod that runs all the way down your shin and is held in place by three screws?
Alan Embree went skiing. Downhill skiing. It's an activity that is expressly prohibited by the standard language in a professional baseball player's contract. He went not once, but all winter.
"I wasn't under contract," he said. "I was a free agent. The first time was ginger. But after the first couple of runs, it was, 'All right!'"
The skis are back in the garage now after Red Sox scout Kyle Evans traveled last week from Arizona to watch Embree throw to former pitcher Randy Myers in Myers' shed in Vancouver, Wash. Evans liked what he saw, enough to recommend the Sox offer Embree a contract, which is how Embree found himself back in City of Palms Park on Saturday, with a familiar No. 43 on his back and an inside track on a spot in the same bullpen in which he'd once thrived.
The Red Sox have made no promises. But it's a good fit, Embree and the Sox. The team needs another left-hander in the pen to match with Hideki Okajima. Embree believes he can meet that need. Otherwise, he wouldn't fly across the country with two weeks left in spring training, his wife and two kids in tow.[+] EnlargeMark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Rockies held a $3 million option on Embree to return in 2010 but didn't pick it up.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't have a chance," Embree said. "I'd stay home. It's one of those things where if I'm throwing to my capabilities, I'll make the club. If I don't, someone else will see me and pick me up.
"But I don't want to go somewhere else. I want to finish up here."
That line drive, off the bat of Atlanta's Martin Prado on July 11 in Colorado's Coors Field, was supposed to have ended Embree's career. Embree never saw it coming.
"I remember it bouncing off and me stepping to get it and feeling it go clunk," he said. "I'm saying to myself, 'I think I'd better sit down now.'"
But Embree raced through his rehab, and less than three months later, he was throwing in the instructional league, shocking the Rockies. He said that if the Rocks had advanced past the first round of the playoffs, he would have been there, pitching in the NLCS.
Embree has been one of the lucky ones. Or, as he says, one of the stubborn ones. He had a shoulder impingement that caused him to miss his senior year in high school, but he still was drafted by Cleveland. At 22, he blew out his elbow, and underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, missing the 1993 season. In 2005, his first go-round with the Red Sox ended when he was released with a 7.65 ERA. It wasn't until after the season that he figured out what was wrong: He had bone spurs and enough chips in his elbow to fill a small box after they were surgically removed.
The shattered tibia, in his mind, posed just another challenge. "I'm very confident in my abilities, when adversity is thrown at me, to beat it," he said. "That's why I'm coming back today."
The Rockies held a $3 million option on Embree to return in 2010 but didn't pick it up. Fair enough, he says. It was an expensive option, he was damaged goods, and he was just starting to pitch well for the Rocks -- five straight scoreless outings -- when he was hurt. He never got the chance to bring down the 5.84 ERA that's on the back of his baseball card for the 2009 season.
But the leg is fine, he said, and so is the left arm that has generated 882 appearances, sixth among active pitchers. The attitude is the same, too, the one that manager Terry Francona summed up this way Saturday morning: "He wasn't scared."
"Embree is going to be a great addition to our bullpen," said Tim Wakefield, one of the few familiar faces Embree saw when he walked into the clubhouse Saturday morning.
"The success he had [before], it's a blessing for us to have him back if he can repeat what he did before."
Those were highlight-reel seasons for Embree, from the time a former Padres assistant, Theo Epstein, urged Mike Port to acquire him from San Diego in 2002. Winning the World Series in 2004 competes with being on the mound for the final out of Game 7 in the '04 ALCS -- when Ruben Sierra tapped out to Pokey Reese to complete the first-ever comeback from three games down -- as the signature moments of Embree's career.
There might have been another -- Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees. But Embree, who had not given up a run in the postseason, was left in the 'pen by Sox manager Grady Little as Pedro Martinez unraveled.
"Most of that was erased by '04," Embree said. "Most people, when they come up to me, say, 'Thanks for '04.'
"I don't question the manager. It's not my job. The manager makes the call. Live with it. I'm a bullpen guy.
"But if you're a manager and you have one of the best pitchers in baseball, if I was going with my gut and knowing the mentality of Pedro, I might have done the same damn thing. I don't fault [Little] for it. It was unfortunate that's the way it turned out, but who is to say I come in and face [Hideki] Matsui and get him out. Then it's, 'Why did Pedro come out?'
"But I firmly believe that we wouldn't have won in '04, wouldn't have been 'never-say-die,' if we hadn't gone through what we did in '03."
Embree worked out for the Phillies earlier in spring training, had lunch with top scout Charley Kerfeld and pitched for Kerfeld and Pat Gillick. He didn't sign then, and was prepared to wait as long as needed. He took a week off, thinking it might be awhile, and then the Red Sox called.
And there he was Saturday morning, his cross-country flight arriving at 11 o'clock the night before, taking part in pickoff drills, and throwing a short bullpen.
"Getting through the routine of the day is more survival than anything else," he said. "I'm used to throwing, grabbing a cup of coffee, and picking up my kids. That's what I'd been doing."
Embree believes he can be ready for Opening Day in two weeks. The Red Sox are likely to proceed more cautiously.
"It really depends on these two weeks," he said. "I have to see it, and they have to see it. But if I'm in game shape, I don't see why not.
"But I'm thankful for the opportunity. I want to help this team."
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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