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Lara resurrecting his career

Lara resurrecting his career

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Waking up from a three-week coma that December day in 2007, Juan Lara searched his mind for a memory.

He didn't know what he was doing in a Dominican Republic hospital, and if he had known, he might have panicked.

Lara's brain had endured severe trauma. His spine was fractured. His ribs were broken. His lung was collapsed. And the left arm he had used to rise from poverty in the Dominican to the Cleveland Indians' Major League roster was broken.

Lara didn't recall what happened after his Dominican Winter League game on the night of Nov. 24, 2007. He had no memory of a speeding motorcycle crashing into his SUV at an intersection, an accident that killed the cycle's two passengers, nearly killed him and injured his girlfriend, Jenny.

Over the next few days, as his family broke the news and Lara processed what had happened, a weighty question came to his mind.

"The only thing I was thinking was, 'What am I going to do now?' " Lara said through an interpreter. "'I don't do anything else. Just baseball.' "

Now, 1 1/2 years later, on the backfields of the Indians' Player Development Complex in Goodyear, Ariz., Lara is playing baseball again.

That he is living, breathing and walking is an accomplishment in itself, given the injuries he sustained in the wreck. But with six metal screws in his arm and two in his neck, the 28-year-old is searching for something more. He took the mound this week with an eye on returning to the sport he loves.

"I need to be back in baseball again," he said. "That's the place where I'm really happy."

Baseball beginnings

The family house was a two-bedroom unit with eight children crammed inside; it had no indoor plumbing. The Lara family grew beans and onions.

If Lara or his siblings needed a distraction from the tight confines or the farm work, they turned to baseball.

"It's a tradition," he said. "When you're young, you're always playing baseball with anything you can find. You'd cut a piece of wood out of a tree and make it a bat, and you would use socks wrapped around each other to make a ball."

When Lara reached high school, he began playing ball each Friday against teams from other towns. One game was played against an academy team coached by Enrique Soto -- a street agent who would train young Dominican players and showcase them for Major League clubs. Soto liked what he saw in Lara and facilitated the 18-year-old's signing with the Indians.

Lara received a $10,000 bonus. He thought he was rich.

"The young kids down there would ask, 'How much did you get?' " Lara said. "When I told them they gave me 10,000 bucks, the other kids were like, 'You should have gotten more!' "

Lara justified the signing by reminding himself that Miguel Tejada had signed for $4,000.

"I'll take the $10,000," he told himself. "I just want the opportunity."

Promising prospect

Lara spent seven seasons in the Indians' Minor League system before that first call to the Majors came in 2006.

"When I moved up to Triple-A, that's when I started thinking maybe I have a chance to be in the big leagues," Lara said. "I never stopped working."

The Indians gave Lara five innings of work that September, and he responded with a 1.80 ERA. The following year he made just one appearance with the Tribe and spent the rest of the season at Triple-A Buffalo. He reported to winter ball intent on working on his slider and proving that he deserved Major League consideration for '08.

"I was very confident that I could make an impact that following year," he said.

On the morning of the accident, Lara woke up and went for a run on the beach. Later that day he pitched in a game for Estrellas de Oriente. He pulled a muscle in his back, and that caused him to lose a few ticks on his velocity. Other than that, it was just another day in the life of an aspiring big leaguer.

Lara and Jenny were on their way to dinner when they stopped at an intersection in San Pedro de Macoris.

That's when Lara's life changed.

A fight for life

As he pulled through the intersection, Lara never saw the headlight of the fast-approaching motorcycle, because it was pointed to the sky. The driver was showing off for his passenger, doing a wheelie at 130 mph.

The motorcycle slammed into the driver's side of Lara's vehicle, pinning him inside and instantly killing the two men on the bike. Paramedics extracted Lara from the car and rushed him to the hospital, where he was kept in a medically induced coma for 22 days.

Several people in the Indians' organization, including right-hander Fausto Carmona and Lino Diaz, director of Latin American operations, visited Lara.

"When I saw him," Carmona said, "I was very sad."

Said Diaz: "It was pretty overwhelming. At that time we were just praying he could come out of it."

When Lara woke up, doctors advised his family and Jenny not to tell him what had happened for fear that he might go into shock. All he remembered was that morning run on the beach. He figured he must have gotten sick after the run.

"I told my girlfriend, 'I'm not going to run on the beach anymore, because look how I am and how I feel,' " Lara recalled.

It was a couple of days before he discovered the truth, and he had to come to grips with the reality that his life would never be the same. He faced the possibility that his baseball career might be over.

"I just tried to get back to normal life," he said.

It was an uphill climb.

Surgery and recovery

Once Lara was able to be moved in late December, the Indians had him flown to the Cleveland Clinic, where he underwent multiple surgeries. Doctors stabilized his spine, inserting two screws through an incision in his neck. His broken forearm was repaired by the insertion of a plate held down by six screws.

For the next eight months, Lara's neck was stabilized by a halo vest so that his vertebrae could heal. The Indians removed him from their 40-man roster but, in a show of humanity all too rare in professional sports, immediately signed him to a Minor League contract and picked up his medical expenses.

In March the Indians flew Lara to their Spring Training complex in Winter Haven, Fla., so he could visit with his friends and teammates. Carmona, who had played with Lara since they were low-level Minor Leaguers in the Dominican Summer League, was happy to see him moving around, and he was confident Lara could return to his old profession.

"A lot people asked me, 'Do you think he can play again?' " Carmona recalled. "And I said, 'Yeah, I think so.' "

Lara wasn't quite as sure, though. He had mixed emotions upon leaving the Chain of Lakes complex.

"I was happy to see all my teammates and be back on a baseball field walking around," he said. "But as I was walking out, I was sad. I just felt I should be there playing and hanging around with my teammates, and I couldn't be. I got in that mode where I was down a little bit. I couldn't help it."

Back to baseball

The halo was removed in August 2008, and Lara felt human again. He picked up a baseball for the first time since the accident. Although he was still too weak to throw it, he wanted to see what it felt like in his hand again.

In December, at home in the Dominican, Lara asked his brother, Josi, to play catch with him.

"I felt fine," Lara said. "I just felt a little sore. I still remembered how to pitch. What you learn when you're younger, you don't forget."

The Indians didn't forget about Lara. They monitored his progress and, upon hearing about his games of catch, offered him another Minor League deal and the opportunity to rehab at their new complex in Goodyear. It wasn't a baseball decision, though the Tribe certainly wouldn't object to having another left-handed relief option in the upper levels of their system. It was done primarily to show Lara that he was still part of the Indians' family.

"I don't even know how to thank the organization for the support I have," Lara said. "I really want to work to get back on track and, hopefully, be back in the big leagues. I want to pay the organization back by helping the team. That's my motivation."

After his brush with death, Lara is more motivated than ever -- in baseball and in life. He has a 3-year-old son, Janunuel, and a newborn son, John Manuel. He and Jenny, who sustained minor injuries in the accident, are engaged.

"I'm very blessed," he said. "I'm able to see my kids grow and be there for them. After the accident I thought about my older son. I almost died and was never going to see my kid grow and see him play baseball and be there for him."

In April, when Lara saw the television report about the death of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart in a car accident eerily similar to his own, he cried.

"I just feel bad that this other kid ended up dying," Lara said. "I kind of had a flashback to what happened to me. It was the same way. His accident was the night he pitched, and mine was the night I pitched down in [the] Dominican [league]. That's what made me feel it was very close."

As if Lara needed one, it was another reminder of how lucky he is to be alive.

A miracle in the making

Lara is the first to admit that before the accident, he was never the type of player to put in extra work on his own.

Now he's a fixture at the Player Development Complex. He reports to work each morning ready for whatever challenges the Indians' rehabilitation staff has in store for him, and he hangs around afterward to serve as a mentor to the young Latin players in the organization.

"He's like a big brother to the other players, especially the young pitchers," said James Quinlan, the Indians' rehabilitation and medical coordinator. "And I hear he's a pretty good cook, too. He handles the dinner for some of these guys."

The Indians weren't sure how Lara's muscles and core would handle the rigors of a return-to-throw program, but thus far he's had no setbacks as he's rebuilt his arm strength and tolerance.

On Monday, Lara made his most significant advancement to date, stepping on the mound for the first time since that Dominican Winter League game 18 months ago. Lara threw 25 pitches off the five-inch rehab mound. On Friday he's slated to throw off the regulation, 10-inch mound. Initially, he'll throw nothing but fastballs. But over the next few weeks, he'll see an increase in the volume of pitches and the intensity of his delivery, and he'll work in his changeup and slider.

"By mid-June," Quinlan said, "we hope to have him throwing bullpens with just two days in between and throwing all his pitches."

Beyond that, Lara's timetable is murky. The Indians want to see how he tolerates his workload before they begin discussing his expected progression to game activities with a Minor League club. And the odds are, of course, still stacked against him ever making it back to big leagues.

But anyone who saw Lara in the aftermath of the accident knows that he's already beaten the odds once.

"For him to be playing baseball again," Diaz said, "it's a miracle."

Just as he felt the day he received that $10,000 bonus as an 18-year-old, all Lara wants is a chance. And the Indians have given him one.

"I have this opportunity to do this," he said. "I'm going to take advantage of it."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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