Steven Wright turns 36 later this month and feels it in his surgically repaired left knee when the weather is about to change.
But he made the 420-mile round trip from his home in Tennessee to Birmingham, Ala., last week to throw 35 pitches off a mound with a physical therapist watching.
He felt good, certainly better than expected. His knuckleball jitterbugged through the air and his fastball hit 82 miles per hour.
It has been 13 months since Wright appeared in a game for the Red Sox. What he has decided in that time is that he can’t accept the way it ended. His motivation is to change that story.
“Nobody wants to go out like that,” Wright said. “Some of it was self-inflicted; some of it wasn’t. But it still affects me. I don’t want that to be how it ends. My driving force is to prove to myself that I can still play.
“Once you say you’re retired, that’s something you don’t come back from mentally. So I’m going to do everything I can within my power and knowledge to come back. If it’s not in God’s plan for me, I’m fine. It’ll suck, but not everybody rides off into the sunset like David Ortiz and Derek Jeter.
“I just don’t want to sit back in a few years and wish I had tried it.”
Wright first injured his knee in 2017. He pitched only five games that season and in December of that year was arrested on a domestic violence charge. Police records showed Wright did not strike his wife, Shannon, but prohibited her from making a 911 call.
His case was retired and the charges were eventually dropped.
Wright returned to pitch effectively in 2018 and was on the Red Sox playoff roster before his knee locked up hours before Game 1 of the Division Series and he was replaced.
He watched from the dugout as the Sox won the World Series.
“I just collapsed. I couldn’t walk that night,” Wright said. “I had been having trouble with my knee all season. I can’t tell you how many times I had it drained.”
Wright was then suspended for 80 games during spring training in 2019 after testing positive for a growth hormone releasing peptide.
He denied any knowledge of how the drugs entered his system at the time but now admits he was “reckless” looking for ways to solve his knee issues.
“I didn’t do it intentionally; I was trying to recover,” Wright said. “I wasn’t trying to cheat. I was tired of letting my teammates down and the fans of Boston down and [former Sox president of baseball operations] Dave Dombrowski down, because he stuck his neck out for me.
“It was my fault. I was careless.”
Wright returned from suspension and tried to pitch through a ligament tear in his elbow but was hit hard. That led to the Tommy John surgery.
“I felt like I had let the team down with the drug suspension,” Wright said. “The last thing I wanted to do was come off the suspension and go right on the injured list. I wanted to help the team.”
So Wright will make the same trip to Birmingham again next month with the goal of throwing 50 pitches and taking another step in what he believes can be a return to the majors.
A more realistic athlete would have read the signs and retired. Wright played parts of seven years in the majors, made the All-Star team in 2016, and has two World Series rings with the Sox. That’s a career most players would sign up for without pause.
But knuckleballers live by faith and magic. That’s what kept Wright’s first mentor, Charlie Hough, pitching until he was 46. Tim Wakefield was 45 when he grudgingly retired, and R.A. Dickey made it to 42.
“I could probably pitch another five years if I stay healthy,” Wright said. “I’m throwing two bullpens a week and I’m feeling healthy for the first time since 2016. I’m focused on my mechanics, not just being able to throw.”
Wright has thrown off a mound seven times over the last four weeks. His knee is strong enough that his mechanics feel the way they did when he was at his best.
He is considering joining a winter league team to show scouts he can still pitch. Then, just maybe, a big league team will give him a chance. His agent has already fielded a few calls.
“Once I face hitters and have some live batting practices, I’ll have a better feel for what I can do,” Wright said. “Right now I’m not ready, but check back in a few months. I think I can pull this off.”