By PARRISH ALFORD / NEMS Daily Journal
This Christmas, Will Kline hopes for an abstract gift in his stocking, and it's not world peace. It's a good shoulder.
The ace of the Ole Miss pitching staff in 2007, Kline is continuing a quest for a performance level he hopes will lead him to the major leagues.
It's been an uphill climb since April of 2008 when shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum required nine anchors to pin the meat back to the bone, far beyond what might be considered "normal."
Tampa had just drafted Kline early in the second round with the 65th overall pick.
"The best word to describe my life the last three years is limbo," Kline says.
Indeed, there was the feeling of being overwhelmed immediately after Birmingham physician James Andrews, orthopedist to the stars, rebuilt his shoulder. Andrews had to dig around inside for a long time on what was 270-degree tear.
The injury was unlike anything the Rays had seen in their organization.
"It was certainly uncharted waters for us, to have that significant of a tear," said Mark Vinson, who was the the team's chief minor league medical coordinator. Vinson's primary responsibility was to oversee the rehab of Tampa's minor league players who had had surgery of any kind.
When the surgery was over Andrews was blunt in giving Kline a glimpse of the future. Pitching in 2009 was out of the question.
"I have compared that to dog years," Vinson said. "For a competitive athlete to sit out a full season is like an eternity for those guys."
Some told Kline shortly after the surgery that full recovery, if it came, would take as long as two years. Now he has sat out two full seasons.
"Dr. Andrews told me I had my work cut out for me," Kline said.
But Kline has put in the work.
The big question
The question he can't answer is how much more work he'll put in, how much longer he'll pursue the big leagues, his childhood dream, as the surgery's third anniversary date comes into view.
Kline has completed degree requirements at Ole Miss with a major in criminal justice and a minor in psychology.
"Some days I'm like, 'Man, this is going to work out.' Then some days are better than others," he said.
Santa, can you help?
Kline was a bit of an unknown at Ole Miss, turning one great season into opportunity. He was an enigma for draft analysts, ranking as high as 77 but also below 200.
In 2007 Kline, a redshirt junior, was 7-3 with a 3.75 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 1242/3 innings, winning with a change-up and a tenacious mentality on the mound.
He was a late bloomer at Ole Miss, having overcome Tommy John surgery while in high school and struggling to turn grade-school stardom into a meaningful college career. One day it clicked.
"Will was always super talented, a guy who you thought it would be his year, and then you're scratching your head," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "Not that he was bad, but he was a guy who should have been in the upper echelon of your staff, and the next thing you knew he was in middle relief."
Kline says eventually he tired of that characterization.
"I was wide-eyed and scared. I finally felt at home and comfortable," Kline recalled. "Mentally I just changed. I got sick of being average."
Kline served notice early in 2007 that big things were in store, attracting attention in March when he pitched toe-to-toe against Vanderbilt's David Price, who the Rays eventually drafted with the No. 1 overall pick.
Price went the distance in a 3-2 10-inning win, but Kline held a potent Vanderbilt lineup to two runs on four hits in 81/3 innings. He struck out six, and reliever Scott Bittle took the loss.
"That game didn't get enough notoriety, maybe because of where it was, up in Nashville and not here with the crowds," Bianco said. "You had the two best pitchers in the SEC in an early-season matchup. It was brutally cold, and both were on top of their game. For baseball purists, people who love pitching and defense, it was one to remember."
That's the form Kline is trying to regain, and he thought he had it back in the spring of this year. His pitch count and innings were increasing. So was his velocity, and he was feeling good.
Then, he endured a bout of soreness in late April. The shoulder was "barking," he said, "but at that point I knew the difference between soreness and pain. I was afraid to tell them. I knew what I could and couldn't pitch through."
At least he thought he knew.
Kline unleashed a pitch at 89 miles an hour, and his shoulder caught. He knew he was about to endure a major setback and walked off the mound with angry tears.
The Rays have been and continue to be patient with Kline and his recovery. For the club, it's a salary investment in the range of $600,000.
"We did invest a lot in Will, and this is not something you do just for the sake of the challenge," Vinson said. "As long as he is willing to move forward and to go through this, we don't want to give up hope. If we can get something out of our investment with Will, then we've done our job."
Kline describes a close relationship with Vinson, and while he appreciates the personal touch within the organization, he understands the business side of things.
"I'm a smart guy, and I understand that high school kids are coming out of the draft healthier. It's not about being friends," Kline said.
In the meantime Kline works out in Tupelo. He lifts weights at the Wellness Center, throws with friends and works with aspiring high school players.
Right now, Kline says his shoulder is strong because of the workouts, but there's a difference in shoulder strength and readiness for a pitching arm, he notes.
He hopes to achieve mid- to upper-80s velocity - without pain or discomfort - by late January.
"I can compete at that velocity, but if there's any discomfort, I'm not ready," he said.
If he reaches his goals, Kline will continue workouts and rehab with the Rays in spring ball.
He says the present is up and down, day to day.
"I've gotten better, and I feel stronger, but it's frustrating right now, because I can't seem to put multiple good days together," Kline said.
There are many questions to which he doesn't have available answers, one being how much is enough? When do you say when?
There is childhood dream, and there is the reality of responsibility. When do you make that call?
"I am working hard and pushing to see if it will work out. I'm going to push as hard as my body will allow," Kline said. "The day I can't go out and compete like I feel I should be able to is when I realize that at this point in life God has another plan for me.
"And then I take the new plan and run with it."
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600