Maxwell’s long road took him to the Astros

Maxwell’s long road took him to the Astros
January 31, 2013, 8:00 am
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Justin Maxwell still remembers the play that plucked him out of the outfield and onto an operating table.

He can still recite the order in which everything happened. And he can still recall everything that happened after.

The then-27-year-old remembers retreating back, deep into the leftfield, to the warning track and then to the wall at Victory Field in Indianapolis. The 6-5 outfielder jumped up with two hands extended and caught the deep flyball – like a basketball, he remembers – before crashing into the wall and then even harder to the dirt to record the first out in the bottom of the second inning.  

“I felt (my shoulder) pop out,” he said, “and by the time I hit the warning track, I felt it pop back in.”

It was the last day in May, 2011.

The outfielder, who had bounced around through the ranks of the Washington Nationals’ organization after being drafted in the fourth round in 2005, was finally starting to see his hard work pay off. He was traded to the Yankees in the offseason before 2011 and started the year with their Triple-A club.

And he wasn’t just knocking on the door back to the major leagues, he was pounding on it. Through 48 games, Maxwell was on pace for his best season as a professional baseball player. He had 16 homers, 35 RBIs and an OPS of .945.

But none of that mattered much on May 31, 2011.

As Maxwell waited in leftfield, gingerly resting his shoulder until Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees athletic trainer Darren London scurried to him, he hoped it wasn’t too serious. He hoped it would be an injury that could be easily fixed.

He soon found out he wasn’t that lucky.

Upon arriving to the outfield, London did a series of strength tests with Maxwell, who still remembers his shoulder popping out for the second time in just a few minutes when the trainer had him do one particular motion. So Maxwell was removed from the game and later an MRI confirmed the bad news: a torn right labrum … season over.

With his year done, Maxwell had surgery in June to repair his shoulder, then went home to Maryland for his rehabilitation with trainer Matt Eiden. Maxwell had undergone wrist and elbow (Tommy John) surgery before, but he still maintains that the shoulder surgery was the most painful.

“That was a long road,” Maxwell said while shaking his head in an interview during FanFest at Minute Maid Park on Saturday morning.

But eventually the road led him back to baseball for the start of the next spring training. And he was again a member of the Yankees, which was pretty important to him, at least at the time.

See, Maxwell was previously with the Nationals’ organization, which wasn’t a bad situation, considering he’s from Maryland and went to the University of Maryland, but back then, the Nationals weren’t competitive.

“Going to the Yankees kind of re-energized my career,” he said. “Because I was optioned up and down but going to spring training with them, they have 26 world titles and they want to get 27. Their goal in spring training was to win the World Series.”

They talked about the World Series in Washington too, but Maxwell said none of the players really believed it was a possibility. In 2011, before his injury, he expected to play well enough to be called up to the Yankees later in the season and lend a helping hand in winning that 27th World Series. But the injury happened and he never got the chance.

The next year, Maxwell was playing really well with the Yankees during spring training but he knew the odds were against him.
 
“Coming into spring, I knew I was going to do my best to make this team but it didn’t look likely with a lot of veterans,” he said.

And the problem was that Maxwell had been sent back and forth from the majors to the minors too much. He had run out of options, which meant he either had to make the Yankees’ 25-man roster or be waived. Now, had he cleared waivers, the Yankees would have likely sent him back to their Triple-A club.

But that never happened.

Maxwell’s career was resurrected on Easter Sunday. That’s when Astros’ general manager Jeff Luhnow called him to say that Houston had claimed him on waivers and to pack his things.

“I was really, really pumped,” he said.

The next day, Maxwell joined the Astros and had a pretty good first at-bat. He pinch-hit in the bottom of the eighth inning and hit a two-run homer, which was really just an extension of the way he had played for the Yankees that spring.

Maxwell batted .310 with 11 RBIs in 27 spring training games with the Yankees before being waived, which certainly caught the eyes of the Astros.

“It was a different atmosphere,” Maxwell said about joining the Astros after being with the Yankees. “I was really grateful I was on the roster. It was definitely disappointing (not making the Yankees) but I was ready for any opportunity in the big leagues. It was just nice to be able to put on a big league uniform again and play.”

And he got to play a bunch. Sure, the Astros lost more games than they won – way more games than they won – but the team’s struggles and youth allowed Maxwell to spend most of his season with the big-league club. He finished the year batting .229 with 53 RBIs but lead the Astros in home runs with 18.

“Everyone wants to make the big leagues, but the hardest thing is to stay,” Maxwell said. “Playing for a full year and not going up and down was big. Having all those hardships last year will definitely make us stronger. The only way you learn in the big leagues is from the experience.”