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.
"Is it because I make so much money?" asks Romero, who is in the third year of a $30.1-million (U.S.) contract that will pay him $7.5-million this year, and the next two seasons. "I'm not the only pitcher in the world struggling."
Because the previous day's game was postponed due to rain, Romero's start comes in the first game of a sparsely attended 5:30 p.m., grey and chilly double-header against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. The past 24 hours had been a flurry of player activity between Buffalo and Toronto – the Blue Jays shipped outfielder Anthony Gose down to the Bisons and called up third baseman Andy LaRoche and Josh Thole, who had been catching for Romero. Such is the life.
"People assume that I'm miserable down here and that I'm lost, but I'm not lost; I'm perfectly fine," Romero said. "It's not where any of us want to be – all of us in this clubhouse want to be in the big leagues, but I accept the challenge. It's just another chapter in my story."
The toughest part was receiving news he was being sent down. He said he couldn't believe it was happening, and it took time to accept. His first few starts with the Bisons were frustrating. He would begin convincingly but fall apart.
After tough starts against the Durham Bulls in late May, he sat in the dugout after the game and steamed for a long time until batting coach Jon Nunnally came for a chat.
"I was like, 'Man, I bust my ass, I feel like I'm doing everything right. Should I even work out today? What should I change?'" Romero recalled. "Then, Nuns saw me sitting alone, and he came over and we had a great talk, about baseball, life, everything. I needed it. It shows this coaching staff cares and they want me out of here. They can see the kind of pitcher that I am."
When he learned in early June he had been cut from the 40-man roster so the Blue Jays could make room for pitcher Ramon Ortiz, he took the news more easily.
"I thought, 'What's the difference really? It doesn't change the fact that I'm still in the minors," Romero said. "I realize it's a business. There can't be any loyalty involved in that, and I'm not asking for it, and my feelings are not hurt by that. I don't wake up bitter about it. I still know I can get back there."
On that June evening in Buffalo, Romero was having a good outing. A few strong innings in his last start in Norfolk appeared to have carried over. A tidy first inning leads to some adversity in the second. Six consecutive balls and a hit up the middle. But he quickly regained control, and the Bisons got out of the inning unscathed.
This is the very thing Romero has battled – trying to repair his ability to get out of jams. He and Bisons pitching coach Bob Stanley have analyzed film of Romero digging out of sticky situations in the big leagues. They both believe that escape artist is still somewhere within Romero.
"Mechanics-wise, I think he's good right now, so it's more mental than anything, but it's hard to put any time table on it, it's only June, there's no pressure," Stanley said before that June start. "Hopefully, by the end of June, or the all-star break, he'll be ready to get out of here."
The all-star break is a few days away, and Romero remains stuck at Triple-A. He and Stanley have had more than a few heart-to-hearts.
As a minor-league pitching coach for 14 years, he has seen his share of broken pitchers. In 13 seasons as a reliever for the Boston Red Sox, he became the franchise all-time saves leader. But he also had to overcome some heartache.
Stanley threw a wild pitch in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series that allowed the New York Mets to tie the game. Then, Mookie Wilson hit the infamous grounder off him that trickled past first baseman Bill Buckner as the Mets scored the winning run.
"I tell Ricky not to read the papers or look at Twitter," Stanley said. "I got booed during a period in my career, you have to joke it off. Family is first, baseball is a game. I made a point of telling him your mom and dad will love you the same if you're 15-5 or 5-15."
The atmosphere at the Bisons park is quaint and quiet, and a world away from the Rogers Centre and its artificial turf and retractable roof in the middle of congested Toronto. Romero doesn't mind the long bus rides of the minors. The camaraderie of teammates who, like him, have experienced the big leagues and are battling to return, is a comfort.
"I've been thinking about my mentality back in the Little League days, playing the game only because it was fun," Romero said. "And I have thought a lot about my parents, coming from Mexico, waking at 3 a.m., 5 a.m., my mom driving a school bus, my dad driving a truck. They were so young when they had kids. That was hard labour; this is baseball, and I'm blessed."
Like the fans petering into the park in zombie costumes for the park's Zombie Night, Romero looks at moments on this evening as though he's waking from the ashes.
At one point, he retires 11 consecutive batters before the IronPigs score three earned runs in the sixth. He doesn't finish the inning. He gave up seven hits, two walks and threw just three strikeouts, but Bisons manager Marty Brown calls it a confident performance, Romero's best in Buffalo yet. Friends and teammates who know Romero well sense he's still got it.
"The one thing you can't do in this game is fake confidence," friend and Blue Jays reliever Casey Janssen said. "Deep down, you know you're either confident or you're not. I know with Ricky it's in there, there's no question in my mind that it's in there. It's just a matter of, one, getting the confidence and, two, the results. You take a good start and you try and build off that and you try to keep it going from there."
Romero's instinct to return to his natural wind-up seems to be working. He has also sought the advice of many he trusts within baseball, men he declines to name. The essence of their advice, he said, was to be himself.
"I didn't have to convince anyone. It's my career," he said. "My mind is at ease now. What do I have to lose? My goal is to get better and get back up there, and it's going to take baby steps and focus on the small positives each day."
After the game, players' suitcases are lined neatly in the Bisons clubhouse, set to be loaded on the bus. They sit against a wall that reads "To The Show," heavy with photos of players who spent time there during their careers – the likes of Bartolo Colon, Cliff Lee, Tim Wakefield, Jeff Weaver and R.A Dickey.
The bags are loaded onto the Bisons bus, headed for Scranton, Pa., and then on to Pawtucket, R.I., where Romero would get his next start, another chance to take a few more baby steps.