J.B. Cox: “I didn’t think I was coming back”
TRENTON — The Yankees had high hopes for James Brent “J.B.” Cox when they used their second round pick in the 2005 draft on the former University of Texas closer.
Five years of injuries, disappointments and at least one very poor decision later, Cox now finds himself closer to retirement than to a job in the Yankees’ bullpen.
After walking away from the game last June following a soul-crushing two-game performance for the Thunder at Akron, Cox returned to a Double-A pitcher’s mound for the first time in over a year Thursday night and earned his first win since August of 2008.
“It’s been an emotional and physical rollercoaster,’’ Cox said. “It’s one of those deals where it sounds cliché to say, but I went through it and I am in a much better place now mentally. Overall, it’s been tough and I don’t want to do it again, but one thing I can say is I think it has made me a better person.’’
The downward spiral for the 26-year-old Cox began when his invitation to big league spring training in 2007 was rescinded after he broke a bone in his pitching hand during a bar fight the previous December.
Elbow surgery followed and Cox ended up missing all of 2007 after going 6-2 with a 1.75 ERA and three saves in 41 appearances for the Thunder in 2006.
In July of that season, Cox appeared in 15 straight games (26 innings) for manager Bill Masse without allowing a run.
That was as good as it would get for the former Longhorns’ All-American, who has seen his former Texas bullpen mate Huston Street go 25-14 with a 2.92 ERA and 130 saves over a six-year big league career that includes the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year Award.
After three years of physical and emotional torment attempting to make it back following the bar room fiasco and subsequent elbow surgery, Cox abruptly packed up his belongings and walked away from the game after allowing four hits, including a grand slam, four runs and four walks in two appearances (one inning) against Akron last June 23-24.
“I’m a grown man,’’ Cox said. “I can handle going out there and getting lit up if I have my stuff. But I could not handle going out there and feeling almost naked on the mound with no ammo and nothing to compete with. What got to me the most emotionally was not being able to look my teammates in the eye because I could not give them an honest effort. I’d come into the locker room and not want to talk to anybody.
“I didn’t think I was coming back. I thought (2009) was it. After the low point of the back-to-back outings in Akron I made up my mind that this wasn’t for me. I thought I was done completely. Obviously things have turned around a little bit since then.’’
Cox decided to go back to Texas and finish his degree, but when a friend attempting to recover from Tommy John surgery asked him to play catch, Cox felt something he had not experienced in a very long time.
“That was the first time in several years that I played catch where I didn’t have to think, or care about what the ball did, or what anybody thought that was watching me,’’ he said. “I was keeping it simple. From there I started playing catch with (University of Texas pitching coach) Skip Johnson and decided to give it another shot.’’
Cox had his agent contact Yankees executive vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman and another opportunity was at hand.
Despite going 0-1 with a 8.59 ERA in five games at Class-A Tampa this spring, Cox was elevated to Double-A Trenton and made a successful return with two scoreless innings and the victory in Thursday’s series opener against Harrisburg at Waterfront Park.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you I didn’t have a backup plan,’’ Cox said of his career path. “I thought I was going the quick route to the majors. The next thing you know you’re hurt and stuff happens. Obviously it’s still a goal to get to the big leagues, but I need to take it day-to-day even if I have a bad outing. I have to take the positives, build on those and capitalize on every opportunity. Whatever happens happens. I just know I am a baseball player and this is what I am supposed to be doing.’’