The two-hour drive on the north Florida interstate was long enough for the doubts — the ones Roman Quinn tried for months to fight — to creep in.
He tore his left Achilles tendon last May, rehabbed with the Phillies until they dropped him in December, and then had to find his own physical therapist during baseball’s three-month lockout. Quinn’s career had been marred by injuries, and this latest one felt like a crushing blow.
Without a team for the first time since the Phillies drafted him in 2011, Quinn drove three days a week from his home in Port St. Joe to Tallahassee and wondered if this was it.
“That thought came to my head a lot,” Quinn said. “I kept trying to push it out, but it continued to come to my mind. Just because speed is a big part of my game and this being my second Achilles injury, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to come back and run like I did.’”
Quinn didn’t know if he would get picked up by a team when the lockout was lifted or if he’d even be ready to play by the time it was. He didn’t know if he would be able to complete his rehab without the help of a big-league training staff or if his feet would ever move as quickly as they did.
“All of these thoughts came into my mind,” Quinn said.
Just like he has found a way to overcome injury after injury, Quinn pushed aside those doubts and kept churning.
The 28-year-old outfielder returned to the majors last week, playing for the Phillies less than a year after suffering an injury he thought may have derailed his career. And his speed measured just as fast as it did a year ago.
“It was tough, but I grinded my way through it,” Quinn said. “I’m so happy.”
Quinn knew right away last May as he lay near home plate in Tampa that he tore his left Achilles tendon. He fell rounding third base, bounced home on his right leg, collapsed to the dirt after scoring, and was carried off the field.
Eight years earlier, Quinn tore his right Achilles and the feeling was something you don’t forget. He diagnosed himself before a doctor could examine him.
Only 20 years old when he suffered his first Achilles injury, Quinn was also two years removed from being a second-round pick. He knew this injury would be different, as he was 28 and entering his first year of salary arbitration.
Quinn’s game is predicated on speed, and an Achilles injury is a perfect recipe for taking that away. That’s how the doubts found their way in.
Six days a week for the next seven months at the Phillies’ complex in Clearwater, Fla., Quinn rehabbed under the watch of the team’s athletic training staff. He was nontendered (the Phils declined to offer him salary arbitration) a day before the lockout, became a free agent and was on his own to finish his recovery.
Quinn spent three days a week in Tallahassee for physical therapy and the rest of the week at his old high school in Port St. Joe. Quinn has worked with Keion McNair, Port St. Joe High School’s track and field coach, since he was a teenager. They trained under the Florida sun at the school’s track, about a five-minute walk from Quinn’s home.
McNair watched video of Quinn running and saw how his heel was hitting the ground first, which put pressure on his Achilles. They retooled Quinn’s running motion, strengthened the muscles in his legs, and changed his diet to mostly vegan.
By February, Quinn’s 40-yard dash was timed at 4.3 seconds. McNair said he didn’t doubt that Quinn would recover from his injury, but his fast recovery still was surprising.
“His work ethic has been the same since he was in high school — over the top,” McNair said. “But now I want him to stay healthy throughout the whole season. He’s a really hard worker, and you don’t see too many athletes who you don’t have to worry about. If you put it down in front of him, he’s going to work hard to get to where he needs to be.”
The injury, Quinn said, did not just take a physical toll. It was even more mentally taxing. Injuries have denied him from ever playing a full season of pro ball, but he keeps going. McNair introduced Quinn to meditation and breathing techniques and reminded him to simply control what he can control.
“I was just texting him today,” McNair said. “When he went down the first time and came back, he saw how God’s grace had allowed him to come back from that injury. Now that he came back a second time, I told him that he has to show the wrath of God and go out there and kill it this year for his team.”
A ‘crazy’ idea helps
Shortly after Quinn was let go by the Phillies, his wife, Jeni, had the idea to start a youth basketball league for kids in their hometown. Their daughter loved basketball and the Quinns realized there no longer was a league in Port St. Joe.
“I was like, ‘This sounds crazy, but let’s do it,’” Quinn said.
The league — which Jeni Quinn named Hoops On The Coast — ran for two months and included 200 kids ages 5 to 12. They played four days a week with games all day Saturday before each age group ended with a championship game.
The Quinns charged just enough to cover the uniforms and the insurance policy. It was a chance for Quinn to give his community what he had as a kid. And it ended up providing some perspective when he needed it most.
“It took my mind off what I was doing,” Quinn said. “It was a blast. I was filling in for coaches who couldn’t show up. I was practicing with the kids. I was reffing games. It was awesome. My wife ran the concession stand. It was such a diversity of kids, and it was great to see.”
The league ended in early February while Quinn still was without a team and baseball still was locked out. But those doubts were gone. He was at peace, knowing he did enough in the winter to keep his career moving.
The Marlins called shortly after the lockout was lifted. They saw an Instagram video of Quinn sprinting at the high school track and wanted to sign him. It was only a minor league deal, but it was a chance. Quinn spent three weeks with the Marlins before requesting his release near the end of spring training.
He signed two days later with the Phillies, returning to the organization he knew best. Two weeks later, he was in the big leagues.
His speed, according to MLB’s Statcast, measured last week in the elite range as he maxed out at 30.4 feet per second. Quinn ran from home to first last week on a bunt single in 3.77 seconds, which is tied for the eighth-fastest time this season among all runners.
He caused havoc on the bases and moved so fast that it was easy to forget how devastating everything seemed last May when Quinn had to be carried off the field.
“It was definitely insane to me because I had yet to have any metrics to compare my speed to where it was before,” Quinn said. “It was pretty much going off feel. It’s crazy to see that it’s up there where it was last year.”
Quinn was driving Monday night when his mom called from Florida. Beverly Quinn wanted to talk to her son about everything he faced in the last year and the doubts he pushed aside. Just like on those drives to Tallahassee, Quinn had time to listen.
“I’m definitely in awe,” Quinn said. “I was kind of just listening to her and soaking in the moment to the point where I almost had tears coming out of my eyes. It’s been a rollercoaster, but I’m thankful for the journey I’ve been through.
“I got to this point based on my faith. My mom and my wife, they continue to push me and continue to encourage me. I know there’s a lot of kids in my neighborhood who look up to me, so I think when they see me push through the trials that I’ve gone through, it gives them some type of inspiration. I feel like that’s why I was put in the position that I am.”