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Ricky Romero gets up at 5:45 every morning.

When the alarm on his phone goes off, a message is preprogrammed to pop up: "Believe in yourself."

He has to. Most people don't.

Four years ago, Romero, now 30, was the most winning presence in the Jays clubhouse. He was the best sort of story – the tortoise to all the big-league hares.

He was a 2005 draft bust. His game started coming together in 2009. By 2011, he was an all-star.

Some people are wearied by good fortune. Not Romero. He gave off gratefulness like heat. He was the sort of guy who made you believe anything was possible. Hadn't he proved it?

In 2012, his knee started to hurt. And it got steadily worse.

At the same time, his pitching fell apart. His earned-run average doubled. He was simultaneously, and inexplicably, the ace of the Jays staff and the team's worst starter.

It didn't occur to him that one had anything to do with the other.

How bad was it?

"Awful. Painful. Just sitting …" – Romero's mind drifts to those times for a few seconds and he's searching around for a way to explain it – "If you look at old video of me, my lower body was so explosive. From 2012 forward, something changed. Things started to unravel."

In the course of a year, Romero went from one of the game's stars to an epochal disaster. He was sent down to the minors. It didn't get any better. None of this was helped by the fact that he'd just signed a five-year, $30-million (U.S.) deal. He wasn't just being bad at baseball. He was stealing money.

Romero laughs at a memory. It's not a fun sort of laugh.

"In 2013, I was in the bullpen. I got called up in September. Just coming out, just to watch the game, it was, like, 'Whoa.'"

He doesn't really want to go back there, but he does.

"You hear it. You hear it all. 'Overpaid.' 'You suck.' Stuff like that. You know, I'm not trying to [suck]. That's the thing."

He's doing his utmost not to sound sorry for himself, because he gets it. He's still being paid a lot of money to play a child's game, $7.5-million this year. He's a rich person, but he's still a person.

For most of three years, Romero has been wandering a gilded purgatory. Drawing cheques, and getting treated like a human pincushion. Medics started with plasma injections. That escalated to stem-cell therapy. He kept pitching – badly – while his knees were coming apart. He didn't want to get surgery, because he figured surgery could only make it worse.

He gave in last summer. He'd been compensating for an initial injury and ruined both knees in the process. The reconstructions were stacked, six weeks apart. He spent three months on crutches.

"When I talked to the doctor after surgery, I was like, 'Doc, how did it look?' He's like, 'How are you even walking, man? Let alone pitching? Those things were completely shredded.'"

Both tendons had separated. Romero had been competing on what were functionally dislocated kneecaps.

During that time, people continued to pile on. At one point, he'd been a bright, regular presence online. He gave that up after he became a social-media punchline.

"I can't even remember the last time I was on Twitter," he says. "It's just something that I told myself that, for now, it's better if I don't even go on it."

Did you ever consider just quitting the game?

"Hell, no. Never. It never once crossed my mind."

This is the first appearance of the old Ricky. He laughs and this time it's fun. This is the guy who believes it's all still possible.

"Money has never driven me," Romero says. "All I wanted to do was be a big-league baseball pitcher. Sitting in the bleachers at Dodger Stadium and being with my dad and saying, 'I want to do that one day.' It's something I never took for granted. For me, quitting was never an option. Never."

He's been low, and recently. The initial descent was bad. The surgeries were worse.

"Being taken care of … I'm not used to that. It was brutal," Romero says. "My fiancée will tell you. When I had the second surgery, I was in pain. I said 'I don't know if I can do this any more.' She said, 'You're fine.'"

She knows. Romero's soon-to-be wife is Kara Lang, former Canadian national team soccer player. Lang had three knee surgeries during her career.

On Monday, Romero threw a live batting practice. It was the first time he'd faced a swinging hitter in nearly a year. It went okay. He's nowhere close to his best, or even what he would he call his average. You can tell he's still in pain. When he realizes a standing conversation is going to go on a while, he crosses the room to lean against a wall. It's all up to the knees, which are painted in livid scars. He says he's grown more patient. Professional athletes are not built to be patient.

Will he be back?

"It's tough to say," Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava says carefully. Like someone who's afraid of an optimistic jinx. "He's trying. That's all I can say. He's trying."

It's still spring training and only half-serious. This is the closest professional sports get to goofy. On Tuesday, veteran starter Mark Buehrle did his postgame interview halfway through his start: "I'll give you a good outcome and a bad outcome, and you guys can decide which one to use."

Over in a corner, Romero was hanging off a fence, watching. He doesn't get the freedom of light moments. Not until he gets back on a major-league mound. He wanders back to the subject of his family – the people who still believe.

"They've seen the lows," he says. "I can't wait for them to see the highs again. I know it will happen."