Mark Story

After 3-and-a-half 'Tommy John surgeries,' Kentucky native back in majors

Before allowing five runs to Washington on Wednesday as the Tampa Bay starting pitcher, Pikeville native Jonny Venters had worked nine straight scoreless appearances out of the Rays bullpen.
Before allowing five runs to Washington on Wednesday as the Tampa Bay starting pitcher, Pikeville native Jonny Venters had worked nine straight scoreless appearances out of the Rays bullpen. AP

Most days this spring, as dusk has given way to night, Bob Venters, a 74-year-old Lexington grandfather, has dialed up Tampa Bay Rays broadcasts via satellite radio.

On his computer, Bob listens as his grandson, Rays relief pitcher Jonny Venters, produces one of the epic comebacks of the 2018 Major League Baseball season.

Before elbow problems sabotaged his career, Jonny Venters was arguably the best left-handed reliever in baseball for the Atlanta Braves from 2010-12.

Now, at age 33, Venters has made an unlikely return to the big-leagues after missing five-and-a-half seasons and undergoing three-and-a-half "Tommy John surgeries" on his throwing elbow.

Jonny Venters.JPG
Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Jonny Venters has produced an epic comeback to the major leagues in 2018 after missing the past five-and-a-half seasons with elbow issues. Venters, who was born in Pikeville, has deep family ties to Eastern Kentucky. Patrick Semansky AP

It is all but unheard of for a pitcher to have ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction performed on his pitching arm so many times and return to The Show.

"It's unbelievable perseverance by Jonny," Bob Venters says.

Jonny Venters' story has roots that run deep into the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

Refusing to give up

For three heady years in Atlanta, Venters teamed with Eric O'Flaherty and closer Craig Kimbrel to give the Braves a devastating late-inning bullpen trio.

As a rookie in 2010, Venters struck out 93 in 83 innings and put up a 1.95 earned-run average. Known for his 97 mph "turbo-sinkers," Venters was even better the following season, fanning 96 in 88 innings with a 1.88 ERA and making the National League All-Star Team.

By 2012, the left-hander's elbow began to fail him, but he still struck out 69 in 58.2 innings with a 3.22 ERA.

In Atlanta's 2012 Wild Card Game loss to St. Louis, Venters worked a scoreless two-thirds of an inning. He would not return to the big leagues until this spring.

As a Braves minor leaguer in 2005, Venters had his initial "Tommy John surgery" — named for the 1970s pitcher who was the first to undergo it and return to the big leagues — performed by Dr. James Andrews.

A surgical graft procedure, UCL replacement involves taking a ligament from elsewhere in one's body or from a cadaver and implanting it in the elbow to stabilize it.

In 2013, Venters needed "Tommy John surgery" again. The following year, Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache had to perform the procedure on the pitcher's left elbow for a third time.

By the fall of 2016, Venters' elbow was still hurting. Yet ElAttrache, the Los Angeles Dodgers team physician, was leery of performing a fourth Tommy John surgery.

“Dr. ElAttrache did not want to do another Tommy John, I guess because the bone had been drilled so many times previously that he felt doing another Tommy John would really compromise the bone and I guess be more susceptible for a break or something like that,” Venters told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May.

Instead, ElAttrache proposed a less-invasive ligament reattachment procedure that Venters now calls a "half Tommy John surgery."

Performed on Sept. 16, 2016, that procedure eventually made possible Venters' return to the bigs after he signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay.

Since getting the call up from Triple-A Durham on April 25, Venters' season has been filled with a series of "the first time since" moments.

On May 15, he recorded his first MLB win since 2012.

On May 28, he recorded his first MLB save since 2011.

On June 6, he made his first MLB start. This season, an analytics-driven Tampa Bay Rays front office has periodically chosen to use relief pitchers to open games based of matchups with the opposing batting order.

Going into that start against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, Venters had nine straight scoreless appearances and an ERA of 0.89.

In the unaccustomed role of starter, Venters allowed earned five runs and recorded only one out. As a result of that one outing, Venters' ERA rose from 0.87 to 5.06.

Deep Kentucky roots

Jonny Venters grew up and played high school baseball in Florida, but his ties to his birthplace, Pikeville, are strong.

The pitcher is the great-grandson of the late John Bill Trivette, the iconic former Pikeville High School boys' basketball coach.

Coaching at Pikeville (1943-60) during the golden era of Kentucky high school hoops, Trivette popularized the full-court press, started the East-West high school all-star game and took the Panthers to the Sweet Sixteen seven times.

In the final game Trivette coached at Pikeville, the Panthers were trailing Meade Memorial by one point in the final seconds of the 1960 15th Region finals.

Trivette called timeout and set up a play for his team's hottest shooter. Even now, Bob Venters is haunted by the jump shot he subsequently missed from the corner.

"That thing went way down in the basket, halfway down, then rolled right on back out of there," Bob Venters said Friday.

Bob Venters' first marriage was to Trivette's daughter, Marilyn. Their son, John Venters, who went on to be a three-sport star at Pikeville High School and play a year of football at Georgetown College, is the father of the current Tampa Bay pitcher.

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Lexington's Bob Venters, left, and his wife Kay went to Columbus earlier this season to see grandson Jonny Venters when he was pitching for the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Photo submitted by Todd Hager

Jonny Venters is named for John Bill Trivette.

Ken Trivette, son of the Pikeville coaching titan who died in 1993, says Jonny Venters is fulfilling his great-grandefather's ultimate life goal.

"Before he ever thought of coaching basketball, his dream was to big a big-league baseball player," Ken Trivette says of John Bill. "Tuburculosis and some other obstacles got in his way. So what Jonny is doing is living out his dream."

Here in Lexington, dialing in the Rays on Sirius satellite radio gives Bob Venters a nightly chance to savor his grandson's improbable return to the majors after half a decade in baseball purgatory.

"Five-and-a-half years, three-and-a-half surgeries and all the rehab he did without knowing if it would ever pay off," Bob Venters says. "No one would have blamed Jonny if he'd given up. But he never did."

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory