FORT MYERS, Fla. — Joe Nelson won the last game ever played at Shea Stadium. He received a World Series ring for pitching just three games with the Boston Red Sox.
The reliever’s other career milestones are less joyous — four serious surgeries, seven major league organizations and too many grueling days of rehabilitation for him to count.
Now Nelson faces another challenge. He’s one of about a half dozen pitchers competing for the lone vacancy in Boston’s bullpen, a hurdle his history of dealing with adversity may help him overcome.
“I thrive in situations like that,” the right-hander said Sunday. “I love the game. I’m 35 and I still get to play a game I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”
That passion has kept him going through all the trips to operating rooms and different baseball clubhouses.
Nelson had Tommy John surgery in 1999. Operations on his right labrum, a cuff of cartilage that stabilizes the shoulder, followed in 2001, 2002 and 2007. He missed almost four full seasons.
And he’s been with nearly twice as many organizations. After six seasons in the Atlanta system, he moved to Boston, the New York Mets, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Kansas City, Florida and Tampa Bay again.
And, now, back to Boston.
“My wife and family have always said, ‘play as long as you want, as long as you’re able to, but once you quit, you’re done. You’re not going to come back,’ “ Nelson said. “I had a lot of nights where I said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work out.’ I called my friends and they’d be like, ‘Don’t quit. 9-to-5 gigs are not as fun as they’re cracked up to be.’ “
He gains confidence from the success he’s had when healthy.
Since his last surgery sidelined him for all of 2007, he went 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA in 59 appearances for Florida in 2008 and 3-0 with a 4.02 ERA in 42 games for Tampa Bay in 2009.
Nelson’s brief stint with the Red Sox in 2004 was far less productive. He was promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket on July 9 and sent back there 12 days later after posting a 16.88 ERA in 2 2-3 innings.
But, just like Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, he received a World Series ring.
“It’s a prized possession,” Nelson said. “I wasn’t on the postseason roster and I only threw in a few games but I was a part of that team and they can look in the books if they want to and go, ‘yeah, he actually did pitch.’ “
The most memorable accomplishment of his career came four years later with the Marlins.
They were at Shea Stadium on Sept. 28, 2008, the last day of the regular season, for the final game in the 44-year-old ballpark. The Mets and Milwaukee Brewers were tied for the NL wild-card berth. If both won or both lost, they would meet in a one-game playoff.
But Milwaukee beat the Chicago Cubs 3-1, and Florida beat New York 4-2, breaking a tie in the eighth inning on a homer by Wes Helms. The next batter, Dan Uggla, also homered. Nelson pitched just one inning, striking out two in a perfect seventh, to earn the last win at Shea.
“That’s something I’ll hold onto,” he said. “I have a good friend that’s a Mets fan and I went up to home plate after the game and scooped up some dirt and I had it authenticated by Major League Baseball and I gave it to him for Christmas.”
Nelson has won only six other major league games. He has two losses and a 4.07 ERA with 13 saves in 149 outings.
“He’s shown a lot of perseverance, both from a physical standpoint and what’s he’s come back from and never being a guy who was guaranteed anything,” Boston pitching coach John Farrell said. “We’re looking for that second lefty in the bullpen or a right-hander that can attack left-handers efficiently. He’s going to get a long look here in camp.”
That’s all Nelson wants.
“I don’t take any days for granted,” he said. “Every day I get to put on a uniform is special. I know one day I’m going to have to give it up, but who knows when that will be? I’ve had a weird career. Maybe I’ll last a lot longer.”
If he must start the season at Pawtucket, he’s willing. After all, he didn’t make a major-league opening day roster until last year, his 14th in pro baseball. He said his arm has felt “spectacular” in spring training but knows that could change at any time.
“Today when I go out and play catch if it feels good then I’ll make it through another day,” Nelson said. “I’ve already lived every kid’s fantasy and if it ended today I could walk away from this game completely satisfied because all I ever wanted to do since I was 4 years old was play in the big leagues.
“I’m lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”