CLEARWATER, Fla. - When his body failed him and his mind drained last summer, Mario Hollands went exploring. The Phillies reliever left his condo on Clearwater Beach and ventured to beaches at Indian Rocks and Madeira. He crashed matinee movie showings with Florida's robust collection of retirees. He did not watch baseball.
"Probably 30 books," Hollands said.
He read depending on his mood. He read about philosophy. He read Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." He read other non-fiction. Last week, he pulled Ta-Nehisi Coates' acclaimed "Between the World and Me" from the top shelf in his locker at Bright House Field.
"If I had read that in the summer, it probably wouldn't have gone well," Hollands said. "I was a little angry and upset."
Almost 11 months ago, on April 8, Hollands underwent Tommy John surgery. The only visible evidence is a half-circle scar on the inside of his left elbow, a reminder the 27-year-old pitcher ignores. "It's just ugly," he said. Hollands, after months of isolation in Florida that prompted constant self reflection, emerged with a greater token from the injury.
He has perspective.
"I thought about life after baseball," Hollands said. "It's hard not to think about it because you have so much time to think. I'm just aware baseball is going to end sometime. I'm going to be ready for whenever it does. Hopefully not for a while."
Those three words, Tommy John surgery, have become so commonplace in the game. A surgeon cuts into the pitcher's elbow, replaces the ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon from somewhere else in the body, and a 12- to 18-month timeline for return is slapped on the athlete.
More and more teenagers are opting for the procedure. Some pitchers even return with better velocity on their pitches than before the surgery. Hollands is one of seven Phillies pitchers in camp who had Tommy John surgery. That is more than a quarter of the pitchers in the clubhouse this spring.
But few are prepared for the sort of mental and physical stress of a yearlong rehab. Six days a week. The same people, the same exercises. Every day. The easiest tasks, like straightening a left arm that earned Hollands more than $1 million over the last two seasons, are impossible.
"They didn't tell me," Hollands said, "how miserable the first three months were going to be."
He is a pitcher on the fringe, and Hollands knows that. A 10th-round pick in 2010 and never a prospect, he pitched his way onto the Phillies two springs ago. He appeared in 50 games in 2014. Then, his arm failed.
Hollands has a sociology degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and an associate of arts in merchandise marketing from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. He grew up just north of Berkeley, Calif., and he takes pride in his atypical background for a professional athlete.
Keeping his mind stimulated during the confinement of rehab was a challenge.
Hollands arrived at the Carpenter Complex every morning at 9 and stayed until around 2 p.m. while Phillies officials oversaw his return. The first weeks were spent stretching his left arm and its new ligament. That involved eight different exercises with Joe Rauch, a minor-league rehab coordinator, and occasional massages. The arm would not comply. The dark thoughts were louder.
"I was almost in tears on some days because it was so much," Hollands said. "We were basically sitting on it to get it straight."
In September, Hollands learned how to throw again. Ray Burris, the team's rehab pitching coach, rebuilt Holland's mechanics. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound pitcher is generating more power from his legs.
"Before I was just whipping it," Hollands said. "I can't do that. My arm would snap off if I threw the way I used to."
He's lived in Clearwater for 11 months and, save the occasional visit by friends from home, Hollands endured the process alone. He did not want his parents to see him hurt and toiling through mundane tasks. "That's not the image I wanted to leave," Hollands said. On the best days, Hollands said, he remembered he was in Clearwater for a reason.
David Hernandez, signed this winter to possibly close for the Phillies, went through the same recovery while with Arizona two years ago. He, at least, could commiserate with fellow injured pitcher Patrick Corbin. They played video games. They watched some baseball. Netflix filled the down time.
"It gives you a whole new vision on how to take care of yourself," Hernandez said. "A lot of guys take their health for granted."
There are no guarantees despite the surgery's rise in popularity. Hollands hates hearing talk of how he will throw harder when he returns to games in April or May. He must prove himself again.
Other than opening day last April at Citizens Bank Park, which he attended, Hollands did not watch baseball. It was too difficult, he said, knowing he was helpless to a team that staggered toward 99 losses.
While everything about the Phillies changed, Hollands read. He withstood isolation.
"It feels like I was in a coma for a year," Hollands said. "I woke up, and I'm on a whole new team."