Spending far more time with doctors and rehab centers than his major league baseball teammates, Neal Cotts began to wonder if his career had reached the end.
Cotts endured Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in 2009 to repair a torn ligament. He had hip surgery in 2010 to fix a torn labrum and wound up with an infection that required three additional surgeries.
The Lebanon native had been to baseball's mountaintop as an integral part of the 2005 Chicago White Sox World Series championship.
Six years later at age 31, he found himself mired in a deep, depressing valley where injuries and surgeries served as a roadblock between himself and a professional pitching mound.
Cotts had a World Series ring, but six years later was giving pitching lessons at the Slammers Baseball Academy in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. He worked there in the winter of 2011 and 2012, many times throwing bullpen sessions to high school catchers or others willing to strap on some equipment.
"I had a good time working with the kids and trying to help them out," Cotts said. "But they might have helped me out more just in terms of me thinking about pitching more. Sometimes you take steps back before you go forward. It definitely wasn't the easiest time."
Cotts never lost sight of his dream and kept throwing and working out on his own. He leaned heavily on constant support from his wife, Jaime, as well as family and friends back home in Lebanon and his extended baseball family.
Cotts signed a Class AAA contract with the Texas Rangers last season and spent all of 2012 with their Round Rock club, also starting the 2013 season there.
After a four-year absence, Cotts' dominant minor-league pitching this spring led to a phone call from the Rangers summoning him back to the majors. The 33-year-old left-hander took the mound for the Rangers in a May 21 relief appearance against the Oakland Athletics.
"It was pretty special and, warming up, I was nervous and a little jumpy," said Cotts, who tossed a scoreless inning. "I got a ground ball and getting the first out kind of eased everything up and relaxed me a little bit more. It probably took one or two outings to feel normal again."
The next night Cotts was even more impressive, striking out four in two scoreless innings. A few days later, he picked up his first major-league win since 2006.
"In 33 years of representing players, I can honestly tell you that the day Neal Cotts got called back to the big leagues was one of the happiest days of my life career-wise," said Joe Bick, Cotts' agent. "We looked so much like we were at a dead end."
Bick felt Cotts' medical issues were likely becoming a permanent issue in his path back to the major leagues. He told his client in early February, 2012 that teams were looking at his medical file -- then looking elsewhere.
But the constant search for left-handed relief help in the major leagues finally led to one team opening a slight window of opportunity.
The Rangers didn't promise much, but they did give Cotts a chance to pitch in the minors last season in Class AAA after signing him on Feb. 20, 2012.
Cotts took that chance and ran with it.
In 11 appearances since the call-up with the Rangers, Cotts is 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 12 innings. He's throwing to two of his former catchers, A.J. Pierzynski (White Sox) and Geovany Soto (Cubs).
Asked what he is the most proud of, Cotts didn't hesitate.
"I don't know if it ever crossed my mind, but there's a point where you go through all of it where you don't know if you're ever going to play again," he said. "I never was really accepting of that. I felt physically OK and I think that's what helped me along. I didn't know how it would go, but I thought I'd give it a shot."
Bick credited Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels for providing an open door when all doors seemed closed to Cotts.
"Fortunately Jon Daniels was open-minded enough to overlook what the physicals were telling him," Bick said. "He put him out on the field and let him show what he could do. Once everybody got their eyes on him and saw how good his stuff was, the fact he could run around and do everything that everybody else was doing ... at that point their comfort level increased."
A long road back
After being traded from the White Sox to the Chicago Cubs, Cotts reached the postseason again during the 2008 playoffs.
He had Tommy John elbow surgery in June, 2009 and then underwent the hip surgery in 2010 that led to an infection.
"I was getting down to the reality of maybe it won't happen," Cotts said.
Because he was still fairly young, left-handed and with a fair amount of success in the majors, Cotts still drew limited interest.
"I had some area scouts around Chicago that watched me throw at the baseball facility," he said. "They'd have some questions and they were like 'We'll turn it in and we'll see.' Once the medical stuff got to them where they heard about it or they read it, the conversations kind of silenced."
The Yankees signed Cotts in February 2011, but he said they released him after learning more about his medical condition.
"I got down there and they wanted to do an MRI right away on my hip to check it out," he said. "They decided not to go forward and they released me. I put the pants on one day, that was about the closest I got to the field."
The Phillies were also interested after watching him throw a bullpen session, even flying him to Philadelphia for a physical before turning him down.
After finally signing with the Rangers (and dealing with a lat muscle injury in spring training), Cotts spent the entire 2012 season at Class AAA Round Rock. He was 2-1 with three saves and a 4.55 ERA.
The Rangers saw enough promise to sign Cotts again last winter. He pitched well in spring training, then dominated Class AAA hitters. He was 3-1 with a 0.78 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 23 innings before earning a May 21 promotion to the Rangers.
During his down time from baseball, Cotts began doing course work from Illinois State University, where he had pitched well enough in college to become Oakland's second-round draft pick in 2001.
Through all the adversity, Cotts said, the support from his wife made things easier to deal with. He also has 4-year-old son Madden and 1-year-old daughter Stella as further inspiration.
The family lives in the East Village area of Chicago.
"It wasn't easy for her with a couple kids and a husband that's trying to get back to playing baseball but really doesn't have a job," Neal Cotts said of his wife. "She was definitely supportive all the time. She asked if this was really what I wanted to do and when I told her it was, she said, 'Good, go for it."'
Now that he's with the Rangers, Cotts has enjoyed renewing acquaintances with friends and former teammates now on the opposing teams.
He's especially looking forward to the Rangers' June 21-23 trip to Busch Stadium to play the St. Louis Cardinals. He knows the ticket request list will be long, but he's happy to have a chance to be back home and visit with numerous friends and family.
"It's definitely going to be special getting back there," Cotts said.
When he was younger, Cotts said he didn't realize how rare of an opportunity it was to be pitching in the major leagues.
"I think I looked ahead a little too much," Cotts said. "Not that I took it for granted because I didn't and I worked hard at what I did. But mentally I would think ahead a lot and going through the different things now, now I limited it to day to day.
"Tomorrow's a new day. You'll have to go try to do your job again tomorrow."