* RHP Tom Robson (Ladner, BC) a Langley Blaze grad is keeping an eye on his former Canadian National Junior Team teammate and roommate from the minors, CF Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.) now playing centre field for the Toronto Blue Jays. ....
By Alexis Brudnicki Canadian Baseball Network DUNEDIN, Fla. – Tom Robson knows how things should go.
The 21-year-old right-hander has seen success firsthand, and he’s even had plenty of his own when he hasn’t been forced out of the game by injuries. Robson has pitched well whenever he’s been able, and has continued to climb the ladder through the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
But he is well aware of how much more quickly things can move when players are able to stay out on the field. After being selected by Jamie Lehman and the Jays in the fourth round of the 2011 draft out of Delta Secondary School in Delta, BC and the Langley Blaze, Robson ventured into the professional world for the first time. He started early the following year at Toronto’s mini-camp in February, and remained in Dunedin, Fla. through extended spring training.
With him at the Bobby Mattick Training Center through May and into June that year were nine other Canadians, awaiting their assignments to rookie ball in either the Gulf Coast League or Bluefield, or to the Blue Jays short-season team in Vancouver.
Perhaps the most successful athlete of the group since then, Luke Willson (LaSalle, Ont.) left the sunshine state before the others to return to Rice University before entering the NFL draft and joining the Seattle Seahawks. The tight end won a SuperBowl championship in his rookie season before making it to the last game in his sophomore season this year.
Only one player of that group of 10 Canucks has made it to baseball’s highest level so far.
Dalton Pompey and Robson grew closer then, knowing one another already after playing together for the Canadian Junior National Team. Their big-league dreams seemed far away then, and the switch-hitting outfielder battled his own injuries and roadblocks early in his professional career. But Pompey’s success has helped Robson with his injury-riddled journey, realizing the possibilities that might await him and that perhaps they are closer than he thought.
“It’s weird because I grew up with Pompey, played with him on the national team, I roomed with him here, and I was locker buddies with him last year in spring training,” Robson said. “It’s just weird seeing him in the big leagues now. He’s the starting centre fielder.
“He’s given a lot of insight to a lot of guys, especially me because I was pretty close friends with him. So it’s nice to see a guy like him make it because it kind of makes it seem like it is possible. And he’s really nice about it and he tells us just to keep with it and you’ll be able to do it too.”
Robson and Pompey were both assigned to the rookie-class Bluefield Blue Jays out of extended spring training that year. The Mississauga native went 5-for-14 with a double, a triple, a stolen base and two runs scored in four games before moving onto the Vancouver Canadians roster. Robson lasted only 11 innings before his first setback, and his first real introduction to life in pro ball.
“My first year I remember I was here in the middle of February until the start of June, I went to Bluefield, and came back because I got hurt and I was here the whole year,” he said. “After that first year I thought wow, I was not expecting that – waking up every day at six-thirty, grinding, doing rehab exercises.
“Even wasn’t here I was out doing [pitchers’ fielding practice] in the hot sun on a back field. There are no fans, your parents aren’t here; there are no friends. You have your teammates and you grow into it.”
The following season, Robson returned to Bluefield out of extended spring training before earning a promotion to Vancouver. The Ladner, BC native threw 64 1/3 innings between the two squads, and won a Northwest League championship right in his own backyard, having some of the success that many wanted.
Last year, the young hurler broke camp with the full-season Class-A Lansing Lugnuts, moving up to the Midwest League. He threw 31 2/3 innings before being sidelined with elbow pain, eventually having to undergo Tommy John surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm.
Robson threw his last pitch in a game on May 14. The Blue Jays sent him to Florida two days later for an MRI, and because his ligament wasn’t completely torn the organization and its doctors thought that the 6-foot-4, 210-pound pitcher might be able to rehabilitate his arm without surgery. He had a platelet-rich plasma injection before trying to throw again more than six weeks later. After finding little improvement, he went under the knife.
“I went to [team doctor Dr. Steven] Mirabello and he recommended that I go see Dr. [James] Andrews to talk about it,” Robson said. “I told Dr. Andrews, ‘I’ll do whatever you think I should do,’ because at that point I had a 35% tear. It wasn’t completely torn so there was a chance I could rehab and come back. I was a bit iffy about the whole situation.
“I was leaning towards surgery but our trainers here and Dr. Andrews thought a PRP injection would be a good idea. Obviously after all the surgeries and all the arms Dr. Andrews has seen, I trusted his opinion and said, ‘Yeah, let’s go ahead and do that.’ I did that, came back throwing in the first week of July, and right away I could tell it was still there. It wasn’t really painful but I could tell there was still something wrong.”
The righty had surgery July 15, that date marking just the beginning of an often long and arduous recovery process. After the procedure, Robson was in a cast for 10 days. Then he was in a brace locking up his arm – so he didn’t hit it on anything – for about three or four weeks, before getting into a sling, forced to use his left arm for everyday functionality during that time.
“Brushing my teeth I had to do with my left,” he said. “Opening doors left-handed. All of that, everything was left-handed, it was weird. The worst was probably eating food with my left hand.”
When he finally got the use of his dominant arm back and received the go-ahead to play catch, Robson was unsure of himself.
“At first I was really scared to throw the ball,” he said. “I didn’t want to use my elbow. Actually my first time throwing, I was with [Lansing Lugnuts utility player and Surrey, BC native] Justin Atkinson and we had a good laugh about it because I was so scared to throw. But the next day I [realized] okay, my elbow is good to go, I’ve had surgery …
“You’re scared because you don’t want to break it. You’ve been working so hard and rehabbing so hard, and strengthening and strengthening it. I had never really put my arm in that position so it was the first time I bent my arm back in a throwing motion. But it was pretty cool being able to throw again.”
On Dec. 1, Robson started his 12-week throwing program. He finished it the last week of February and threw a bullpen session for the first time post-surgery on March 13 back at Bobby Mattick. After 8-to-10 weeks of bullpens, he will throw live batting practice before getting into games. If all goes according to plan, Robson could be back on the mound in an official matchup at the start of June.
“Everyone told me going into it, ‘The rehab is really hard and you’re going to hate it,’” he said. “Now that I’ve been through most of it, the hardest part is mentally, not being able to play. You’re doing all this preparation and you still can’t play.
“You’re watching all your friends play and have fun and you’re just sitting on the bench watching. It’s kind of frustrating that way. But I’ve gotten a lot stronger and stuff, so I’m happy about that and I’ve learned a lot from this whole process.”
Robson has learned to appreciate some of the things he started to take for granted during his first three seasons of pro ball.
“I’m a lot more mature,” he said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot from this. I’m taking advantage of every day I have here, not messing around throwing balls. I appreciate the ability to be able to throw now because I wasn’t able to throw for so long. Just throwing a baseball makes me happy right now … I’ve matured a lot so I take advantage of the time I have here.”
THREE-YEAR UPDATE: Also at extended spring training with the Blue Jays in 2012 were Zack Breault (Amherstburg, Ont.), Eric Brown (Thunder Bay, Ont.), Shane Davis (Belmont, Ont.), Brandon Kaye (Langley, BC), Nick Purdy (Grafton, Ont.), Les Williams (Scarborough, Ont.), Robson, Pompey, Willson and Atkinson.
Purdy pitched for Trois-Rivieres in the independent Cam-Am League last year, Brown left the Blue Jays to continue his education. Breault and Kaye pitched at Dunedin in 2012, Williams moved on from the game after an injury sidelined him and Davis is coaching with the Great Lake Canadians in London. Ont.