When Augusta GreenJackets reliever Ray Black felt a pain in his right shoulder in early 2012, it began a roller coaster ride of surgery, setbacks, and mental and physical exhaustion.
Black suffered a tear in his right labrum and underwent shoulder surgery in 2012 before throwing his first professional pitch. That was followed by two full seasons of living in an Arizona motel room with no car as he tried to work his way back to full health.
“Everybody else around me was playing, and my job at that time was to just get healthy,” he said. “It was hard to see the game go on without you. You’re sitting back and watching your teammates go out every day doing what you wish you could be able to do.”
Black said he was given a one-in-three chance of pitching again after surgery. He decided he had worked too hard to give up on his pro baseball career before he threw a single minor league pitch.
So Black stuck with the rehab. He suffered setbacks. He watched his teammates play while he worked just to complete a healthy day. While living in a motel room, he walked everywhere he went during the scorching Arizona summers.
“I spent two full seasons in Arizona just battling ups and downs,” Black said. “I’d have a good day followed by a lot of bad days. It was honestly a grind, mentally more than physically.”
It wasn’t the grind Black expected after getting drafted in the seventh round in 2011 out of Pittsburgh. The 6-foot-5 reliever didn’t blow away the competition as a Panther, but the San Francisco Giants recognized the heat that exploded from Black’s arm. They signed him to a $225,000 bonus and sent him to minor league camp for 2012 spring training.
Four or five innings into his first camp, Black felt the pain in his shoulder.
Two seasons later, Black was throwing harder than ever during 2014 spring training. He made it through camp healthy, and he was assigned to Augusta. He fired his first professional pitch April 3 in Augusta against Charleston, and he gave up one run with two strikeouts in an inning.
After the outing, he found himself back on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation.
Like his two-year stint, Black worked his way back, and returned May 3 to throw a scoreless inning with two strikeouts against Greenville. His fastball was 94-97 mph with a sharp slider that froze Drive batters.
At Hickory on May 10, Black reportedly hit 100 mph more than once, and he touched 101. His fastest reported pitch this season has been 102 mph.
“He’s got a plus arm and great stuff,” GreenJackets pitching coach Steve Kline said. “We’re just making sure we protect him this year and get him out there healthy.”
The 23-year-old right-hander has a 3.24 ERA with three walks to 15 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings for the GreenJackets. The coaching staff is taking it slowly with Black, giving him ample recovery time. He has pitched every third day in May.
“You can’t expect to go out and pitch like the guys who have been healthy for two to four years now,” Black said. “Innings-wise, I’ll probably have a little bit less than a lot of guys on the staff.
“Other than that, I consider it a success just to be playing.”
As Black lights up radar guns in South Atlantic League stadiums, he said he’s happy just to see different cities and ballparks. The adrenaline rush of running onto the field in relief had been missing since his days at Pittsburgh.
Since then, he has experienced “the highest of highs” by getting drafted, the lows of surgery and rehab, and has now found that rush again by entering the field at Lake Olmstead Stadium.
“They say the minor leagues is a grind, but rehab is a lot harder than the minor leagues,” said Black, as he stared down the dark clubhouse tunnel that leads to the sun-splashed field at Lake Olmstead.
“It’s great being around the guys. It’s great to be able to travel again, to sit in the bullpens.
“It tastes a lot sweeter going from the absolute bottom to being where I am now.”