After all, it is Adam Miller’s right middle finger that is now irreparably curved following four surgeries to repair it. The procedures he relied on to straighten out one of the most promising careers anyone can recall in recent memory have left the digit bent to the point where you wonder how or if it affects his everyday life.
That finger still may have more talent than most people have in their whole hands. And it, along with Miller’s right hand can still grip a baseball. Do more than just grip it, really. It’s taken a grip on the collective imagination of those who’ve seen him pitch as well, giving them one more chance, perhaps one last chance to think that arm…that hand…that finger may very well get the now-27-year-old pitcher to the big leagues.
The majors were always a matter of “if” and not “when.” Four straight years, and Miller was named the Indians top prospect by Baseball America.
I always thought from kind of ’04 on, that I was kind of on that road (to the big leagues),” Miller recalled.
“I only was in Low-A for half a year, then I went to High-A and did well. Coming into spring in ’05, it appeared I was going to start in Double-A before the injury. I knew I was kind of on a semi-fast track. In ’06, I had a good year, and that was my protection year before the new agreement, so I was like, ‘I’ve got a chance for something at the end of the year, maybe.’ Then ’07 came along, and it was just more that I had a good spring and I just had to stay healthy. I had some misfortune with the finger.”
The finger. It’s now somewhat of a calling card for Miller, a nickname…something he’s had no choice to embrace.
2006 was nothing but thumbs up for the Plano, Texas native, however. He earned Eastern League Pitcher of the Year honors while with Akron, leading the league wins (15), finishing second in the ERA race (2.75) and posting the third most strikeouts that season (157). He entered that 2007 season full of optimism, and full of reason to believe that his stint with Triple-A Buffalo was going to be a brief one before embarking on a lengthy big league career. Instead…”The first time I strained (the finger) was ’07,” Miller said.
“I don’t remember the exact date or anything, but I remember went like six or seven innings against Rochester in a start and I felt fine. The next day, I came out and started throwing and I was a little sore, but I didn’t think anything of it, so I just kind of shut throwing down that day. The next day, I had a bullpen, and the finger was still sore. The pitching coach was like, ‘Just get it fixed and get ready for your next start.’ I got shut down, and when I came back from that, I was like, ‘That’s good, it was nothing crazy.’ Later that year, I went to the Fall League, and in my last start there I blew it out in the first inning.”
And what, exactly, does it feel like to “blow out” your finger?
“The first time, in ’07, the first strain, I didn’t even know it at first until I picked up the ball and started throwing,” Miller said.
“There wasn’t any pain just normally. It was just one sharp pain in this one area (below the first knuckle) at first. Right when I released it, I felt like a sharp pain. Then the second time I did it that year, I threw one pitch and I felt it go. I felt like I kind of…I’ve never broken a finger or anything, but it almost felt like I popped a finger or broke it or something like that. It was a little sore, but nothing crazy.”
The next three years had all the crazy Miller could have ever expected and then some. He threw a grand total of 28 2/3 innings between 2008-10, all in the first season for Triple-A Buffalo. Surgeries on the finger — including procedures that placed ligaments from his left calf and left wrist into the digit to strengthen it — essentially wiped out three prime years of his career. But, Miller says, there was never a thought to not going back to the mound. Doubts? Sure. But deep down, he always knew that quitting was never an option.
“I knew I’d be able to throw again, but I didn’t know what kind of level I’d be at as far as being able to throw. But I knew I’d be able to get out on the mound and throw,” he said.
“Did I ever think I’d get back to where I once was? I really don’t even know. I’m getting close, I feel pretty good. Each day, it gets better. But it’s hard to say whether I doubted it. There’s always doubts when it’s two years. But I felt pretty good throwing, so once I got to throwing, there was never a doubt that I could get back to doing it again.”
Now, Miller is back. He isn’t what he was. He may never be what he was. But he’s getting closer to it. After a rough comeback season in 2011 — one in which he suggests that while the numbers weren’t good (1-5, 5.93 ERA between Kinston and Akron) it was a success to him because he was able to stay healthy all year — the friendly fireballer was given a second chance by the New York Yankees organization.
He doesn’t touch 100 miles per hour with his fastball anymore, but few can. But he did crank it up to 95 miles per hour in a recent start for Trenton, for whom he’s currently taking the ball every fifth day after beginning the season in Triple-A. That in itself may seem like a step back, but not to Miller, who has, whether he wanted to or not, earned some perspective through all of this.
“You look at things a little different,” he said.
“When I started, I hating doing the bucket. There were times when I was out, when shoot I’d have loved to take the bucket. You just kind of miss the little things, locker room stuff. I was out and wasn’t part of a team anymore. But as far as changing, now I try to have more fun with it. Not that I didn’t have fun before, but…shoot, I’ve already been through the worst, I’d assume. Now, it’s just kind of having fun and competing.”
Miller is doing just that, having made 11 appearances between Trenton and Scranton this season. The numbers are better than last year, but still not what you’ve come to expect from him. He’s 0-2 with a 3.89 ERA and just 15 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings pitched this season. But with time, he says, things will get better. And with time, he truly believes that finally achieving that big league dream isn’t out of the question.
“I still feel like my stuff is good, it’s just trusting it and getting the command back,” Miller said. “But without a doubt, I feel like I can get there.”
And if he does, he’ll have the last word with fate after all…
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com