FORT MYERS, FLA. (AP) - Scott Atchison returned from Japan so his daughter could get better treatment for a rare medical condition. He found a major league job as a bonus.
Now he’s trying to show the Boston Red Sox he can throw well enough to be part of their bullpen for the second straight season.
And he takes pride in the fact that Callie, who turned 3 in October, has worked hard to be able to throw a ball herself even though she has no radius bone in either forearm and both arms are considerably shorter than normal.
"She’s left-handed," Atchison said. "She picks it up and she’ll fire it pretty good."
The 34-year-old right-hander has come a very long way _ professionally, geographically and emotionally _ since the Seattle Mariners drafted him in the 49th round in 1998, hardly a spot for a can’t-miss prospect. That followed rotator cuff surgery while at TCU that nearly ended his career before he left college.
Atchison didn’t reach the majors until 2004, when he went 2-3 with a 3.52 ERA in 25 relief outings with Seattle. He spent most of the next season in the minors, pitching just six games with the Mariners, and didn’t return to the majors until 2007, when he appeared in 22 games with the San Francisco Giants, posting a 4.11 ERA and 0-0 record.
The Red Sox signed him to a minor league contract on Dec. 7, 2007 but released him two weeks later.
By that time, he was already 31. Callie, his only child, was born on Oct. 23, 2007. It was time to take a long look at his family’s future.
The Hanshin Tigers were offering a guaranteed contract. He and his wife Sarah thought a lot and he agreed to it in early January 2008.
"I’d made a little bit in the game, but somebody’s giving me a chance to really set my family up for a long time," Atchison said. "It was worth taking."
So the Atchisons headed to Japan.
Before leaving, Callie received transfusions for a low blood platelet count, part of the rare genetic disorder called thrombocytopenia-absent radius (TAR), and had her blood counts monitored in Japan. A low platelet count can inhibit the blood’s ability to clot.
That was "the biggest concern her first year," said Atchison, soft-spoken and humble. "We needed to get her platelets checked once every two months at that point and the team (Hanshin) set us up so we could get it done."
He had two strong seasons there, going 12-9 with a 2.77 ERA in 117 outings, 12 as a starter.
That attracted the attention of the Red Sox. When Atchison returned to the United States so Callie could have improved access to medical care, he signed with Boston. She was checked this offseason at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. The Red Sox helped her get started with physical and occupational therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
But Atchison still had to make the team last year and he did it with an impressive spring training.
He began the season with Boston, spent time at Triple-A Pawtucket and finished the year with a 2-3 record and 4.50 ERA in 43 games, including one emergency start when Daisuke Matsuzaka was scratched with a right forearm strain.
"He can pitch in any role," manager Terry Francona said. "He was very valuable to our bullpen and we anticipate, going forward, the same thing."
That might not have happened if Callie had been born with normal arms that didn’t require the care available in the United States.
"It’s all working out well," Atchison said. "We were glad to be back here. It was a good year."
Callie also has short ulna bones that end just below each elbow. As a result, her wrists lack support and her thumbs have little strength, inhibiting her grasping ability.
In January 2010, about a month before Atchison went to spring training, an operation helped straighten her right hand. Surgery on her left hand was planned for late last year, but doctors decided to hold off after physical therapy improved her grasping ability.
"The big thing is trying to get her to be able to use her thumbs because of the way her hands are set," Atchison said. "She does pretty much anything every normal kid would do. She’s progressed a ton. She’s nonstop, like any 3-year-old."
Earlier this month, Callie ran around the Red Sox camp, just like a normal kid.
But another problem looms.
"They’re pretty sure she’s not going to have kneecaps," Atchison said, "which is more kind of a protection thing. So it’s not a big issue."
She’s also bowlegged and is behind youngsters her age in balance and large motor skills.
"She gets around," Atchison said. "I’ve heard her tell kids, ‘Well, I just don’t have a bone.’ And kids go, ‘Oh, OK.’ Mentally, she’s as sharp as anything."
Now he’s focusing on his own challenge, sticking with the Red Sox after they added Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler to help Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard in the bullpen with the third worst ERA in the AL last season. More than a half-dozen relievers are competing for the two remaining spots.
"He knows he belongs," Francona said. "We don’t know how things are always going to break six weeks ahead of time. But we certainly like what Atch does."
Atchison feels more comfortable after spending last season with the Red Sox.
"Last year I knew I was going to have to pitch great to make the team and, to be honest, I don’t know how much of that’s changed," Atchison said. "But, I feel like the team knows what I can do now. I don’t feel so much pressure, that every outing has to be perfect."
His route to the Red Sox was unconventional. But his desire and willingness to work hard are more important than the path he took.
Just like Callie.
"It’s amazing to watch her do stuff with other kids," Atchison said. "If she sees something that she wants, she’s going to find a way. It may not be the way we would go about doing it or that somebody with normal hands would do it, but she’s going to find a way and get it done."
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