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Unexpected cure sparks comeback
by Alan Schwarz
NEW YORK--All he wanted to do, all he ever asked to do, was to play catch with his sons.
Marc Kroon's career was over. His elbow had exploded in April 2000 while pitching for Triple-A Albuquerque, and he had sat out almost three full seasons since. Doctors finally told the former prospect that a combination of ligament and nerve damage meant he'd never throw again. Whenever Kroon tried, whenever he even blithely tossed a ball with his kids, the elbow throbbed and swelled, slamming the diagnosis back at him like a line drive through the box.
It was December 2002. Kroon was about to turn 30. His workman's compensation had expired, and he had a family to support.
This, it should now be revealed, is the same Marc Kroon who arrived at his hometown Yankee Stadium this June 8, freshly called up from Triple-A, and walked out to the fabled Monument Park as a member of the Rockies. Not as a coach. Not as an assistant trainer. As a 97 mph pitcher, perhaps his team's most powerful arm.
Baseball's best comeback story of 2004, a man who missed almost three seasons and had given up hope of even flexing his elbow comfortably for the rest of his life, has only one explanation for his miraculous return.
Enter the enzymes.
Some background is in order. For most of the 1990s, Marc Kroon was a hard-throwing prospect for the Mets and Padres. He poked his head into 20 major league games with the Padres and Reds from 1995-98 but soon sunk beneath the surface for good. When his elbow shredded in early 2000, requiring two reconstructive surgeries from which he never recovered, he found himself in Phoenix the winter of 2002-03 looking for work and making ends meet by giving pitching lessons to local kids.
Kroon's mother pleaded with him for five months to see an acupuncturist. He finally relented, and succumbed to more needles than the Bayeux Tapestry. But the elbow didn't feel any better.
"When I was leaving," Kroon recalls, "the lady was like, 'Hey, I've got these enzymes that athletes from Germany take. They're pretty good stuff. Why don't you try 'em out?' "
For 100 bucks a bottle. Kroon laughed, but his mother insisted she would buy them, just for one last shot. "Fine, ma," Kroon groaned. They were called something like "Wobenzymes," which is undoubtedly German for "sucker."
He took them for a month. Then, back at the Phoenix sports facility at which he offered pitching tips, a kid asked Kroon to play catch. With no one else around, he gave it a whirl-for the first time in a year. He threw from 60 feet, then 90 feet, then 120. "I'm going to wake up tomorrow in big trouble," he thought to himself. But he woke up just fine.
Not long afterward, while giving another pitching lesson, Kroon was approached by the brother of one of his high school teammates. The man also just happened to be a brother-in-law of Mike Butcher, an Angels roving pitching instructor. How 'bout he set up a tryout?
Kroon respectfully declined. He had turned the corner into retirement. But his sons, 9-year-old M.J. and 7-year-old Matthew, told him to just try.
The Angels watched Kroon's lanky, 6-foot-2 frame unleash the same electric fastballs it once had as a teenager. They signed him and sent him to Double-A.
Well under the prospect radar, Kroon had a fantastic 2003 season in middle relief, yielding just 38 hits (with 34 walks) while striking out 70 in 59 innings split between Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake. Seeking power arms for their bullpen, the Rockies picked him up as a free agent.
"He definitely has electric stuff," Rockies catcher Charles Johnson says. "The first splitter I saw in the bullpen this spring, I squatted down, and I wasn't ready for it. It was pretty nasty. I was like, 'Wow, how is this guy not in the big leagues?' He could be the hardest thrower we have."
Soon enough, he was. After posting a 2.25 ERA and eight saves at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and while shopping at his local Target, Kroon got the call June 7 that he'd been called up. He immediately met the Rockies in the Bronx, just 10 minutes from his boyhood home, and walked onto the Yankee Stadium grass onto which, as a kid, he had only gazed upon longingly from the upper deck. He was a major league pitcher again.
Early control problems left him with a 9.00 ERA in his first five appearances, but Kroon savored every second. Needless to say, he takes his Wobenzymes wherever he goes.
"I think it was the enzymes," Kroon says. "All I know is I didn't play catch for a whole year, and the time before that it hurt like hell. I attribute it to those pills."
The bad news? He can't play catch with his kids, at least until October. Oh well. Playing catch with Charles Johnson will have to do.