Ricky Romero stands on the mound before a tiny crowd in a minor-league ballpark nestled near a busy freeway, the way out of town and toward where he wants to go.
He is briefly still, and focused only on this one moment, the next pitch, and the mental strength required to maintain control of that pitch. He tries to channel the boy who once put on his Little League uniform and imagined himself as a big-leaguer.
For the 28-year-old southpaw, not so long ago a promising starter in the Toronto Blue Jays rotation, each pitch brings him closer or pushes him farther from that highway heading out of Buffalo’s gritty downtown and in the right direction toward Canada.
In left field, a Buffalo Bisons banner that hangs from the netting invites fans to “Catch Tomorrow’s Blue Jays Today.” Romero, who landed at Triple-A Buffalo in May, after starting the season in Dunedin, Fla., and stumbling briefly in the big leagues, hungers to star in Toronto once again.
Less than two seasons from being regarded as one of the club’s top young pitchers, Romero had been the Blue Jays opening day starter two years running, had tossed a few complete-game shutouts, and finished in the top 10 in American League Cy Young Award voting in 2011. Around this time two years ago, he was headed to the All-Star Game, having made the AL team to replace an injured Jon Lester.
Romero put up winning records beginning with his rookie season in 2009, going 13-9 through 29 starts, finishing second on the team only to Cy Young award winner Roy Halladay. The following season, Romero went 14-9, and improved to 15-11 in 2011 with a 2.92 ERA. With each passing season, Romero pitched more innings as the number of hits surrendered fell and the number of strikeouts grew.
Then, in 2012, it began to slip away. He finished the season 9-14. Innings pitched diminished and so did the strikeouts, as other numbers exploded against him – hits, runs, earned runs. His ERA nearly doubled to 5.77 from the previous season.
Romero can’t explain why he began to lose control in games late last season, and why he couldn’t overcome the problem in Dunedin this spring, or during a disastrous two-game recall to Toronto early in 2013, a problem he wasn’t even sure he could identify. Back in Buffalo, he had some decent innings and some combustible ones.
He tinkered with his mechanics, watched video of himself and considered an avalanche of coaching advice, all as nothing seemed to help.
Then, he decided to abandon the changes and return to the delivery that always felt most natural to him, one that always worked for him.
Romero has taken the mound a dozen times as a starter in Buffalo, but he didn’t get his first win until this week, in a 6-2 victory over the state rival Syracuse Chiefs. He gave up two runs on six hits, walked just two and struck out seven, a season high. This on the heels of some quality starts, as he’s muscled down his ERA to 6.15.
In early June, he said he was convinced he was on his way to fixing things, despite some critics who suggested his major-league career was effectively over. Ask Romero where he sees himself a year from now, and he doesn’t hesitate.
“In the big leagues, absolutely, back in Toronto, and I do believe they are in my corner,” he said.
There are a dizzying number of player transactions made across Major League Baseball between the big clubs and their minor-league affiliates in a season. Stints in the minors can be a short-and-sweet step on the way back from injury or an agonizing stretch that feels career-threatening.
Romero has wondered why people are so fascinated with his struggle. He believes this is simply another chapter in a journey for a guy who grew up in East Los Angeles and was not expected to play U.S. college ball or get drafted.