July 9, 2013 at 9:31 AM ET
When pitcher Paul Risso suffered a career-ending shoulder injury in 1973 — just after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates — he figured he had thrown his last major-league ball.
Forty years later, he’s trying to write a different ending to his story. At 60 years old, Risso tried out in May for the St. Paul Saints, a professional independent league team in Minnesota.
“I’ve never been a person that’s going to look back and say, ‘I shoulda done this, shoulda done that,’’’ Risso told TODAY.
When Risso turned 50, the pain in his right shoulder from the injury he suffered while pitching for San Mateo (Calif.) College as a 20-year-old began to subside. He picked up a ball again and discovered he could still throw a fastball in the low 80s.
“I don’t know,’’ he said about his rediscovered fastball. “But I’m glad it happened, I’ll tell you that.”
He played in a men’s league near his home in New Mexico for seven years, and has tried out for three independent professional teams, which are not affiliated with specific Major League Baseball franchises. While the Saints ultimately decided not to sign him after the tryout in May, he has not given up on his dream of one day throwing a pitch in a professional game.
“If I got a chance to play pro ball, I wouldn’t be thinking about hurting,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t be thinking about how grueling it is. I’d be in seventh heaven.’’
Risso’s baseball career followed a similar arc to his father's. The late Albert “Lefty” Risso pitched one year of minor-league baseball before suffering his own career-ending arm injury in 1949. The younger Risso was drafted in the sixth round by the Pirates in 1973 but never threw a pitch in their organization after injuring his arm in his final college game. Without the advanced surgical treatments available today, the injury ended Risso's career.
“I really wanted to go pro…for me and for my dad,’’ he said.
“I didn’t even think about throwing again, and kind of lived with the idea that it’s done,’’ Risso said.
Risso went on to become a civil engineer for a water utility and raise a family of five before rekindling his baseball dream — thanks to an actual dream.
“I had this dream that I was throwing in a bullpen,’’ he said. “My dad’s always there with his arms crossed, and he looks at me and says, ‘Wow, it looks like you got something left.’’’
Even though Risso didn't make the Saints, St. Paul pitching coach Kerry Ligtenberg, a former pitcher with four big-league teams, was impressed.
“I think he could get hitters out in this league,’’ Ligtenberg told TODAY. “I don't know if he could do it consistently but it's impressive. You know, I'm only 42, and I don't think I could do what he's doing.”
While Risso came up short of making the Saints, who once used 53-year-old knuckleball pitcher Jon Secrist in a game in 2008, he plans to keep pursuing his last shot at professional glory.
“There’s no doubt he’ll keep trying out,’’ his wife, Aileen Risso, told TODAY. “That’s just him.”
“I’ll play until they gotta take me out of there completely,’’ he said. “You know, as long as I can, I’ll be playing baseball.”