Jump to content

Juan Lara's first step


Recommended Posts



Joshua Lott for The New York Times


GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Juan Lara watched the crash scene’s flashing lights, the crumpled car and the somber sportscaster, and began to cry. Not just because Nick Adenhart was dead. But because, for some reason, Juan Lara was alive.


Less than 18 months ago, Lara, a budding left-handed reliever for the Cleveland Indians, lay comatose in a Dominican hospital after a horrific traffic accident left him with brain trauma, a cervical spine fracture, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a torn knee ligament and nerve damage in his pitching arm. He spent three weeks in the coma, had several operations and spent eight months in a removable halo to stabilize his neck. He barely touched a baseball for almost a year — and did not truly test his arm until Monday at the Indians’ spring training complex outside Phoenix.


“You ready?” a team trainer asked, pounding his glove from 40 feet away.


Lara nodded, leaned back and threw. The plate in his forearm held. The screws in his neck did not pinch. And with each subsequent pitch, some accurate and others not, Lara threw testaments to the ultimate umpire’s inexplicable strike zone: four days after baseball lost Adenhart, a rookie pitcher with the Los Angeles Angels killed in an automobile accident by a suspected drunken driver April 9, Lara was reborn.


“The same accident, it happened to me,” Lara said through an interpreter. “That could have been me. It’s very sad for me that he lost his life and won’t get the opportunity that I have now.”


It is only that — an opportunity. Returning to the majors remains a long shot for Lara, who pitched briefly for Cleveland in 2006 and 2007. He is two or three months away from even being assigned to a low minor league team; he will spend the next few months in Goodyear relearning how to pitch with an arm and neck held together by metal. And his mettle to try.


“A few days after the accident, I saw him on a breathing machine in the coma — he was fighting for his life,” said Lino Diaz, the Indians’ director of Latin operations. “I was just praying he could pull through. The last thing I ever thought was him throwing a baseball again.”


For most of Lara’s youth in the Dominican Republic, throwing a baseball was the only thing he did think about. He grew up in a poor section of Baní, the youngest of eight children squeezed into a two-bedroom house without indoor plumbing. His father, Erasmo, and most of his siblings worked on a farm that grew onions and beans; their primary recreation was baseball.


“We would climb up a tree and get a bat from there,” Lara said. “Then we’d make a mitt out of paper. We’d make a ball out of my father’s old socks.”


Lara improved enough to attend the Indians’ developmental academy on the island and, at 18, received a $10,000 bonus to sign. (“I thought I was a millionaire,” he said.) Juan gave his brother most of the money to try opening a supermarket and stepped with hundreds of other teenagers onto the assembly line that is minor league baseball.


Lara’s low-90s fastball and nasty slider made him a promising reliever, and after seven seasons in the minors, he pitched in nine games for the Indians in 2006. He got into only one game the next season, which he spent mostly with Class AAA Buffalo, and reported to the 2007 Dominican Winter League intent on making the big club out of spring training.


While driving his sport utility vehicle after a game in San Pedro de Macorís in late November, Lara was proceeding through an intersection when a motorcycle carrying two men crashed at full speed into the driver’s side. Lara said that the police later told him the motorcycle was doing a wheelie at 130 miles per hour, which explained why Lara did not see its headlight. The two men on the motorcycle died instantly. Lara’s injuries were so severe that he was kept in a medically induced coma for weeks.


“The same day of the accident, early in the morning, I went to the beach to run on the sand,” Lara said. “I woke up 22 days after that, thinking I was in the hospital because I got sick from running at the beach.”


He continued: “When I woke up, the doctors had told my family to not tell me anything about how the accident happened. For safety reasons — because they’d seen people who when they find out how bad the accident was, they get discouraged or have a heart attack. It was two days later when my friends and players came to visit. They were talking about the accident. That’s when I realized, ‘What’s going to happen to my career?’ ”



When Lara could be moved, the Indians flew him to Cleveland, where team physicians could oversee his operations. Two incisions were made in the front of Lara’s neck to insert two screws to stabilize his spine; other procedures addressed his lung and ribs; and a break in his left forearm, along with nerve damage, led to a plate and a half-dozen screws being inserted there.


Lara had no lasting effects from the brain trauma, but he had to wear a plastic halo until August to immobilize his healing vertebrae. He could walk, and did fly to visit the Indians at spring training. He was sallow and gaunt, having lost 45 of his 208 pounds. Lara said, “I felt like they were looking at me like I was a dead man alive.”


Lara’s inside was far healthier than his outside. Once somewhat lethargic in manner and work ethic, Lara became energized by a sudden appreciation for life. He dreamed of shaking off that halo and pitching again. Not just for himself — his father, more than 80 years old, cannot work on the farm anymore, and his mother is 69.


Once the halo was removed in August, Lara allowed himself to hold a baseball for the first time. “It felt heavy — the heaviest it had ever been,” he said. He did not have the strength and mobility to throw until December, back in Baní with his older brother José. How did he look? “Like a 4-year-old girl,” Lara said with a laugh.


After three months of light tossing with Jose, Lara was surprised to learn in late March that the Indians were inviting him to Goodyear to try to work his way back through the minors. The decision was equal parts sympathy and strategy. Although Lara is no longer on the major league roster, the Indians consider him family; besides, teams have taken bigger risks for left-handed relief pitching.


Even Lara knows that returning to the majors would be a miracle second only to his breathing at all. He first must regain arm strength and a semblance of control, which will probably take at least two months. Only then can he be considered for an assignment to Class A or AA.


“We’re going about it as if we have one chance to get him healthy again,” said Ross Atkins, Cleveland’s director of player development. “That will take solid, patient, cautious, hands-on work.”


That work began in many ways in Goodyear on Monday, when Lara stepped onto the grass outside the Indians’ weight room and threw to an Indians trainer. As dozens of teenage Indians farmhands worked out on a distant field, Lara made some pitching motions while holding only a towel, just to stretch his arm. Then he took a ball, one that was about to feel far less heavy than it did only months ago.


The leg kick returned. With the scar from the screws peeking out from his navy-blue shirt, Lara drew back and threw his first pitch straight into the trainer’s glove. The “pop!” got only louder while Lara said nothing.


“Atta boy,” the trainer said.


“Fifteen more.”


“Two more.”


“That’s it.”


Shaking hands silently, Lara learned that he would be working out like this three days a week for a while. No mound work yet. No problem. For Juan Lara, throwing a baseball is as much a sign of life as opening his eyes 22 days after they were almost shut forever.


Lara has many reasons to try to come back — for himself, for his family, for the teammates he still misses.


And even though he never knew Nick Adenhart, somewhere in the back of his refocused mind, Lara remembers him about as well as anyone.


“This has been my dream,” Lara said, holding a baseball in his long, supple fingers. “I always wanted to do it. I want to do it again.”





Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...