Last spring, Jimmy Key wasn't worried about his next contract. He was wondering if he'd ever pitch again.
His left rotator cuff, the one that propels each pitch he throws, had given out.
But eight months later, Key found himself sitting before the Baltimore media yesterday, donning an Orioles cap and jersey, talking about the new, two-year deal he had just signed worth nearly $8 million.
Times are good now, but it wasn't long ago that Key's career was in doubt.
Key, 35, entered spring training with the New York Yankees last spring not having thrown a pitch in the majors since May 1995, when shoulder problems forced season-ending surgery and a grueling rehabilitation program. Key said his arm was twitching and felt "inconsistent" when he pitched in the cold, so he asked to remain in Florida awhile longer, into April.
"I was a little concerned at that point about whether the surgery was going to work out and I was going to be able to come back," Key said. "But something happened in those two starts in Florida, for whatever reason it might be and my arm hasn't twitched ever since.
"So I guess I got through the surgery in that period and put all the doubt behind me."
Karin Kane, Key's fiancee, was with him during the trying days in Florida. She watched him roll out of bed early each morning to work out and throw. She was there at night, too, when Key's arm sometimes would throb and doubt would set in.
"That was hard for him to deal with at that time," Kane said after Key's news conference. "He needed somebody to back him up and say, 'Whatever is to happen, I'm there for you.'
"He's very positive, and I guess in his mind, if he couldn't ever pitch again, he was going to deal with it. He just kept going, going every day, working out and going to the complex even on days when he didn't really have to."
Key started the season slowly, and it was a month before he lasted seven innings. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the disabled list for two weeks with stiffness in his left shoulder.
Key threw consecutive shutouts in his two starts (13 innings) before the All-Star break, but said his real breakthrough came at Camden Yards in the first game after the break. Key battled to a 4-2 victory, holding the Orioles to six hits.
"I threw seven innings, 110 pitches, and after that I just felt like I was on my way," Key said. "I feel like I'm injury-free right now, but it bothers you [not] knowing if you're ever going to pitch again. I went through that early last season and put it behind me about midway through the season."
He finished the season on a 9-5 run and out-dueled Orioles ace Mike Mussina with a gutsy performance in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. After that, Orioles general manager Pat Gillick, Key's GM for nine years in Toronto, was sold.
"He probably was pitching for a couple of years not at top efficiency [while his injury worsened]," Gillick said. "Usually, it takes these guys a year to come back if they have a successful surgery, and he was throwing good at the end of the year, which was just about right. So it could heal stronger."
When Key is healthy, he's among the best in the game. Key has a 164-104 lifetime record with a 3.49 ERA. The 164 wins are ninth among active major-leaguers, and he has averaged nearly 14 wins during his 12 full major-league seasons. Even this year, when Key slipped to 12-11 with a 4.68 ERA, he still held left-handed hitters to a .165 batting average.
But most of all, Key is a winner. His clubs have made the playoffs in six of his 13 seasons. He won a World Series with the Blue Jays in 1992 and with the Yankees a couple of months ago.
The Orioles are Key's third organization, a move he hopes produces another ring for his collection.
"Believe me, I've thought about that quite a bit, and I've got my eyes focused on that," Key said. "This team isn't that far away."
Pub Date: 12/11/96