FORT MYERS, FLA. – Righthander Nick Blackburn is spending spring training working on his conditioning and testing the range of motion in his surgically repaired wrist.
He is several weeks away from a return to the mound, and even longer from getting into a game. Spring training, for Blackburn, is a test of patience.
“It is already weird, seeing those guys over there,” Blackburn said earlier this week, sitting in front of his stall in the minor league facility, “and seeing the highlights from games. At the same time, it’s making me more excited about being healthy and getting back out there.”
He looks and sounds relieved. He has two reasons to feel that way.
In January, Blackburn had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist, and he’s hopeful it will put an end to the arm problems that have led to four surgeries since the end of the 2010 season.
The other reason he’s in good spirits is that his wife, Alicia, is pregnant with twins and is in the clear after battling complications.
It wasn’t an easy offseason for the family. Blackburn made several trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to visit Dr. Richard Berger, the specialist who discovered the problem in his wrist and developed the surgery. Blackburn is the second major league player to have the surgery. The other is Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who has said the surgery saved his career in 2006.
Blackburn also made several trips to Houston with his wife to visit her specialist, after she was diagnosed with twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a condition in which one twin doesn’t develop as well as the other because of an unbalanced blood supply. She underwent surgery to correct the problem on Feb. 14.
“We had to talk about if everything doesn’t go right, having to save one of them or if something takes a turn for the worse, do we terminate both?” Blackburn said. “It didn’t hit us how serious it was [until then].”
The surgery was successful. The twins will be children Nos. 3 and 4 for the Blackburns.
Blackburn could be ready to pitch in a game by the end of May — which is about the time Alicia is expected to give birth.
“She has responded well,” Blackburn said. “The babies have responded well. Things are balancing out.”
Twins General Manager Terry Ryan regularly checked on the Blackburns.
“I worried about [the pregnancy] more than anything right now,” Ryan said, “because she’s gone through all kinds of complications. She seems to be all right now.”
Blackburn, who never set foot in major league camp this spring, appreciated that Ryan made time to ask about his wife.
“I talked to him a lot,” Blackburn said. “It says a lot about Terry.”
Blackburn is still in a soft cast until he regains more range of motion in his wrist. Then he will begin strengthening exercises until he’s ready to play catch. He didn’t throw a baseball for most of the offseason, so he will be starting from square one in building arm strength. That’s why he might not pitch in a game until late May.
Blackburn, 43-55 with a 4.85 ERA over six major league seasons, will have to pitch well to earn another shot at the bigs. He isn’t on the 40-man roster and was going to be a spring training invite if he would have been healthy. He said he might need the whole minor league season to get back to where he wants to be. He could be a free agent by then. He’s making $5.5 million in 2013, the final year of a four-year, $14 million deal. The Twins hope he can contribute this season, but Blackburn also knows his next pitch in the majors might come while wearing a different uniform.
“It would be great to pitch on the major league level this year,” Blackburn said. “I don’t expect to. I’m not ruling it out, but I’m not counting on it. I’m going to work as hard as I can, then whatever happens once I’m healthy happens.”
If it doesn’t work out with the Twins, he will hit the market and look for a place to continue his career.
“If I’m in Triple-A this year and don’t have a major league job next year, I’m not going to shut it down,” he said.
He laughed softly, adding: “I’m going to have to keep going. With four kids, I’ll have to play as long as I can.”