Darrell Ceciliani has something left to prove
Darrell Ceciliani knows he can play in the majors. His soon-to-be manager in the independent Atlantic League does, too.
His last swing in a big-league game was a home run, after all. But, he blew out his left shoulder during the swing, requiring surgery in August 2017 to repair a torn labrum, among other things. When the outfielder became a free agent in November, that injury was enough to scare away MLB organizations from signing him during the offseason.
Into late March, early April, Ceciliani, 27, found himself at home in Madras without a job and waiting for a phone call. He and his agency, PSI Sports Management, located in Ventura, California, fielded inquiries from several teams, but nothing panned out, Ceciliani said.
Spring training came and went, and by MLB Opening Day March 29, his plans were still in limbo. Shortly after, however, Ceciliani picked up the phone to hear a familiar voice on the other end.
It was Wally Backman, who had managed Ceciliani twice during his pro career within the New York Mets' organization: one season in the New York-Penn League, and most recently, with the Mets' Triple A affiliate Las Vegas 51s, where Ceciliani played 37 games in 2015 before he was called up to the majors for the first time. He also lives in Prineville during offseasons, nearby Ceciliani in Madras.
Prior to the 2018 season, Backman became manager of the New Britain Bees, an independent Atlantic League team located in Connecticut. He said he wanted Ceciliani on his new squad, and his pitch was simple: Give it a couple months to show teams that you're healthy, and we'll try to get you out of the independent leagues. Without hesitation, Ceciliani accepted.
"The thing with Darrell is, I know this kid is a big-league player," Backman said. "I know that I can get him with another team in affiliated baseball … I think his career continues to go on, without question."
While Ceciliani admitted it was tough for him to swallow the reality that his only true option remaining was joining an independent league team, he made the decision easier knowing Backman has his back and will advocate for him when MLB organizations come calling. By signing with New Britain on a one-year deal, Ceciliani doesn't have an immediate opportunity to move up within an organization. If he can prove to teams his shoulder is healthy, however, Ceciliani hopes his play will convince someone to sign him.
Ceciliani's contract with New Britain was finalized April 3, and just days later, Backman said he talked with MLB scouts from four different teams about Ceciliani. Among the teams who expressed interest include the Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox.
"I know I can compete and still play affiliated ball," Ceciliani said. "I've proved that over the course of 10 years. I'm confident with what I can do; it's just a matter of getting an opportunity.
"No disrespect to the independent leagues or anything like that, but that's not where I want to be. I'll ride it out as long as I need to. It's just another chapter, another obstacle to overcome."
During the course of his professional career, Ceciliani has met nearly every potential hindrance thrown his way, playing the game with a chip on his shoulder, the only way he knows. Following a one-year stint at Columbia Basin Community College in Pasco, Washington, the 2008 Madras High grad was drafted by the Mets with the 134th selection of the 2009 MLB draft and agreed to terms with them in July.
The next six years were a methodical climb up the minor league ranks, but at every stop, Ceciliani proved good enough to move on to the next stage. In May 2015, Ceciliani benefited from a rash of injuries on the Mets' roster, and was one of 14 rookies to appear with the team during the season. He went on to appear in 39 games between May 19 and July 5, batting .206 with one home run, three RBIs and an on-base percentage of .270.
The Mets traded Ceciliani to the Toronto Blue Jays the following offseason. He produced a pair of compelling arguments in spring training to make Toronto's opening day roster in 2016 and 2017, but was sent to the minors to begin both seasons.
Yet as he's learned over the course of his pro career, it only takes one injury to another player to get a call. That happened on two separate occasions during the 2016 season with Toronto, and again in 2017. Why he hasn't been able to find a permanent home in the big leagues thus far in his career is a complicated question with no clear answer. But he's proven he belongs time and again.
"You've got to have a little bit of an opportunity to go out and get some regular ABs and play every day," Ceciliani said. "Some guys are fortunate in the game to get that, some guys are grinding and doing everything they can to get the opportunity, and some guys never do. I believe I can play at that level. I've proved every stop along the way that I can play in the minor leagues. It's just about fighting for that opportunity to get a chance to play at the big-league level."
Ceciliani's most recent chance to carve out a role on an MLB roster ended prematurely. He was called up to the Blue Jays in May 16, 2017 when, once again, an injury opened up a spot in the outfield.
In his second game, against the Atlanta Braves May 18, Ceciliani swung a hot bat from the start. Hitting from the clean-up spot in the top of the first inning, Ceciliani corked an RBI double to score teammate Jose Bautista from second.
Two innings later, with Toronto already holding a 4-0 lead, he blasted a two-run homer — his second in the big leagues — into the right field stands. But when he dropped his bat and trotted toward first base, he clutched his left shoulder as it hung limp.
Following the game, it was revealed that he suffered a partial dislocation, known as a subluxation.
The injury didn't come out of nowhere; Ceciliani estimated he's felt pain and soreness in the shoulder for the past three seasons, but he was able to keep playing. The wear and tear eventually took its toll, however, culminating with that home run swing, when his shoulder finally "had enough," Ceciliani said.
"It was tough obviously," he said. "I was feeling so good at the dish, and to get hurt on a good swing, and something you dream about as a kid — hitting a home run in the big league — for my shoulder to blow out at that point, it was frustrating for sure.
"I mean, it's stuff I can't control though. It wasn't like there was something I didn't do, and that was the reason my shoulder didn't hold up. It was something out of my control. It happened, and I'm just trying to look at the big picture and get it healthy."
Ceciliani spent the next month on the disabled list, and returned on a rehab assignment to Dunedin, then to Triple-A Buffalo, where his season initially began. He started July 28, but his shoulder didn't feel right and he exited the game in the third inning.
"First game back in Buffalo, first at bat, it went again and that was it," Ceciliani said. "I knew it was time to get surgery and get it taken care of."
He had surgery in August to repair the tear and clean up some debris floating in his AC joint. Doctors told him the area looks like a circular clock face. They said his injury was from 10 o'clock to 6 o'clock, or about three-quarters torn.
The ensuing rehab process was a daily grind, and a "pain in the butt at times," according to Ceciliani. Once back in Madras, he visited Apex Physical Therapy several times per week, trying to regain strength and a full range of motion in the shoulder. Workouts at the gym and home with resistance bands and light dumbbells were also frequent.
Around the six-month mark post surgery, Ceciliani said he had significantly less pain, and reached a point where he felt near 100 percent and could focus on maintenance rather than building back up his strength.
"Darrell tells me, and I know he would never lie to me, he feels better than he's felt in quite a few years, especially his shoulder," Backman said. "That's a good sign, because he can hit."
Without a team, Ceciliani's future was unknown for much of the offseason, though on the other hand, he was afforded a rare opportunity to be home for an extended period of time. He's helped out on his father's ranch, done some hunting, and, for the first time since he graduated in 2008, was able to check in on the Madras High baseball program he once played on.
A few days per week, Ceciliani arrives at the beginning of Madras practices and warms up with the team, stays for batting and fielding work, many times until the end, all while joking around with players and coaches. He also appears at many of the White Buffalos' home games, usually standing near the dugout, sometimes pulling kids aside between innings to offer up insight.
"I love being able to come out here and just help out," Ceciliani said. "Kind of keep them loose and remember it's all about having fun. That's what I still do. Obviously it's more of a job now, but if you aren't having fun, then why the hell are you doing it?"
For Ceciliani, staying healthy appears to be his ticket back to an organization. Whatever the final outcome, he's at peace knowing he showed teams who passed on signing him during the offseason he could stay on the field.
"At least knowing if I go play and prove my health, I can live with not getting picked up," Ceciliani said. "I know I can play (and) hopefully I get an opportunity. But as long as I can prove my health, then there's no excuse. It's just a matter of if a team wants me or not."
Ceciliani New Britain open their season April 27 against the Sugar Land Skeeters.