Opening Day is special for every ballplayer.
There are those who are on the roster for the first time, and there are those who know their Opening Days may be numbered.
There are players like Leonys Martin, who sacrificed much by escaping from Cuba to pursue his dream, and others like Dae-Ho Lee who will begin the journey to see if their games indeed stack up to the Major Leagues.
Then there are the comeback players. Players who had it all only to see it taken away for reasons beyond their control. A year ago Franklin Gutierrez started his season in the minor leagues, still questioning if he could make it all the way back to the bigs. Two years ago he didn’t have a season. In the past five years, he’s been active on just two Opening Day rosters.
This year he will not only be on the Opening Day roster, but he should also make the start.
The appreciation for where he is at is evident in any conversation you have with Gutierrez. He loves the game. It is where he feels he should be. It had been a lifelong dream to play Major League Baseball, with the love of the game instilled by his parents who took him to the ballpark for the first time at age 8. Seven years later he would sign his first professional contract.
“Since that time it has been a long road,” he said sitting back in his chair. “There have been a lot of ups and downs in my career but there is something about baseball that I really love. I love to be up there, to try to show what I can do for my team, and just being here is a huge success for me.”
The struggle has been well documented. Joining the Mariners for the 2009 season in a trade with Cleveland, Gutierrez showed much promise – Gold Glove defense plus on-base ability and speed. Soon the dings and dents began to accumulate, though, and were eventually supplemented by stomach ailments. As frustrated as fans may have been to see him scratched from lineups or placed on the DL, he was even more so.
“I remember when I (signed a contract extension) here for four years to play center field, for me it was great. I was really happy, I was ready to give everything I had. And I think I did it for only one year. After that, everything was a mess.”
He heard the “fragile” and “glass” comments that were often associated with his name. While that stung and eventually served as motivation, there is no bitterness when he talks about it today. That is simply not Gutierrez.
“I never expect to have this thing in my life,” he said of the ankylosing spondylitis he was eventually diagnosed with. “But you know, it’s something that happens, I had a lot of injuries and the people always talk, ‘Oh. this guy is too fragile,’ but they didn’t really know what was happening to my body. I didn’t really know either so I cannot blame the people for saying that.”
With the diagnosis came little relief, physically or mentally. Young athletes do not get AS. He has very few peers in that category. There isn’t a wonder drug or treatment for it; different medications had to be tried. There is not a cure.
While Gutierrez was able to play with it shortly after the diagnosis as he tried different medications, he didn’t feel he had a handle on his condition. To that end, he made the painful decision to stop playing baseball shortly after signing a one-year contract with Seattle for the 2014 season.
“That was my lowest point,” he said. “I mean I never saw myself out of baseball so it was really hard just to be at home knowing all of my friends were playing and not knowing if I would be able to play again because of the way I was feeling. I went through a lot of things, depression, sadness, everything.”
In time he found the proper medication and dosage, which along with a strict anti-inflamatory diet and extensive stretching and massage work allowed him to begin to think he might be able to play again.
It was a daily struggle, both physically and mentally for Gutierrez.
“There’s a lot of things going on in your mind. You just want to quit and you don’t want to keep going, but every day I have to deal with that and try to be strong in my mind. Overcoming that is pretty much what inspires me.”
The desire for his young son to see and remember his father playing baseball is another inspiration. He finds further inspiration from the letters he gets and the stories he hears from those who have the same disease.
“That’s the thing, it inspires you, but you just have to keep going,” he said. “I was about to quit the game, then I started thinking It means a lot to me because people realize what you are doing, what you are going through, and that is very important to show them to never give up your life. It doesn’t matter what happened or how hard it is, just keep going until you get to the point where you want to be.”
The Mariners played a part in his return to baseball, as well, staying in touch with him during his year off and offering a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training in 2015.
“I thought, I’m not going to lose anything if I try again,” said Gutierrez. “This team is going to give me another opportunity to come back and try to show what I can do. I have nothing to lose. That’s what I did. I came back, I did great last year and this year I am trying to do the same.”
Gutierrez’s return proved successful both on and off the field. While there were days when he woke up and knew he would be unable to play, they were few and far between. While he was not the same athlete he was when he first came to the Mariners – his speed was gone – he was not the same hitter, either. He was better.
The constant work he put in to try and get on the field made him bigger and stronger. The results was an OPS almost 200 points higher than his previous career-high.
These numbers did not go unnoticed. A free agent at the end of the season, there was interest from other organizations despite the uncertainty of when or how much he could play. It could have been an interesting offseason for Gutierrez, but instead it was completely suspense free as he signed a one-year deal with the Mariners on Nov. 11.
“This means a lot to me,” he said of staying in Seattle. “For me, I feel love from this team. I feel like, because I spent so much time here, I know the people. I know there is a new GM, a new coaching staff, but I feel like the team we have right now, I didn’t want to leave this team and then watch them play and watch them make the playoffs without being on the team. I just wanted to be part of the team. That’s why my decision came easy to come back again. I know I could look somewhere else but my first decision was if Seattle wanted me to come back, I’m not going to doubt it, I’m not going to think twice.
“I trust them. I feel great. I feel that this is special to me that they trust me again. I am here, I am going to do whatever I can to help this team make the playoffs, and why not the championship?”