Has overcome setbacks, now real journey begins
BY TIM BELLA
As more than 30 prospects from the Gulf Coast League Reds file off a bus for a doubleheader on a sweltering summer day in Fort Myers, they're a long way from the major-league lifestyle they hope to live. But the excitement around one player has the Reds thinking he might be a step closer to living the dream.
At 19, Devin Mesoraco, who was the 15th overall pick by the Cincinnati Reds in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft in June, is already considered one of the top catching prospects in baseball.
Mesoraco expects to capitalize on the opportunity given to him in Sarasota but realizes how close his dream came to being a nightmare; he has the scar typical of "Tommy John" surgery patients on his right elbow to remind him.
During a high school playoff game, Mesoraco, at the time a Punxsutawney (Pa.) High School sophomore, was sent from behind the plate to the mound to serve as the team's closing pitcher.
"I just tried to throw hard and it usually worked," Mesoraco said.
On this day, however, Mesoraco knew something was wrong while warming up in the bullpen. His arm felt awkward.
The news of Mesoraco's arm troubles silenced the stadium.
"I was just really scared," Mesoraco said. "I had never been through anything like that before."
The talented teenager with the humble personality was faced with a rigorous recovery and rehab process that would wipe out his junior season of high school baseball.
Tommy John surgery, or ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, is a procedure to replace a medial elbow ligament with a ligament from elsewhere in the body, such as a forearm or a knee. Named after a former major-league pitcher, the procedure has helped extend the careers of baseball players and has a success rate of 80 to 85 percent.
One year after the injury occurred and after about 10 months of rehab, Mesoraco made a full recovery in June 2006 and began to prepare for his senior high school season.
"Dev was really positive through the whole process," said Zack Martin, a close friend and one of Mesoraco's high school teammates. "He had a great attitude. He's the only one of us that could have pulled through like he did."
Player of the Year
In his first game back as a senior, Mesoraco answered critics and weathered the doubts. In front of what Martin recalls as being about 25 major-league scouts, he hit two home runs and threw out a player trying to steal a base, a performance that put to rest speculation that the injury would affect him.The opening-day performance sparked a memorable season that saw the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder collect individual accolades, such as the Gatorade Player of the Year honoring Pennsylvania's best high school baseball player. He was also named the starting catcher on USA Today's All-USA team.
As a senior, Mesoraco hit .467 with four home runs and 21 RBI. He had a .632 on-base percentage and a .911 slugging percentage.
Mesoraco was ranked by Baseball America as one of the country's best prospects.
Despite the success, Mesoraco was never one to get too excited, his mother said. Family, friends and teammates gathered at a sports bar to watch draft day and celebrate his first-round selection by Cincinnati. Even on a day the catcher described as the greatest day of his life, people might not have been able to tell from his humble reactions.
"I was so proud of him that day because ... it's one of those things when you lay down at night and review things in your mind, I review that whole day in my mind a lot because he was just so Devin," Laura Mesoraco said. "A lot of people got the event on their cell phones and we make them play it over and over because everyone was screaming so loud and Devin was just like 'Oh, you know, I got drafted.'"
Eight days later, Mesoraco capped the first chapter of his journey by leading Punxsutawney to its first baseball state championship, on the same day as his high school graduation.
When he joined the Reds' GCL team, Mesoraco started with a bang, hitting safely in seven of his first eight games and carrying a .333 average.
Since then, the numbers have tailed off. Entering this week, his average had fallen to .222 (22-for-99) with one home run and seven RBI.
Sitting in the Sarasota Reds' locker room at the City of Sarasota Sports Complex, Mesoraco reflects on what the injury meant to him, saying that it was a blessing.
"In the end, it all worked out," Mesoraco said. "I'm not happy it happened, but it wasn't a terrible thing."
Approaching his locker, he points out the nameplate above a locker that reads "37 Mezoraco."
"They spelled my name wrong," he said with a half-smile.
If Mesoraco has his way, baseball fans will know how to spell his name soon enough.