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Remembering 2013: What is Brett Tomko doing here?

The dreaded off-season has arrived.  But fear not, despite news being a little slower this time of year, we have plenty of content to keep you occupied here at BlogToBlogChamps.  Each Monday, we’ll publish a feature from the 2013 York Revolutionary Times, the official game day magazine of the York Revolution for you to re-enjoy, or read for the first time in case you missed it at the ballpark.  This week, we look back at why exactly starting pitcher Brett Tomko chose to play the 2013 season for the Revolution at 40 years old, after pitching in 14 Major League seasons.

Tomko 4

By Paul Braverman

Brett Tomko is a baseball player, and a household name for baseball fans.  But when you approach him to talk baseball, it’s hard to stick to that topic.  He only wants to talk family.  The 40-year-old Tomko, a professional since 1995, views the game a little differently with his wife Julia and their three-year-old twins Jack and Ty in tow on this cross-country adventure.

He wouldn’t have brought them 3,000 miles from their Southern California home to York if he thought he couldn’t make it back to the big leagues one more time.  But if anyone has gained the proper amount of perspective on how to appreciate family while dealing with the rigors of a baseball season, it’s Tomko.

“My kids are a huge motivation.  We had kids late, and I wanted to play long enough that they might have some memory of it,” he says.  “To bring them on the field or bring them in the clubhouse and take pictures, that’s awesome.  Even lately, they said ‘daddy we saw you play in the baseball game,’ so they’re starting to get it.

“To experience this time in York together as a family, I might tear up right now talking about it.  Ultimately the goal is to pitch again in the big leagues, but we’re here to have fun, and if my sons remember this, that would be worth way more than any big league salary.”

We’ll do our best to keep that quote away from the competition, lest it hurt Tomko’s ability to intimidate on the mound.  But he doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s an emotional guy, and that applies not only to his soft spots when talking about his wife and children, but also a competitive fire that still burns after 18 years in pro ball.  After 14 Major League seasons and 100 big league wins, Tomko has almost nothing to prove to anyone…except himself. 

“I always wanted to play in the big leagues when I was 40.  I saw guys do it when I was younger, and thought it was a good test.  I still think I can pitch in the big leagues, but I didn’t get picked up.  People were scared because of my age.  But I talked to (Jason) Repko about coming here, and that’s how it all came about.  Our wives were on board, it was a group decision.  She said ‘you’re not going to play forever, so if it’s something you want to do I’m behind you, so let’s pack up and go,’” said Tomko.

Once outfielder Jason Repko signed with York, he helped deliver his good friend Tomko.  The two had been teammates once before with the Dodgers in 2006 & ‘07.  There wasn’t much hesitation on Tomko’s part, or any ego about him. He was eager to come to the White Rose City, where he’s also reunited with Revs Pitching Coach John Halama, as the two were teammates with the Mariners in 2000 and 2001.  While there they helped Seattle to an American League record for regular season wins with 116 in ‘01.

“As a family we like seeing new places, we like new experiences.  My wife is planning out all of our off days.  We’re going to do HersheyPark, Dutch Wonderland and Amish buggy rides.  I don’t care if it’s the Atlantic League or the big leagues, it’s fun.  It’s competition.  That’s a reason I still want to play, I’m not going to have that forever,” he said.  “It’s hard for me to hear people say ‘you’re getting old.’  I say, if you can pitch you can pitch.’  If my arm doesn’t feel 40, who cares?  You have to take that attitude and love doing it.”

The rest of Tomko doesn’t look 40 either.  At first glance it looks like he’s found a fountain of youth, but if you dig up his 1999 Cincinnati Reds rookie card; it looks almost as if he made his MLB debut at 16 instead of 24.  Judging by his positive outlook and the shape he was in upon arrival to the Revolution’s spring camp, it’s hard to believe Tomko wouldn’t have been in big league spring training if he could just destroy all those baseball cards with proof that he is actually 40.

“In spring training they’d always have the alumni come in and talk to you, and it was always like ‘you’ll be a former player a lot longer than you’ll be a current player.’  You don’t really think about it then, but the older you get it really hits home. “

It’s sage advice from Tomko he can now pass on to his 20-something teammates as the elder statesman of this Revolution team.  In addition to trying to overcome preconceived notions about his age (consider that 30 tends to be an age where organizations start to lose interest in players not already in the big leagues), Tomko sustained a serious arm injury pitching for the A’s in 2009, and it looked like it would be the end of his career.  After some dark days in minor league rehab, he returned to the Majors with the Rangers in 2011, which is what makes him think he can do it all over again starting in York.

After moving from the Yankees where he was used as a reliever to Oakland midway through ’09, Tomko flourished after being inserted back into a rotation.  Playing arguably the best baseball of his career in that stretch, he posted a 2.95 ERA, 22 strikeouts with just six walks and a 4-1 record in six starts and 36.2 innings for the A’s.  But the sixth start would be his last after pinching a nerve in his arm.  Although Tomko was able to finish that day (and win his 100th MLB game), a couple hours later he had no feeling in his right arm.  His season was over, and doctors told him he might not pitch again.

“It was a real emotional thing and it kind of changed my whole perspective on playing and what baseball was,” said Tomko.  “I think getting back to the big leagues made me appreciate the game more than I ever did.  I was always appreciative making a living doing this, but it took it to a whole different level because that’s when I realized it could be over in one pitch.

“Rehabbing in Rookie Ball, A Ball, there were days where I was like ‘this arm isn’t going to come back.’  I’m sitting in Stockton, California getting hammered by a bunch of A Ball guys and throwing 82.  But it started coming back, slowly but surely.” 

When Tomko came off the mound for the first time after a relief appearance for Texas in 2011, the emotion was overwhelming.

“I walked off the mound and had tears before I even hit the first base line.  I had to go down into the tunnel and go into a side room.  (Rangers Manager) Ron Washington was like ‘big guy, you alright?’ I had tears coming down my face and said ‘it’s just been a long road back.’  It was more emotional than my big league debut, that was emotional too but this was just a different perspective.”

A season ago, Tomko’s career nearly came full circle with the team that drafted him in ’95.  Starting in Triple-A Louisville, he was the first guy the Reds were to call up if the need arose for a starter.  The Reds always liked Tomko after all, despite trading him to the Mariners after the 1999 season.  When you consider he was a key piece in the deal that sent sure fire Hall-of-Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. from Seattle to Cincinnati that trade is more of a badge of honor on his career than anything. 

“I’ll be sure to tell my kids I got traded for Griffey when their friends are around,” jokes Tomko.

On the cusp of a 15th MLB season, he then dislocated his shoulder in Triple-A.  He was able to rehab it quickly and finish the year, but the combination of the recent injuries and age were too much for any Major League General Manager to take a chance on Tomko despite him throwing well in auditions this offseason.

So that’s why Brett Tomko came to York.  Looking around the clubhouse and into the opposing dugout, seeing former Major League teammates and others he played against in the big leagues, this opportunity in York was hardly a tough sell.  Even aside from his family and the burning desire to prove 40 isn’t old even by baseball standards, Tomko still just wants to play for fun.

“You can’t have an ego.  I think if you do, you’re going to be miserable.  I’ve been through too much to be miserable.  Any way you slice it, whatever you have in your hand, this is our big leagues.  If it doesn’t work out, if I don’t get back, then at least I can walk away knowing I exhausted every single avenue I could.”

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