TORONTO -- If you think the life of a ballplayer is entirely glorious, try spending 11 weeks rehabbing in extended spring camp. In Winter Haven, Fla., no less. That's what Tribe reliever Brendan Donnelly did. His comeback from the Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery he had performed last year was a long one, made longer by the humble central Florida surroundings of the Tribe's now-former spring home.
"Anyone who knows anything about Winter Haven knows it's a good place to work on the mental side of the game," Donnelly said. "You have to be mentally strong to get through just six weeks of Winter Haven. And I was there 11 weeks." And he was alone. "My wife [Rhonda] came down for four days," he said. "When I took her back to the airport, she said, 'I love you, but I'm not coming back here. You're on your own.'" Donnelly made it out of Winter Haven, and, after a brief stint at Class A Kinston, made six strong appearances at Triple-A Buffalo to prompt his return to the big leagues during this weekend's three-game series with the Blue Jays. Over the next seven weeks, the Indians will see if a rehabbed and rejuvenated Donnelly can find the form that made him a dominant setup man with the Angels earlier this decade. But even though the Indians have a bullpen with few defined roles, the 37-year-old Donnelly will have to earn manager Eric Wedge's late-game trust. "I think the first couple games, they're just going to try to get me out there in a non-pressure situation, kind of like when you first get called up as a 22-year-old rookie," Donnelly said. "As I get into tougher situations, we'll see if I really am back or what I can bring to this team. It's no secret this organization is looking forward, and it's up to us as players to go out there and perform." Wedge likes the experience and veteran presence Donnelly can bring to the 'pen. "And he has a little salt to him, too," Wedge said. "All that should help these guys." But even if Donnelly helps the Indians down the stretch, the club has no contractual ties to him beyond this year. The Minor League contract Donnelly signed with the Tribe before Spring Training specifically stipulated that he will eligible for free agency after this year, even though he won't have six years of big league service time at that point. "I didn't want to lock myself into one spot," Donnelly said. "Not having a 2009 option, I think it works both ways, because it gives both sides a chance to see if this is going to be the right fit. Right now, I don't see anything saying it's not going to be a good fit." Especially now that he's out of Winter Haven.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.