Phillies reliever J.C. Romero spent Friday driving from his home in Alabama to the team's spring training facilities in Clearwater, Florida, but he hit the road a bit later than he had initially planned because he had to make his daughter Jazlyn some pancakes before he left.
Romero wasn't always sure it would be Clearwater that he would report to this spring as a return to the Phillies didn't look promising once the team declined his $4.5 million option for 2011. But much like Cliff Lee, Romero told us he likely left some money on the table, settling on a 1-year, $1.35 million deal to return to Philadelphia, a place his family has grown to love.
We talked with Romero on Friday as he set off on the road. We touched on his decision to return to the Phillies, how healthy he feels heading into the 2011 campaign, his thoughts on the Four Aces and how it will affect the bullpen, his plan to talk look to Cliff Lee for advice, his thoughts on Antonio Bastardo stepping up in Chad Durbin's absence, and what he's planning on working on over the next month and a half in Clearwater.
And don't worry, J.C.'s cousin was driving as we chatted. Didn't want to upset Oprah.
We also asked him what restaurant he planned on stopping at during his eight hour road trip. His answer was not one I was expecting.
Our interview with J.C. Romero below.
Would you say you're 100% healthy right now?
"Yeah. Right now I'm a 100% and I'll tell you something. A real man will accept his flaws and his mistakes. From a personal standpoint, I think I kind of underestimated the operation. I didn't think my surgery was going to be as serious as it was. Honestly, I think I came up too quick. Maybe my competitiveness took over. You know, I've always been a positive individual. If I had to do it all over again, I would have really taken my time rehabbing. I think if I would have rehabbed the way I should have, last season would have been a lot better."
How much of your control issues last season can be attributed to the injury specifically?
"A lot. I've always been effectively wild over my career. We were talking about a 2 to 1 ratio throughout my career. It's hard to come back, especially when you're a sinker ball pitcher and command the strike zone when you pretty much don't have 100% feeling in your fingers. You need your fingers to be on top of the baseball. You need your hands to be where you want it to be. It wasn't that I wasn't healed, it was that I was a little weak. I really couldn't be constant with my arm slot or my arm speed. That was the reason I was so erratic at times. It was a learning process. I hope that everything goes better this year. One of the things I've never done, but I think I'm going to be able to do is to start picking the starting pitchers brains a little bit. I want to sit down a little bit with Cliff Lee because he's a guy that really pounds the strike zone and he really emphasizes getting ahead and putting people away. It's never too late to learn. I want to see the things he does on a daily basis to get his command where it needs to be. I'll be alright. I feel healthy. If I'm healthy I'll be alright.
You mentioned Cliff Lee. A lot of the spotlight this offseason has been on the four aces. How does the bullpen feel about being out of the limelight a bit? Or maybe not having as much pressure on them?
"We're good. We know that the bottom line is if you have a good bullpen you will win championships. Yes, you need hitting. You need defense. You need good starting pitching. You need all around ball. It will take for everybody to do their part to win a championship. We know that. It happened to us before. You take the blessings as they come and we hope the starting rotation can stay healthy and pitch a lot of innings. That's what you want from them. But at the end of the day, we know as a bullpen we have to stay strong, to stay sharp. There's no room for mistakes. We will probably have less innings, but I think as far as appearances and quality outings and key outs, they're always going to be there. You always have to be prepared mentally and physically to execute at any given time. I think our mentality hasn't changed. It's just a matter of being a little more patient because we have some guys who can pitch deeper into games.
Do you still get excited for Spring Training or is it more of a grind you have to go through before the real thing in April?
"I do. I get excited. The day that I stop being excited about showing up to Spring Training it the day I walk away from the game. You have to be excited. This is a special place to be. Not everybody can play at this level. We're very blessed to do what we do for a living. But at the same time it takes some preparation and some discipline which I look forward to as well.
Is there anything specifically that you want to work on while in Florida?
"Actually, I just want to get that attacking feel back. I want to get back to attacking mode. That's what I did when I was younger. That's what I did when I was healthy. Me being healthy will make that a lot easier. I want to pound the strike zone with my sinker and try to limit my walks. That's my main concern. I've been doing targeting pitching here in my house trying to make sure my command is where it needs to be. You know, I've done it before. It's about me going out there, doing the repetitions, and training the right way. All I need to do is compete, start having a little success early in the season, and it will all take off from there.
One of the younger guys that the team may rely a lot on this season is Antonio Bastardo. Especially with Chad Durbin likely being gone, do you see Bastardo stepping up his role a lot this season?
"He better. That is a kid that reminds me a lot of myself when I was a young puppy when I played in Minnesota. I have been with Bastardo every step of the way, from the day that I got hurt I was in Clearwater and I took him under my wing trying to teach him how things are in the big leagues. The kid has amazing stuff. The important thing for him is to stay consistent. Knowing that the season isn't two or three weeks. You have to play six and a half, seven months out of the year. I think he's up for the challenge because his stuff is there and mentally he's getting stronger. Plus he had a good taste of the big leagues last season. I think he's going to be alright.
"Durbin is going to be missed. Because his personality, the way he was and what he brought to the team, that calmness in the bullpen, if we were all hyped up he was very calm and very mellow. We called him 'The Doctor' because he was calm and very collected. We're going to miss him tremendously. We wish him well, but at the same time there's a job there for somebody to take. I think Bastardo is going to be ready for it. If he's not ready, somebody else will, so he better be ready.
Some word association.
"Notre Dame boy"
"Oh man. Funny guy"
"I call him 'Big Truck.' He's a beast."
"I call him 'The Coach.' He's the coach."
"Charlie Manuel. Oh my god. That's the ace. That's the real ace of the team, man. That's the real ace."
Making rookies carry that pink backpack to the bullpen. What's inside the backpack?
"All the goodies. Me personally, I don't participate too much in that because when I was a rookie I didn't really carry one. I used to carry a couple of bottles of water or whatever in my hands. But you get water, Gatorade, Powerbars, Red Bull, Aspirin. Whatever you need in the bullpen you carry in that pink bag. If you notice throughout the season, somebody always carries the pink bag, but somebody also carries a regular bag. So if you're not a rookie, you could still be carrying a regular bag. It depends on seniority. The youngest member of the bullpen will always be carrying a bag even if you're not a rookie."
Toughest hitter ever faced?
"I'd have to say, thank God he retired, but John Olerud always gave me a hard time. Seems like he always gave me two strikes, then he got me after an 0-2 or 1-2 count."
You're actually driving down now, which Phillie in the clubhouse are you most excited to see?
"One of the things that makes this team so unique is that you want to see everybody, man. Everybody is so unique. They have something different to bring. What I really want to see is, to see if we're still hungry. You know what I mean? We have the pieces. I want to see how the guys react as a whole unit because I want to make sure they're still hungry. I'm here to win a championship, and I hope they have that goal in mind as well.
You going to stop for some food somewhere at some point?
"My wife is really into healthy stuff. I'm not glad that I went through the whole suspension and all that stuff, but it kind of opened our minds. So we've been very health conscious, even with a lot of stuff we eat. She made me a big goody bag with some turkey, some pastrami, and all the good organic stuff. I got food here for eight hours, so we're good."