Playing catch is among the least exceptional things a major league baseball player can do. It is a signal of routine, little more than an obligatory checkmark in a day.
That is not the case for Eduardo Rodriguez.
Last week, for the first time since his season ended because of COVID-19-related myocarditis in mid-July, the Red Sox lefthander started throwing a baseball. It represented a milestone, and he’s now going to be doing it four times a week.
“Amazing, man. It feels great,” Rodriguez said by phone. “It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”
For the 28-year-old lefthander, normal has taken on new dimensions.
At the start of July, just before he was scheduled to come to Boston for summer training camp before the compressed season, Rodriguez tested positive for COVID-19. He remained home until multiple negative tests led to clearance to come to Boston. But when he started throwing in Fenway Park, fatigue immediately made it clear that something was very wrong.
A battery of tests revealed the myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle that in worst-case scenarios can cause death. When the condition did not immediately resolve, Rodriguez was shut down for the season and sent back home.
There, he wasn’t merely prohibited from engaging in baseball activities, he was restricted from virtually all forms of physical exertion — whether it was playing with his 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, or taking his dog for a walk. For nearly three months, all he could do was walk around his house and sit on the couch.
“That time of year, I’ve never been sitting around,” said Rodriguez. “It’s hard, man. Just being at home, relax, chilling all the time, all day long, that’s kind of hard for me.”
Rodriguez is the only known major leaguer to miss the entire season because of a COVID-19 infection or related illness, and the only one known to develop myocarditis. It would have been easy for him to lament his status, yet he maintained a broader perspective.
“I thank God I was the only one,” said Rodriguez. “Even if I was the only one [in MLB] that had myocarditis, you see all the people who have died [from COVID-19]. I’m happy that I just had myocarditis and am not six feet underground.”
With the input of his doctors and his mother, a nurse, he understood the need to follow the prescribed period of inactivity but also felt reassured that the condition was almost certain to resolve. With roughly three months of sitting around, the medical professionals assured him, Rodriguez would be able to return to normalcy.
“I believed in what the doctors said,” he said. “Every time I went in to the doctor, they told me how I was doing and they were seeing good results.”
Yet the interim still proved difficult. Rodriguez, a constant source of clubhouse chatter and ebullience, struggled with the separation from his teammates. He watched every Red Sox game and frequently called Xander Bogaerts, Martin Perez, Nate Eovaldi, and others to let them know what he was seeing — or just to feel engaged with his normal life.
“I can’t imagine guys just retiring and being at home for two years,” he said. “It was really hard for me to be in that position.
“For me, now, it’s more than just a game. It’s living your life, living with your teammates. It was like leaving your family. Half my heart was away from me.
“It was just weird, man. I would say it was weird because it’s something I’ve never been through before in my life.”
That being the case, a visit to Boston in late September was a much-anticipated landmark. With some nervousness and considerable excitement, Rodriguez underwent a battery of tests to ensure that the inflammation was completely gone. With that confirmed, doctors cleared him for a gradual buildup of physical activity.
Over the past seven weeks, Rodriguez slowly built back his list of activities from the most basic level. Walks outside became rides on an exercise bike, followed by light throwing, and finally what he described as full clearance to conduct “a regular offseason program.”
“I’m 100 percent and I can start doing everything,” said Rodriguez. “I feel fine. I feel great.”
And with that, Rodriguez has been able to start considering the future. The Red Sox have acknowledged that the unprecedented nature of his shutdown has left questions about the workload that Rodriguez — who went 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA along with 9.4 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine innings in 2019 — can handle next season.
Rodriguez, however, is not resetting his expectations for 2021. He is training with the goal of repeating the benchmarks he hit in 2019, when he logged a career-high 203⅓ innings while leading MLB in starts.
His intention is to have “a regular offseason, get ready for the season, go out there, throw 200 innings, 34 starts. That’s my goal. That’s the way I’m going to do it. That’s the approach I had in 2019. I’m going to take it the same way, go and do it.”
Such proclamations mark just part of the pitcher’s excitement for what is to come. He is thrilled about the return of Alex Cora as manager (“We have conversations that feel like a brother to a brother, sometimes a father to a son, sometimes like friends — a special relationship”) while also expressing hope that, one year from free agency, he can work with the Red Sox to extend his tenure.
“I want to stay in Boston as long as my career goes,” he said. “I want to play in Boston forever. That’s where I got to the big leagues. That’s where I got an opportunity. That’s my family. That’s a ballpark where I really love to pitch — the history, everything.
”We’ll see what goes on there, see where we’re at. Hopefully they want to do it. I want to do it.”
For now, those longer-term considerations are less pressing than the immediate reality of what Rodriguez is able to do. He is once again healthy, once again immersed in routine, once again in a position where he’ll be able to do what he loves.
“It is going to be great,” he said, laughing with giddiness, “when I get back on the mound.”
After months of patience, that finally feels within reach.