On the baseball calendar, September 1st means that teams can expand their rosters by adding as many as 15 players. It is an uneventful late-season benchmark and a system that needs some tweaking. But for 31-year old New York Yankees reliever Andrew Bailey, the date was anything but uneventful.
“It’s been a long road, a lot of hard work and it’s just fun being around this group of guys,” Bailey told me about being back in a big league clubhouse after more than two years of wondering in the wilderness.
In July of 2013, Bailey had season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum and torn capsule in his shoulder. During that off-season, the Yankees took a gamble on the oft-injured reliever with an incentive-laden minor league on the chance that he would be able to contribute in the bullpen before the end of the year. But it didn’t work out that way due to a variety of setbacks and he missed the entire 2014 season.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the Yankees sticking by me through ups and downs and a couple of setbacks,” Bailey said. “But I think for me knowing that the doctor gave me an 18-24 month window, I tried to stay true to myself to reach that goal and understand that there are going to be bumps in the road. I think understanding that it is going to be a long road was a little bit easier to not get as frustrated with a couple of the setbacks.”
When healthy, Bailey was one of the most successful closers in baseball. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2009, appeared in two All-Star games and saved 75 games with a 2.07 ERA for the A’s from 2009-11. He made the game look easy, but not everything came easy for the kid from New Jersey.
Coming out of high school, Bailey was considered more of a college prospect. He accepted a scholarship to Wagner College on Staten Island, a cold weather school not known for producing baseball players.
“Wagner was the only school that gave me an opportunity out of high school. I wasn’t a big prospect or anything like that and I didn’t know if my career was going to go further than college,” said Bailey, who compiled 14 career wins and a school-record 237 career strikeouts. “So at that point in time I just wanted an opportunity to play all four years of college baseball and Wagner was right there and they gave me the opportunity to do that.”
Seven starts into his junior season, the Voorhees Township native injured his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Despite undergoing the procedure, the Milwaukee Brewers selected him in the 16th round of the 2005 draft. He declined to sign, instead going back to school and through a grueling rehabilitation. Bailey showed enough during his senior season to be drafted by the Oakland A’s in the sixth round, and 188th overall.
In 2008, Bailey was a struggling minor-league starting pitcher for Double-A Midland. During the Texas League All-Star break, the Athletics made the decision to move him to the bullpen in order to simply give him a “breather.” He was 1-8 with a 6.18 ERA as a starter, but flourished as a reliever with a 4-1 record and 0.92 ERA in his final 22 games.
“I had some success early on as a starter and then I got to Double-A and struggled a little bit, but the conversion was pretty easy for me with my mentality – attack the strike zone and go right after guys,” Bailey said about his move to the bullpen. “So for me it was fairly easy and obviously making the team out of camp that next year was a surprise, but I was ready for it and prepared and hit the ground running.”
He then pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, a place for many top young players and earned an invitation to spring training. He was considered a long shot to make the team, but he impressed enough people to be on the Opening Day roster. He started the season as a long reliever, but moved into the closer’s role and never looked back. He broke the Athletics rookie save record with 26 saves — no other AL rookie reliever had more than two — with a 1.84 ERA, also the best among AL rookies. He was named to the All-Star team and won the 2009 Rookie of the Year Award, which are two things that nobody could have quite forecasted.
In 2010, Bailey recorded 25 saves and appeared in another mid-summer classic. The Red Sox acquired Bailey to be their closer prior to the 2012 season, but he didn’t pitch until that August while recovering from a thumb injury. The following season, he worked in a setup role and became the closer for a while, only to lose the job during a slump and then lose his season when he was diagnosed with a torn capsule and damaged labrum in his throwing shoulder.
The injury obviously prevented him from pitching in the postseason and he never quite got going during his two years with the Red Sox, thanks to a barrage of health woes. However, he reflects fondly on his time in Boston and was honored to receive a World Series ring despite having to watch his teammates from the sidelines.
“That group of guys is a special group, and just being a part of that experience is something that I’ll cherish forever and definitely one of the highlights of my career,” said Bailey, who was around the team for the whole run.
The Yankees then took a $2.4 million dollar flier on him that didn’t pay off for major league club last season. Bailey, a graduate of Pope Paul VI Catholic High School in Haddon Township, signed a new minor league contract in November. After a few stops and starts throughout the year, he stood healthy enough to work his way from the Gulf Coast League up the minor-league ladder and among the teams September callups.
On September 2, Bailey came in the 7th inning at Fenway Park, which coincidentally is where he last pitched two years, 1 month and three weeks earlier. He went 1/3 of an inning, giving up one run on two walks and one hit. He left the game with an ERA of 27.00, but it could’ve been 87.00 and it wouldn’t have mattered.
His hard work had finally paid off and that’s all that mattered. While Bailey is an inspirational story on the field, he is also one to give back. He is a board member of the Strike 3 Foundation started by former teammate and pitcher Craig Breslow in 2008 to raise awareness and funding for childhood cancer research.
“It raises awareness for pediatric cancer and it also funds a bunch of different programs at a variety of hospitals across the country,” said Bailey, who played with Craig in Oakland and Boston. “Craig has done a fantastic job running the foundation pretty much himself and his wife Kelly, and some friends and family. But for us we do a bunch of different events and it’s a great foundation and it’s fun to be a part of and obviously working with a former teammate of mine who is one of my best friends in baseball is great and what he does is just fantastic.”
Throughout Bailey’s long, lonely recovery, he never thought about quitting or walking away from the game. But luckily for him, he received his finance degree at Wagner before moving on to the big leagues. So he was covered just in case.
“Having your degree in your back-pocket and going through those classrooms and obtaining a degree is something special. Baseball is not going to last forever and for me I wanted to give it the full two years opportunity with my shoulder and thankfully I found myself back here and hopefully I prolong my career for a long period of time. It’s something I can fall back on to if I want to go that direction, hopefully I don’t ever need it, but we’ll see what happens.”