PAWTUCKET – Tim Norton has spent the better part of his professional career battling back from countless injuries. His latest setback is akin to the baseball gods kicking a man when he’s down.
The homecoming originally planned for this weekend never happened. Norton did not pitch at McCoy Stadium for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before friends and family hailing from Burrillville. Instead, the 28-year-old is toiling under the hot sun in Tampa, Fla., the Yankees’ spring-training facility – Steinbrenner Field – the scene of Norton’s latest attempt to rehab from shoulder woes.
Just when it seemed Norton’s career was heading in a promising direction, his right shoulder started barking, forcing the Burrillville High graduate (Class of 2001) to shut it down once more. This latest cause for concern, however, arose at a most inopportune time. On June 8, Norton tossed a scoreless inning with two strikeouts for Scranton, his first relief appearance upon his promotion from Double-A Trenton. The next day he landed on the disabled list with – surprise, surprise – an achy shoulder.
“He got here, threw that one outing and that was it,” surmised Scranton pitching coach Scott Aldred.
Just like that it’s back to the drawing board for Norton, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2006 MLB draft by the Yankees. Blessed with the ideal pitching frame – 6-foot-5, 230 pounds – Norton has endured one setback after another since turning pro. The UConn product has undergone two shoulder surgeries, one that wiped out the entire 2008 season with the other occurring just last year. In each instance he’s been able to overcome unimaginable odds and return to the mound, a course of action that has not gone unnoticed.
If you were to ask Nardi Contreras, the Yankees’ minor-league pitching coordinator is more enamored with the perseverance Norton has shown under trying circumstances than the actual results.
“He’s a tremendous young man,” said Contreras while overseeing a workout in Tampa over the weekend. “All players and people from all walks of life should look at Tim Norton. Nothing has kept him down. He just kept working hard, got knocked down only to start all over again.”
After years of starts and stops and toiling in the low levels of New York’s farm system, Norton set out to write a different script in 2011. Overpowering is perhaps the best way to surmise the two-plus months he spent with Trenton, Norton posting a 1.55 ERA with six saves in 23 games there. Just as equally impressive were the 12 hits and eight walks he permitted in 29 innings. He also struck out 44. That translates to 3.7 hits, 2.5 walks and 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings. For good measure Norton held Eastern League hitters to a paltry .124 average.
Contreras, recalling that he dubbed Norton’s throwing motion “ugly” when he started out with the Yankees, further commented that the considerable strides the righthander made this season were due to “cleaning up his delivery, which allowed him to repeat his arm slot and get his pitches over for strikes. That came as a result of his hard work.”
Norton made a cameo appearance with Scranton in 2010, throwing a scoreless frame in what was his first-ever outing above Double-A. Last month’s ascension to Triple-A was under completely different circumstances: not only was it a reward for a job well done, but it was perceived in some corners as the next step towards eventually pitching out of New York’s bullpen (when Joba Chamberlain was mentioned in the same breath as Tommy John surgery, New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman tweeted that the Yankees were “mulling” about possibly calling up Norton to fill the spot).
Said Aldred, “It’s unfortunate because he’s been through a lot. He’s come a long way and was able to put himself on the map. Then he got injured again.”
Perhaps equally as impressive as the comeback trail he’s blazed several times over is that Norton is a pitcher who still “brings it.” Reports surfaced that his fastball was clocked at 96 miles per hour with it normally residing a tick or two less.
“Generally you see a [decrease in velocity in pitchers derailed by a shoulder affliction], not elbows,” said Contreras when asked if he’s at all surprised that Norton has been able to maintain the ability to throw in the mid 90s. “There’s not many guys who work harder than Norton and that’s all I can tell you.”
As for the present, Norton finds himself stuck in an all-too familiar holding pattern. He’s yet to pick up a baseball since being placed on D.L., but according to Contreras is doing “some arm strength exercises.”
If the Yankees have learned anything from their dealings with Norton, it’s best to refrain from establishing a strict timetable.
“Might be two months,” was closest Contreras came when asked if there’s a chance Norton returns this season.
Scranton is scheduled to make one final visit to McCoy Stadium, Sept. 2-3. Don’t think for a second that Norton doesn’t know this.
“He’s going to land on his feet again, I just really feel that,” said Contreras, belief etched in his tone. “He’s a tremendous worker and has a great attitude.”