Since he made the decision to forgo a scholarship to the University of Virginia as an 18-year-old in 2006, Ryan Kalish had spent every day of his professional career as a member of the Red Sox organization. But that career-long tie altered on Monday night, when the Red Sox informed Kalish that, at a time when they face a need for spots on their 40-man roster, they would not tender him a major league contract for the 2014 season. And so, the 25-year-old outfielder is now a free agent.
It's easy to lament what's gone wrong for the player who in 2010 -- when he debuted with a .252 average, .305 OBP, .405 slugging mark, four homers and 10 steals in 53 games as a 22-year-old -- looked like a potential fixture in the Red Sox lineup for years to come. After all, since the Red Sox made the decision to sign Carl Crawford after the 2010 season -- thus relegating Kalish back to the minors -- little has gone right for the player, who has endured torn labrums in both shoulders that ultimately required surgery while also needing a pair of major surgeries on his neck vertebrae. Those health woes have kept him off the field for most of the last three seasons, and created enough uncertainty about his ability to stay on the field as well as the level to which he can perform if healthy that the decision to non-tender him did not come as a complete surprise.
Still, while there might be a natural tendency to contemplate what might have been, Kalish doesn't view his situation in that vein. Instead, given that he feels healthier than he has in years following the cervical fusion surgery he underwent in August, his disposition about both his past and present is nothing but optimistic.
"At this point in my life, I'm in a place where I just have a lot of love for everybody that has been with me along this path. That includes the Red Sox and everything we've been through together. Honestly, I don't feel much right now except for just a mutual respect between myself and the team and [Sox GM Ben Cherington]," Kalish said by phone from California, where he is rehabbing under Dr. Robert Watkins, who performed his most recent neck surgery. "There's uncertainty with me, which I understand, because of my health questions. I'm not taking it bad at all. It's just a new adventure along this path and it's just so fresh.
"I'm just kind of excited to see where this goes," he added. "I'm feeling myself come back from that frail, fragile person that I felt I was. Right now, I'm getting the athleticism back. I was just with my family and we were playing tennis and just having a good time together. It's starting to come back and I'm really excited to try and get out there and improve my health wherever that may be."
Kalish marveled that, three and a half months removed from a surgery that required him to stay overnight in the hospital, he's lifting weights and running; he started throwing a baseball last week and he's now close to hitting. Rather than approaching physical activity with trepidation, Kalish suggested, he's now once again starting to feel like "a natural athlete. ... I'm psyched." He'd spent most of the last three years wondering whether each physical task in which he engaged might tip him over the edge and require him to undergo surgery. Now, he's undergone surgery to repair every physical question mark he faced; with it, the uncertainty that constantly loomed is no more.
"Now that basically I'm the bionic man, I no longer have those question marks in my head," said Kalish. "Now, I don't have pain. But along the way of working out, you might tweak something here or tweak something there and it's a work-through-it process for me now whereas before it was, like, oh no, what's wrong now. It's been a serious mental battle for three years now. Realistically, 2012, I played a little bit, but I don't even consider it playing for me. That year was just terrible. It was just working through pain, feeling pain, trying to get everything to feel right. It was a nightmare physically for me. I really just didn't feel healthy.
"In 2010, when I first got called up, my body felt awesome," he explained. "It wasn't easy, so to speak, but it was easy to focus on the baseball aspects of the game, whereas in 2012, I was just trying to get myself in position everyday to just get through nine innings instead of what am I going to do in these at-bats and how am I going to approach whoever is pitching? So, that's where I think I'm heading. That's where I'm heading back to right now. The body is feeling good. I'm on a really, really, really different program of lifting and stretching that I feel very fortunate to have come across in this long process. This is just a new adventure. I don't even know where it's going to lead me, but I just feel grateful for everything the Red Sox have done for me."
The idea of being removed from the major league 40-man roster and being a free agent was fresh for Kalish in the hours following the Sox' non-tender decision, and so admittedly, he didn't know what fate awaited him. But given his improved physical state, he expressed confidence that his career is on track, the interruptions of recent years notwithstanding.
"The goal, for me, is to just get out there and to be an everyday player again. Obviously, I think all of us minor league and major league players, our goal is to be an everyday major league player. That is the goal," said Kalish. "But the goal before that, at this stage for me, is to get out there and be an everyday player and be able to rely on my body. I really, truly 100 percent believe that is coming. There's no doubt really in my mind that I am now where I was supposed to be. This all happened for a reason. I'm just ready to go out there and play -- whether it's in the major leagues right away or if it's in Double-A. I don't care. I don't care at all. I'm just ready to compete again, I'm ready to play, and I think it's there, man. I really do."
The door appears open for the possibility that Kalish could continue his career with the Red Sox. The team expressed interest in the possibility of re-signing him to a minor league deal; given that he harbors gratitude rather than ill-will towards the organization for whom he's played his entire career, Kalish was certainly open to the possibility.
"I'm not sure where this will go, but the Red Sox mean a lot to me," said Kalish. "That's not something that I'm going to take lightly."
But before he answers the question of "for whom," Kalish is embracing the notion that he simply must reassert his health and reconnect with the feeling that used to characterize his confidence on the field. In 2010, he looked like a five-tool talent with a chance to impact the Sox for years to come. Now, Kalish believes he has an opportunity to see those skills manifest themselves anew.
Regardless of the outcome, Kalish suggested he has no trepidation about what lies in front of him. His three years of injuries forced him to confront the notion of his career mortality. But for now, he is excited for the opportunity that is in front of him, regardless of whether it's a big league deal or a minor league one, whether with the Sox or a new organization. For the first time in years, he once again feels like a baseball player, and with that achievement comes a world of possibility.
"I actually still have the opportunity to come back. I'm not going to sit around and feel sorry for myself. That's not the way it should be," said Kalish. "There's so much positive stuff going on that baseball has given me that it would be a) a disservice to have bad feelings towards anyone or b) feel anything but positive."