TACOMA — The level of information revealed and the complete willingness to do so was unexpected. Players rarely like to talk about things this serious, perhaps partially out of the fear that public acknowledgment might somehow make what they’re experiencing worse.
But given Kendall Graveman’s nature as a person and baseball player and the honesty and raw emotion he’s displayed during his brief tenure with the Mariners, what transpired Monday afternoon over a video call shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Following a 54-pitch, five “inning” outing in an intrasquad game at Cheney Stadium, Graveman was asked describe about what had transpired since he was placed on the 10-day injured list with neck spasms Aug. 4. His blunt answer revealed a serious and surprising diagnosis.
“I have a bone tumor in my cervical spine that’s benign,” he said with his voice wavering and trying to fend off tears. “So that’s what we’re dealing with. It’s in a spot in the cervical spine that it is tough to do procedure on.”
The exact location of the tumor is in the C6 vertebrae and sits in near the spinal cord and the vertebral artery, which makes any surgical procedure to remove the tumor — or more specifically burning out or removing nidus inside the tumor that’s causing all of the problems and would provide instant relief — difficult and risky.
“Right now, because of where it is, every has doctor said no,” he said. “You’re dealing with five millimeters of space right there of where it is between the spinal cord and the vertebral artery. And the vertebral artery sends oxygen to your brain and the spinal cord, obviously is all your nerves, so that’s modern medicine and that’s what we’re presented with. It’s a sticky situation.”
Graveman has been dealing with neck issues since 2018, when he was with the A’s. He first became aware of the bone tumor in July 2019, when he was with the Cubs and rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in his elbow. But given his status trying to pitch his way into the Mariners exercising his $3.5 million club option for 2021 or possibly going into free agency this offseason, it’s not something that most players would share publicly.
“And this is just me being honest and open, I’m not here to hide anything,” he said. “That’s what we’re dealing with. And I’m just continuing to hope that there is relief in the future and I’ll continue to pitch and pitch through it. They say it can’t get any worse. It doesn’t grow. It doesn’t spread.”
The nature of the pain is difficult to articulate.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It really is. I don’t really know how to describe it. They’ve asked me that many times, but it’s not a muscle pain, it’s not a nerve pain. It’s just there. Every day, it’s there.”
And it isn’t going to go away. Medicine and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aleve do provide temporary help. But in terms of treatment or maintenance, there isn’t much he can do.
“This whole thing’s been trial and error and we’ve tried pretty much every soft tissue work there is and everything we can do,” he said. “It’s just embedded into my bone so there’s really no treatment. That’s why this is a unique situation. I’m down here, rehabbing and trying to get back, because I just missed some time, but nothing structurally has changed.”
After missing most of 2018 and all of 2019 because of the surgery, Graveman had appreciable anticipation for the 2020 season. He had no pain in the elbow and was throwing without fear. His velocity had increased. Even baseball’s shutdown due to the spread of COVID-19 didn’t deter his hopes; it allowed him to regain some weight and muscle after dealing with an illness during spring training. And he also found an approach to throwing a four-seam fastball to complement his nasty sinker.
But when the neck discomfort reemerged in the later innings of his first start and remained there into his second start, he sought medical advice in hopes of finding relief. He didn’t want this to derail what was left of the 2020 season.
“Man, it’s just something that I don’t know why I’m going through this,” he said. “But it’s something I’m going through. I believe good will come from it but right now it’s tough.”
The resiliency Graveman relied upon to get him through the Tommy John surgery is being pushed to its limitations. And it’s obvious the previous two weeks of meeting with doctors and specialists had left him emotionally drained.
“It has, but at the end of the day, I have faith that this is happening for a reason to help me become a better person and, man, it’s tough,” he said. “I just have to be joyful through the storm. That’s what I’m called to do. Obviously, it hurts. … I’ll be tough at the end of the day. And when this is resolved, I promise good things will come from it. I don’t know what they’ll be. I don’t even know if they’ll be in baseball.”
In the immediate future, Graveman is hoping to make one more outing in an intrasquad game, then return to the rotation. He gave up three homers in his last intrasquad game, and plenty of hard contact. The stuff and velocity were there, but his pitches were up in the zone and he was behind in counts.
“I haven’t thrown to hitters or really off a mound in probably two weeks so I wasn’t as sharp as I wanted to be,” he said. “But my arm felt good out there. The velocity was still there and it feels like the stuff is still there, it’s just got to sharpen up. I didn’t feel great location-wise. I’ll work hard this week to get back on location. That’s the first thing that goes when you do take time off is your location.”
The Mariners will happily welcome him back.
“I’m excited to have him back with the understanding he’s trying to kind of grind through it,” manager Scott Servais said. “It says a lot about the person he is, how much he loves pitching to go through what he’s going through right now. I know he’s looked at a ton of different options in how to kind of put this behind them, but obviously it’s in a very sensitive area. It’s his call. Fortunately, I don’t think it’s going to get a lot worse, which is something whether he can deal with or not.”
As for pitching through the discomfort in this shortened season, it’s also not something most potential free agents would do. But Graveman has to prove to teams and himself that he can still be an effective pitcher.
“I can do everything lifting and working out, not have really much of an issue, but when you’re out competing, you’re using every ounce of energy you have,” he said. “With this discomfort, you just continue to push through it and be as good as you can. At the end of the day, that’s where I got to be. Hopefully guys can look at me, and see that ‘hey, it’s not ideal situation but he carries himself at the ball field and the way he’s supposed to,’ and I think that’s the biggest impact I can be to everyone I’m around.”