Story by Corey Crisan
Photos by Kristin O’Grady and Brooke Meenachan
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Stories of resilience and fighting through struggles are two of the many ideologies that make sports, in general, fascinating. Battling through these trials facilitates respect and it's a part of every athlete's career. That respect is not given by virtue of talent or pedigree, but through showcasing characteristics that embody a true professional athlete.
One of these professional athletes who garners this sort of respect is 37-year-old Syracuse Chiefs relief pitcher Neal Cotts.
“It basically came down to the point that I wanted a shot to get back onto the field,” Cotts told Newhouse Sports after Thursday’s game. “(It was) either I would not be successful, and go home knowing I got back to the field, or not physically be able to do it.”
Those comments reflect the thoughts that were swirling through Cotts' head as he was out of baseball from 2010-2012.
His career ledger is rather extensive. He was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics in 2001 and moved quickly through the Minor Leagues. He made his Major League debut in 2003 with the Chicago White Sox, where he would spend the next four years as a key piece to a contending and then 2005 World Series Champion team. Cotts pitched in all four games and earned the win in Game 2 during that series, which resulted in a 4-0 sweep of the Houston Astros.
At the age of 27 and just as he was entering his prime years, Cotts began to face his own form of adversity. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009 as a member of the Chicago Cubs and had four hip surgeries, the first occurring the following season. He underwent his original hip surgery in 2010, but an infection prompted three follow-up surgeries.
His next chance to pitch in the Majors came in 2013 with the Texas Rangers. He was in his age-33 season and this was after being removed from Major League Baseball for three seasons. He proved he belonged once again by sporting an 8-3 record with a 1.11 earned run average in 57.0 innings pitched that season.
Cotts has not pitched in the Majors since 2015. He spent the 2016 season at the Triple-A level within the Angels, Yankees, and Rangers organizations. The Washington Nationals invited him to 2017 Spring Training and he has spent the entire season with the Chiefs.
So, at 37, with a surgically-repaired arm and after not one, two, or three, but four hip surgeries, what keeps Cotts going?
“I enjoy playing, I enjoy going out there, I enjoy competing,” he said. “Physically, I feel like I have the ability, still, to complete at the Big League level, and until I definitely don’t have that feeling or if I don’t have the desire to be out there, then I know it’s time to go home.”
Most importantly, Cotts has not lost sight of what he wants to do to feel accomplished again: Make it back to the Big Leagues.
“Getting back up there,” he said. “Playing in the big leagues. Winning. Getting on a team, and if they’re winning, then we’ll keep winning. That’s the main thing.”
Determined, focused, humble, and passionate are few of the multiple adjectives that don’t even begin to describe Neal Cotts’ approach to the game of baseball. Even at his age and with all of his injuries considered, he’s still working to get back up to the Majors. If he continues to press this work ethic and some dominoes do fall in his favor, then the World Series contending Washington Nationals could not only benefit from a great baseball player, but also and, better yet, a true professional.