As the bulk of the clubhouse methodically packed its bags and readied for a night flight to Detroit with all the emotionless comportment of goat watchers, there was quite the opposite feeling at Braden Bishop’s locker. He was positively giddy as he packed up his equipment bag, double-checking it a few times and smiling as he tossed a few last things in there.
He wasn’t going with the team. No, he was on his way to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., along with Mitch Haniger, to join the High-A Modesto Nuts. Few big-league players are happy about going back to the Cal League. But for Bishop, it meant his recovery from an injury that knocked him out for 2½ months and could have been life-threatening is complete.
“I’m so happy to go and play in games,” he said.
The last time he played in a game was June 4 against the Astros. He’d been called up days before to take the place of a slumping Mallex Smith. With Jay Bruce recently traded to the Phillies, Bishop was going to get a chance to see some extended playing time at the MLB level for the first time in his career.
Perhaps that’s why he tried to play through the pain in his side and a weird sensation in his upper back. Days before, he’d been struck in the ribs by a 97-mph fastball while playing for Class AAA Tacoma, and it had left him hurting with every move. But certainly not hurting enough to postpone a call-up to the big leagues. He couldn’t let pain prevent him from trying to capitalize on the opportunity.
“I was feeling pretty bad, obviously,” he said. “I just wanted to contribute so bad, especially in the situation I was in, where Jay had just got traded, and here’s your opportunity.”
Little did Bishop know, he’d suffered a lacerated spleen on that fastball and the pain he was feeling in his upper back was a common effect from that injury. By the fourth inning, it was too much to play. He told the trainers and was removed from the game. But even a postgame examination wasn’t conclusive. The following day, he was diagnosed with what was an extremely serious injury and underwent immediate surgery to repair the damage.
His reluctance to come out of the game wasn’t about proving he was tough.
“It’s so tough, because your whole life, you’re taught I want to be in there, I want to be in there, until you physically can’t be in there,” he said. “Growing up playing football, you realize if I play sports, I’m never going to feel 100%. It’s just not going to happen. So you take how you feel that day and maximize it.”
Once he understood the seriousness of his injury, Bishop became thankful nothing worse came of it. His recovery has been arduous, starting with four weeks needed to feel normal and regain the strength and weight lost.
“These last four weeks is how can I get back to feeling normal as a baseball player,” Bishop said. “That was the goal. I knew I was going to have bad days and good days, but it’s led to where I’m at now where I can do everything without limitations.”
He will logically be ready to return when rosters expand Sept. 1, if not sooner, and he will get an opportunity for some at-bats. But it’s impossible for him not to think about the 55 games he’s missed so far. With Haniger’s injury and Domingo Santana’s recent elbow issues, the Mariners have pieced together the outfield for the past two months, using infielders on numerous occasions. It’s not crazy to think Bishop would have played in 90% of those games and started at least 80% of them.
“Timing is everything,” manager Scott Servais said. “I’ve said it often. Being in the right place at the right time or being lucky enough to stay healthy to take advantage of an opportunity. I’ve often felt that things happen for a reason. Braden has gone through a lot to even get here.”
Bishop had a similar situation last season, when a wayward fastball broke his right forearm June 19 in a game for Class AA Arkansas. The injury required season-ending surgery, with a metal plate and six screws inserted into his wrist.
Always the optimist, Bishop has tried to not let himself think about these two injuries and how they could possibly affect his career. Windows for playing time in the big leagues can close quickly and sometimes remain shut forever.
“Naturally as a human being, when the feelings get involved, you feel like you missed your opportunity and wonder why it happened,” he said. “I’ve been fighting myself every single day — last year and this year — like why can’t I get out of the way of the ball? But I think the overwhelming theme is that, even though I can’t play, it’s made me a better person, better teammate.
“It’s the same thing with the forearm last year. It’s let me invest my time in other places that needed time. I think when I look back at this, I’ll realize in some aspect of my life I became more well-rounded. I think that’s bigger than baseball, although it’s obviously disappointing.”
That mindset has earned his teammates’ and manager’s respect.
“He’s not one of these guys that puts his head down,” Servais said. “He’s not an Eeyore. He just doesn’t take it that way. He’s upbeat. He’s gone through a lot in his life. He’s like, ‘Hey man, I will be back out there. I will get my chance and I will take advantage of it.’ I commend him for that attitude. A lot of guys wouldn’t do that. They’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is getting away from me.’”
That’s why Bishop was so excited to start his rehab stint, even if it meant a return to the Class A ranks where the big leagues seem like they are a million miles away.
“I think more than anything it’s just mentally being able to get back on the field and know I’m going to be OK and be competitive again,” he said. “I’d like go to into the offseason knowing what I need to work on, and where I left the season. That would be huge.”