Forbes: 'After A 14-Year Hiatus, How One Pitcher Climbed His Way Back Into Professional Baseball At Age 40'
By Nick Diunte
When Greg Modica walked off the mound in 2006 after sustaining a rotator cuff injury while pitching for the Long Island Ducks, he thought one year’s rehab would be enough to continue his professional baseball career. When Modica's arm did not respond to therapy, he tucked away his pro dreams and turned his energies towards coaching youth baseball.
Fast forward 14 years later, the Queens, New York native has become one of the most respected New York City area pitching coaches. Applying the lessons from a six-year minor league career that stemmed from a free agent signing with the San Diego Padres in 2001 out of tiny Culver-Stockton College, Modica has been able to successfully tutor high school, college and professional pitchers in their quest for stardom.
When COVID-19 hit New York and brought his business to a halt, Modica revisited a long standing promise to throw 90 MPH on his 40th birthday. With everything closed and life seemingly at a standstill, Modica grabbed his glove and found a socially distanced throwing partner, the local handball wall.
“This would be something cool to do my 40th birthday, still hit 90 miles an hour,” Modica said. “I slowly started throwing about January. I had a target date; I didn't want to start throwing too early, because I didn't want to burn out, and then COVID hit. Here I am, bored with nothing to do, not training players, not doing anything. I loaded all my weight training equipment into my car, and I would go up to Highland Park every day and throw into a handball wall. I made a little strike box and any day that it was nice out, I went.”
His friends and trainees thought he was crazy. With a surgically repaired arm and only two months until his May birthday, they started taking bets against him lighting up 90 on the radar gun.
“I had like $50 bets on 15 different people who said I wouldn't hit 90,” he said. “About a week and a half after my birthday, I hit 91. I thought that was it, like doing that was going to destroy my arm.”
Modica imagined he would wake up the next morning unable to clean himself, but unexpectedly, his shoulder did not hurt. Just a few weeks later, he was on the mound pitching in a local adult league tournament on Labor Day. He was there to watch a few of his disciples, but when one team came up short for pitching on the back side of a doubleheader, Modica sprung into action.
“Just in case they're blowing someone out, I'll go out there and I'll just throw the ball in the strike zone and eat up couple innings,” he said. “Jorge Perez comes up and asked me if I could play catch with him before the game. … After the first throw, he just starts laughing. I throw a second ball to him, and he goes, ‘Yo, you got to pitch an inning today … the ball is jumping out of your hand.’ Surprisingly, my arm felt all right. I go out there and I throw … I pull the gun out of my bag and it was 85-88, and I hadn't touched a baseball in a month.”
Now the wheels started turning in Modica’s head. Staying in shape to show his players that coach still had something left in the tank was cool, but he wondered what if just one more time, he could get paid to put the jersey on his back.
When local independent teams from the Frontier and Can-Am Leagues merged to form the six-team All-American Baseball Challenge, they looked for young talent to fill their rosters. The New York Boulders were the first team to call Modica; however, they didn’t want him, they wanted his prospects.
“I sent all my guys,” he said. “I had four pitchers; I gave them their information. I tell this guy, ‘Listen, you should keep these guys they can all throw.’ Now I'm thinking about it; I want to go, but I'm also thinking I don't want to take a spot from somebody. God forbid one of my kids goes out there and has a terrible day, and I have a really good day. If they kept me over one of my kids, I'm gonna feel like s—t.”
When one of his players was unhappy with his Boulders tryout, Modica set up one with the New Jersey Jackals. Modica said he would go and tryout with him to New Jersey for encouragement the following Monday. On Sunday night, his pupil called with good news; he made the Boulders. With his competitive juices still flowing, Modica was set on going to New Jersey. There was just one problem, New Jersey’s manager had no idea he was there to make the club.
“I show up and he goes, ‘Where are your guys?’ I said, ‘They already got picked up by Rockland; I have nobody else, but I'm here. So, he goes, ‘I thought you train players.’ I said, ‘But I was a player before that.’”
He went for two days, choosing to rest his arm the first day after throwing three simulated innings to his trainees on Saturday. Despite throwing strikes on 80% of his pitches during his mound session, the Jackals coaching staff barely glanced his way, and after a short speech, they let him go at the tryout's end.
“I was annoyed,” he said. “I knew not only was I better than guys that were trying out, but I saw guys that were given contracts and spots, and I [felt] I'm better than these guys."
Fueled by what he felt was an insincere rejection, Modica told his wife during the hour-long car ride home, this was not the end of the line for his comeback. Motivated to prove the Jackals missed out on a quality arm, he further dedicated himself to making it back after 14 years away from the game.
“I told my wife I'm playing,” he said. “Somehow, someway, this year, I am playing. I feel good, I feel like I can compete. Now, I kind of want to stick it up these guys a—, just because all I wanted was honesty.”
Quickly, fate intervened in Modica’s favor. Perez called to tell him the Boulders lost two starting pitchers before they even played their first game. Knowing they needed help on short notice, he asked Perez to relay the following message to his manager.
“Tell your manager I'm ready,” he said. “Tell him you’ve got a 40-year-old man that wants to come out and is dead serious he wants to pitch.”
Boulders manager Berto Gonzalez, was curious to say the least to see if a 40-year-old whose last professional game was in 2006 still had the goods to compete.
“That week, we had been struggling with our arms, so I was looking at to find anybody at that point,” Gonzalez said. “One of our relief pitchers Jorge Perez came up to me and recommended three arms. … He has high credibility with me, so anybody that he says can throw, I'm going to take it very seriously, but he did warn me that one of his arms was forty years old. I said, ‘I've got to see this one.’”
After Modica and Gonzalez were acquainted, Gonzalez told him that he could not watch his bullpen session; however, the manager assured him his tryout would not be a repeat of what happened in New Jersey.
“At that moment I had to go through batting practice and I could not watch his bullpen, but I had a one of my veteran guys watch,” he said. “When I was starting BP, I glanced over about three times just to see three different pitches from him. I just knew right then and there this guy can get outs. He's credible, he played at a very high level, and I'm just gonna give him a chance. That was it. I signed him right there on the spot.”
From barely sniffing the field during high school while playing at Archbishop Molloy, to long-tossing and running hills while his teammates partied at Culver-Stockton, to baffling former and future major leaguers during an Atlantic League championship run, Gonzalez’s offer was further retribution in a career where Modica has constantly fought an uphill battle.
With his new manager’s blessing, he had only one thing left to prove, and that was on the mound. After working out with the team, Modica’s break was going to come that Sunday; however, fate cruelly intervened. Sunday’s forecast called for a major rainstorm and come game day, the league called the contest. His return had to wait another week.
On August 9th, with the skies finally clear, Modica had his chance, this time against the New Jersey Jackals, the team that paid him lip service for his tryout. Starting the fourth inning, Gonzalez handed Modica the ball. Three innings later, he emerged unscathed, striking out three batters, while only yielding one hit and zero walks.
“Afterwards, I gave the manager a pound, and I said, ‘Hey listen, you know this means a lot to me, like this is bigger than baseball,” Modica said. “He said, ‘Does that mean you're not coming back next week?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m coming back! I had a lot of fun.’ … And you know, I got another chance.”
Rain delayed Modica’s second appearance by a week. A rested Modica entered their August 23rd game with one out during a fifth-inning bases loaded jam against the New Jersey Wiseguys. He extinguished the threat and earned the victory after pitching one and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief. Watching Modica expertly work his way out of trouble let his manager know he bet on the right person.
“I'm a big story guy,” Gonzalez said. “To me, there is no better story than somebody taking a 14-year hiatus, being 40-years-old and coming out here and competing against young 20-year-olds who are established professionals. … I was fired up for him. … I just felt deep down that he was going to do everything in his power to not let this opportunity faze him.”
With a few weeks left in the shortened season, does Modica have visions of a Major League Baseball organization blowing up his cell phone? Not quite, but he hopes others aren’t so quick to write off an athlete solely due to their age.
“In my mind, I know I'm not gonna be a big leaguer,” he said. “This isn't gonna be “The Rookie”; there's not gonna be a Disney movie named about me. … Maybe if someone else is in my situation in the future, maybe people will take them a little more seriously.
“The whole reason I did this is just for some closure to my baseball career. When you go out and pitch a game, and get injured, you don't realize that's going to be your last game. You're like, I'm going to rehab; I’m going to be back in a year, no big deal. Then it's two years, and then it's three years and then you never got to see the end coming. Now I know every day I go out there, it could be the last day. … I'm grateful for Berto Gonzalez saying I'll take my chance with this guy. ... So now if this is it for me, at least I walked away on my terms at 40-years-old and said look, ‘I can still compete.’”
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