Mark Appel is not coming back to professional baseball because he's haunted by that label of being one of the scant few No. 1 overall draft picks not to make it to the major leagues.
"I would say that ate at me when I was playing much more than it's ever eaten at me since then," Appel said Monday from Clearwater, Florida.
"I've made peace with who I am, what's happened in my life, what's happened in my career. There's no bitterness, resentment or regret.
"I'm here for the love of the game."
And for the joy of being able to throw a baseball again without his arm throbbing in pain.
When we last saw Appel, he was being removed from the Phillies' 40-man roster in the fall of 2017 after two poor seasons at Triple A and stepping away from the game for "an indefinite" break in January 2018. He didn't know at the time if that indefinite break would turn out to be a forever break, but he did know he needed time away.
He spent that year at home in Houston, pondering life and what he would do with the degree he earned at Stanford University. One day, he went to an Astros game and watched his old college teammate, Stephen Piscotty, play for the Oakland Athletics. Appel realized he missed the game. Next thing he knew, he was having surgery to fix tears of the rotator cuff and labrum in his right shoulder and beginning a rehabilitation program.
Now, 2½ years after surgery and 3½ months before his 30th birthday, he's back in pro ball, in Phillies minor-league camp, ready to see where this odyssey goes.
"This spring is a little bit of a tryout to see what I have and where I fit," Appel said. "I'm really excited to be back with the Phillies. I feel really good about where I am and everything that's happened."
Appel, 6-5 with strong legs and a power repertoire, was selected first overall by the Astros in 2013. He struggled to meet expectations and was traded to the Phillies as part of the package for Ken Giles in December 2015. That was former general manager Matt Klentak's first big trade and it also netted the Phillies Vince Velasquez.
The Phillies were hoping a change of scenery would unlock Appel's potential, but it didn't. He pitched 122⅓ innings at Triple A in 2017 and 2018, had an ERA over 5.00 and walked over 5 batters per nine innings. He also battled a bone spur in his elbow that required surgery in 2016 and persistent shoulder pain, which forced him to walk away from the game before spring training 2018.
"My last few years playing I was focused on surviving," he said. "I was hurting.
"It would have been really difficult to go to spring training in 2018. I thought I'd end up on the disabled list or in surgery with a lengthy rehab and where I was in my life, I'd rather be on the DL in Houston on my own terms and have a little breather from the expectations of staying on top of my rehab."
After deciding to have surgery and going through with it in October 2018, Appel kept his rehab project relatively quiet because setbacks can happen and he didn't know where things would end up. But he kept getting stronger and stronger. Eventually, he put in some time at the Driveline training facility near Seattle, where he worked with Bill Hezel, who is a pitching consultant with the Phillies.
Last fall, Appel alerted front office man Ned Rice of his progress and the Phillies, who still controlled the pitcher's rights, penciled him in for a spot in minor-league camp.
Why not see what he has and where it goes?
Appel said he has been sitting at 92 mph and been up to 95 mph in his bullpen workouts. Ultimately, the hitters will tell him where he is. He has not yet faced any hitters in his comeback-related workouts.
Excluding recent selections, catcher Steve Chilcott (Mets, 1966), pitcher Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991) and Appel are the only former No. 1 overall picks not to make it to the majors.
Appel knows not where his comeback is going. He'd love to make it to the majors, of course. That's why people play the game. But for now, he's content being back in action with an arm that doesn't hurt anymore.
And with a chance.
"Anything can happen once you're back in the system," he said. "I'm not looking at this year as only being a success if I'm in Triple A or the big leagues.
"I want to feel like I'm getting better again. It's been a long time since I felt that because I was so focused on survival and health.
"I feel like I'm getting better now and I want to continue that feeling."