Mark Armstrong hasn’t pitched a competitive inning in more than a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Before getting a chance to start rehabilitation, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. Another surgery this summer sent him back to Arizona and extended his time on the shelf.
Armstrong was a hard-throwing right-hander who graduated from Clarence High in 2013. If you remember, he turned down a full scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh to chase professional baseball. Three years later, he’s a father to a child of an unwed mother and hasn’t played above Class A.
No, things haven’t gone as planned.
He never expected life to be this good.
“Everything has worked out wonderfully,” Armstrong said Thursday by telephone. “I honestly couldn’t have asked for more.”
My apologies for starting you with a curveball and implying Armstrong’s career was in ruins, but that’s the impression you get when stringing together simple facts without knowing the full story. On the surface, his looks like a cautionary tale about a kid who blew off college for a fantasy and had his career fall apart.
In truth, however, he couldn’t be much happier with all that fell into place since the Cincinnati Reds selected him in the third round (104th overall) of the 2013 draft. Check back in a few years and evaluate him after he returns in sound body and mind. At 21 years old, he’s just getting started.
Armstrong was on the right track after jumping from high school and showing up to rookie ball with a 94 mph fastball, deadly bender and change-up. His ascension through the minors seemed a matter of time after a good start last season with the Class A Dayton Dragons.
In 2015, he was 3-1 with a 2.86 ERA in the Midwest League when he felt a twinge below his right elbow. He pitched one more game, was sidelined for four weeks, took the mound once more and was done for the season. He had Tommy John surgery July 21, 2015, putting his dreams on hold and his future in limbo.
“It’s funny,” he said. “When you’re in rehab, you’re kind of off the grid.”
Years ago, Tommy John surgery, in which a ligament near the elbow is replaced by a tendon from elsewhere in the body, could signal the end. There’s a long list of pitchers who had the surgery without the success of Tommy John, who pitched 14 seasons and had 164 of his 288 wins after undergoing the procedure named after him.
These days, thanks to the advancement of medicine and experience, the same surgery added velocity to numerous pitchers. Armstrong was in the skilled hands of Dr. Timothy Kremcheck, the renowned Cincinnati-based orthopedic surgeon who is considered among the best Tommy John specialists in the world.
In June, he had surgery to relocate his ulnar nerve after experiencing nagging discomfort. Tommy John patients usually need the surgery a few years after the initial operation. Rather than rush his way back and wait for the second procedure, he elected to get everything out of the way while he was still young.
Armstrong’s goal now is getting his arm strong. He has been working out in the Reds’ facility in Goodyear, Ariz., about 20 miles west of Phoenix and a light-year from the big leagues. He’s at least six weeks from pitching in a game. But when he does return with his bionic arm, he could be better than ever.
Thank goodness he turned professional. If he attended Pitt, he may not have been exposed to the same treatment and rehabilitation program. Behind the scenes, he had matured into the man that would make any parent proud. The next step is maturing into the pitcher the Reds saw when they took him as an 18-year-old high school senior.
Doctors didn’t identify the exact source of his arm problems. Maybe he hadn’t fully grown into his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame when started throwing with so much force. Perhaps it goes back to his days as a catcher, when he was throwing the ball 150 times per game back to the pitcher. It doesn’t matter now.
The past 13 months have been a blessing.
“It’s more bitter than sweet,” Armstrong said. “I guess the sweet part now is that I honestly feel better than I ever have. I was having such a great season last year. Who knows where I would have been this year? I was satisfied with how I pitched. They want me to get healthy no matter how long it took.”
Armstrong may look back someday knowing surgery was the second-best thing that ever happened to him. The best thing was the birth of his son, Andrew Robert, who was born March 22. His son’s middle name was an honor to Armstrong’s father, who died unexpectedly at age 50 in 2012.
Suddenly, but not coincidentally, Armstrong discovered the big picture. He had been given a gift in life and was intent on reaching his potential in baseball. If the death of his father instilled a message about the uncertainties of life, the birth of his son inspired him to appreciate the future.
“I was 21 years and had a son,” Armstrong said. “With everything that happened in my life, I felt like I was a lot older than I was. Some people say that age doesn’t measure maturity. With him being born, it changed everything for me. It’s why I’m not discouraged at all by the rehab process. At the end of the day, if I can call my fiancée and hear my son ‘goo’ and ‘gah,’ that’s a win.”
Fatherhood granted Armstrong the patience required for rehab. It helped him put baseball into perspective and reminded him that he’s working for a greater cause. Now he understands why players who were married or had kids seemed to take their jobs more seriously than single guys.
The team psychologist noticed a difference in Armstrong’s maturity when the two convened for the first time since Andrew was born. The doctor told Armstrong he sounded more reassured as a father. Armstrong is convinced he’ll be physically and emotionally stronger and more confident when he comes back.
“He has made me focus a little bit more,” Armstrong said of his son. “I’m not cutting anything short, not doing eight reps instead of 10. I don’t want to cut anything short, especially with my past, for my son or my team.”
It sure sounds like he has all the bases covered, including a college education. The Reds gave him a $500,000 signing bonus, but his contract also called for them to pay the equivalent of University at Buffalo tuition, room and board for an out-of-state resident if baseball didn’t work out. The money could be used for any school in any state.
Armstrong is engaged to Sarah Spitzer. They first crossed paths when he was holding a door for her at a shopping mall in Dayton. The next evening, he saw her sitting in the stands at a Dragons game. She didn’t even know he played until he handed her a ball with his phone number written between the seams. They quickly fell in love.
“She’s everything I could ask for in a mother and a future wife,” Armstrong said. “I honestly couldn’t have asked for more than a son and a perfect fiancée. That’s over baseball and everything else.”
Spitzer, 22, teaches English as a second language at Wright State University while working on her master’s degree. They live between Dayton and Columbus, near one of the Reds training facilities. Their opposite work schedules allow each quality time to raise their son.
Looking back, he’s overcome more real-world challenges than most people his age, which is why he seems much older. His son will be baptized in the same church, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Clarence, in which he was baptized. He knew it would be special for his mother and late father.
He’s planning to get married in December 2017 and hopes to have three or four kids while pursuing his own childhood dream. If all goes well, Army’s Army will be running around the Reds’ clubhouse someday, slapping fives with their father’s teammates in the big leagues.
The plan never changed. Armstrong is just taking a different route.